Intel Chips Let PCs Get Turned on Remotely
Your work computer just suffered a major meltdown. Maybe the operating system
failed, or a virus crashed the hard drive.
Either way, your employer can now tunnel into your crippled machine remotely
by communicating directly with the chips inside it, allowing authorized managers
to power up and repair turned-off PCs within the corporate network at virtually
The technology -- which Intel Corp. introduced last year to rave reviews from
computer professionals -- represents a fundamental change in the way work PCs
are repaired, updated and administered.
Now the world's largest chip maker is studying how to bring the same technology
to the consumer market.
Santa Clara-based Intel envisions consumers one day signing up for a service
that allows their Internet providers to automatically install security upgrades
and patches, whether the PC is turned on or not. Once they return to their computers,
users would then get an alert with a detailed record of the fixes.
In some ways it's the computer-industry equivalent of General Motors Corp.'s
OnStar service, which allows an operator in a call center to open your car doors
if you've locked the keys inside.
Intel is hoping consumers will decide that the convenience of having a round-the-clock
watchdog outweighs the obvious privacy and security concerns raised by opening
a new remote access channel into the PC.
Digital-privacy experts aren't worried about the use of such technology in
the workplace, where employers may peek into any worker's machine at any time.
But advocates said the same technology might raise questions about the level
of control consumers are willing to cede to keep their machines running smoothly.
"It's a lot of power to give over to someone -- people are storing a large
portion of their lives in their computers," said Seth Schoen, a staff technologist
with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "My main concern would be to make
sure consumers knew who they were giving access to, and what kind of access
Intel's Active Management Technology only allows technicians to see a small
amount of mundane but critical information, mostly configuration and inventory
data. Only authorized IT managers already inside the corporate network can access
the computers, and they cannot rifle through an employee's files, or see the
Web browsing history, or gain access to other personal files, Intel said.
They can, however, install missing or corrupt files, and even reinstall the
entire operating system by having the system boot from a remote drive on the
"The technology itself is privacy-neutral -- it doesn't know who you are,
it doesn't really care what you do," said Mike Ferron-Jones, director of
digital office platform marketing at Intel. "Any policy decisions about
what a user can do in a business environment with their PC, those are up to
the business owner. (Active Management Technology) does not facilitate those
policies in any way."
The top two personal computer makers, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., and
retailers such as Best Buy Co., also offer remote tech support services for
consumers -- if the machines are switched on and plugged into the network.
Intel's technology opens up a new level of access.
Intel's Active Management Technology works by keeping a communications chip
inside the PC active at virtually all times, as long the machine has battery
or AC power.
Once an IT manager reaches out to that chip, it contacts the chipset inside
the same machine, which jolts to life and can access certain core data stored
on a memory chip that retains information even when the computer is off. Chipsets
are responsible for sending data from the microprocessor to the rest of the
The technology is only available in desktops with Intel's vPro branding and
laptops with the Centrino Pro branding. Those brands indicate that the PCs have
a full package of Intel chips, and workers with those computers should assume
their machines are being monitored in this manner.
Intel said about 250 business worldwide with between 1,000 and 10,000 PCs each
are now using the desktops. Laptop sales numbers are not yet available, as those
machines were made available only about three weeks ago.
The technology is similar to the existing Wake on LAN feature, which also allows
managers to boot PCs remotely, but Intel customers said the Active Management
Technology is more secure and reliable because they can communicate directly
with the chipset even in corrupted machines.
Richard Shim, an analyst with market researcher IDC, said IT managers have
been asking for the technology for some time to speed their service calls and
save the company money.
By giving them a uniform and reliable way to access their fleet of computers,
the technology lets system administrators more easily manage widely dispersed
machines from different manufacturers, Shim said. That lessens the need for
the patchwork of hardware and software they have been relying on to perform
some of the same tasks.
"It will help automate the process, and any time you can automate something
in technology, it's a blessing," he said. "It addresses pain points
that are common to all IT managers."
In one study of companies already using Active Management Technology, desk-side
visits for hardware problems dropped 60 percent and trips for software glitches
fell 91 percent.
"They're huge numbers -- for us it's extremely costly to send a field
technician out," said Matt Trevorrow, vice president of infrastructure
services for Electronic Data Systems Corp., a provider of information technology
outsourcing services that uses the new Intel technology and is offering it to
customers. "It all comes back to getting the end user back to being productive."