Web Informant #209, 31 July 2000:
Making the move to net-based applications


I spent part of my summer reconfiguring my office and home networks to take advantage of Internet-based services, and the results so far are a very mixed bag. Before you spend your own time chasing this elusive goal, you might want to read further.

By Internet-based, I mean using software that resides somewhere "out there" on the net, using just a browser and minimal desktop software. The idea is to migrate the pain of maintaining current software and make use of these services from not just my desktop, but from wherever I happen to be on the road. The idea sounds good in theory, but the practice is still somewhat shaky. I have tried net-based services for calendaring, for faxing, for file storage, and for virus protection. Most of these services work as well as their desktop equivalents.

For example, for years I have used Outlook's calendar feature to keep track of my schedule, along with the family activities. It has a great user interface and everyone in the family is used to it, including the Chief Scheduler, my wife. But the problem is that Outlook is tied to a single computer at home. Enter Yahoo Schedule, an Internet-based service that does mostly the same thing.

So after careful discussion with the Family Software Standards Committee, we decided to upgrade to Yahoo's net-based calendar. The results so far have been mostly favorable, although every so often my wife wishes for the Outlook version. (Yes, I know there are tools to synchronize the two, but they are more complex than either of us would like.)

Another foray was with net-based faxing. After replacing my desktop PC with an IBM NetVista (the first IBM PC I have purchased in over a decade), I decided to get rid of my local fax line: I was just getting spam fax from PR people anyway. I have been testing the various Internet-based fax technologies for some time and settled on eFax as my main inbound fax line. The advantage here is that I can obtain faxes when out on the road, and the spammers haven't yet found out about this number. And my wife liked it so much she got her own eFax number that directs faxes to her email account.

So far, so good. The trouble started when I migrated my anti-virus software to a net-based service. For years I have used Norton's Anti-Virus scanning tools on my main production PCs at home and at work. I wanted to try Network Associates' MyCIO.com.

The web site offers a small downloadable client that does the scanning and protection without the need to install a full-blown anti-virus software suite. While I have liked the Norton stuff, it has gotten big and bloated over the years. You also have to maintain your virus pattern files on each local machine. If you have a small network like I do, you have two choices: either download the pattern files multiple times or run a special anti-virus server to keep a central copy of the virus patterns. Neither is very desirable.

Norton is also very particular about the version of operating system that I use -- when the time comes to install a new version of Windows, I have to uninstall the software, do my upgrade, and then try to find the latest version to install that will match the new OS. That is a pain.

Enter MyCIO. The idea here is to keep the virus pattern files out on the Internet and update them whenever you reboot your machine or want to check for latest versions. You can still accomplish the same kinds of scanning by working in conjunction with the software on your desktop and a continuous Internet connection. (MyCIO doesn't really work with dial-up connections.) It is a great idea.

I got interested in MyCIO when I upgraded my SonicWall's firmware a month ago. It enabled a subscription to the service for less than $300 a year. Once you subscribe and turn on the feature, any computer on your internal network that tries to connect out to the web gets a page asking you to download the MyCIO software before proceeding any further. That is a nice way to protect your computers. Of course, I first had to uninstall the Norton anti-virus software: you can't really have more than one scanner on your system.

One of the advantages with MyCIO is that I know that all of my computers on my network are at the same pattern recognition version, something that wasn't the case with Norton without spending a lot of time going around and updating the pattern files manually. I do get the feeling that MyCIO's scanning isn't as complete as Norton's, but I can't back that up with any real hard evidence.

So how has MyCIO worked over the past month? Not flawlessly. One night MyCIO released a new pattern file, and the next day I had trouble getting connected to the service. I ended up doing all sorts of troubleshooting before I realized the problem, and wasted a few hours trying to track things down. I learned a valuable lesson: when you outsource your applications to some Internet-based provider, you lose control over how they work, for better or worse.

Still, I probably am better off with this collection of net-based services than before, when everything was exclusively on my desktop. But before I add any other net-based services to this mix, you can bet I'll spend a little more time checking them out.

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David Strom
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