Microsoft strengthens management tool

With the PC's popularity, the rapid evolution of software and smaller information technology staffs responsible for managing more desktops than ever before, getting a handle on enterprisewide systems management remains a daunting task.

Several products on the market promise to help you get a grip on enterprise systems management. Each has its strengths, but almost none offers the full complement of flexibility, scalability and comprehensive management features to meet the systems management requirements for large government enterprise environments.

Microsoft Corp.'s latest enterprise management effort - Systems Management Server 2.0 - has several strong points compared with competing products, but it has a few shortcomings as well.

This upgrade offers some benefits over the prior release (Version 1.2), such as better application distribution tools and wider reach of systems management capabilities. But overall, SMS 2.0's core strengths remain its flexible deployment options, its fanned-out hierarchical architecture and its application distribution, license metering and system inventory features.

We were impressed with the product's deployment flexibility and with its support for distributing client software automatically. For example, SMS makes it fairly easy to distribute the product's modules across various servers. And we were able to use a variety of discovery and client-installation tools, including options that integrate well with NetWare 3.x and 4.x environments.

Ease of Use Is In

If you are familiar with SMS 1.2, the first thing that you'll notice about this new release is that it is significantly easier to install.

Microsoft has made considerable progress cleaning up the installation process, including automating the installation and configuration of Micro-soft SQL Server, which is required for providing SMS' underlying data store.

That being said, if you are not familiar with SMS, you still will want to spend a reasonable amount of time up front to get acquainted with the product's architecture and plan your deployment strategy before leaping into the installation.

On the client side, SMS 2.0 deploys client agents through the new Windows Management Instrumentation, which implements the Computer Information Model schema standard defined in the Desktop Management Task Force's Web-Based Enterprise Management initiative.

Native support for WMI can be found in Windows 98 releases and Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 4.0 or later, as well as in the forthcoming Windows 2000 products. SMS 2.0 provides additional WMI interfaces for Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 (without Service Pack 4.0 or greater). Microsoft does not support WMI on Windows 3.x, and, like many of its competitors, SMS 2.0 provides no desktop management support for non-Windows clients such as Apple Computer Inc.'s MacOS or Unix-based systems.

SMS 2.0's inventory and software metering facilities are fairly unobtrusive. By default, the product provides several "collections," which are basic categorization queries against the back-end inventory database. Those queries let administrators direct software deployment jobs to predefined groups of users or systems.

SMS also provides a host of default queries, such as identifying systems with a particular software product installed or searching for all systems running Windows NT 4.0 with at least 32M of RAM.

The product's default selections of collections and base queries were nice, but users can quickly and easily build their own collections and queries through the SMS administrator console without the need to write SQL statements. Of course, if you are well versed in SQL, you'll be able to create more powerful queries, but you don't need to know SQL to get started creating custom queries with SMS 2.0.

Also, in conjunction with the software inventory tools, Microsoft includes new Year 2000 compliance-checking features (see sidebar, below).

Application Distribution

One strong point of SMS 2.0 is its application distribution tools. SMS Installer helps to quickly build automated application installation scripts through a graphical user interface-based wizard. This approach is much better than the manual-script approach in prior versions. If you are running SMS 1.2, you can download this tool from Microsoft's Web site.

Like other distribution automation tools, the SMS Installer makes it easy to "watch" an application install. It records the changes that are made to a machine, and the tool builds a customizable automation script based on the installation session. The tool also supports packaging multiple software products as a single software distribution package and includes uninstall or rollback features. SMS Installer supports both 16-bit and 32-bit installation programs and has sufficient flexibility for supporting custom applications.

After creating the appropriate application installation packages with SMS Installer, we were able to complete the process of registering the package with SMS, assigning a distribution share and advertising the program to SMS collections - users or machine groups defined by logical sorting criteria - either through an automated wizard or a by completing a series of requisite steps. SMS offers great flexibility in selecting distribution criteria. From the ease of creating custom distribution collections to the ability to schedule distribution jobs and set conditional criteria, SMS 2.0 really gives administrators a strong complement of options.

New Features

With SMS 2.0, Microsoft extends the umbrella of the product's capabilities. For example, Microsoft has added some basic network trace tools, a statistical server health-monitoring application, and new Year 2000 verification tools. Those are welcome additions. However, most of them did not live up to expectations with respect to competing products.

For example, the network trace tool quickly builds a basic network reference map. But the tool focuses primarily on locating SMS Server components and provides only minimal tools for performing any in-place trouble-shooting. We would have much preferred that Microsoft provide a more comprehensive mapping feature, such as displaying managed clients.

Also, Microsoft's new server health-monitoring tool, dubbed HealthMon, provides the ability to perform basic service threshold monitoring, such as keeping tabs on CPU or pagefile utilization or monitoring BackOffice server applications such as SQL Server, Exchange Server or Internet Information Server. Overall, these capabilities are a nice enhancement to SMS.

HealthMon provides an easy mechanism for setting alert thresholds on each monitored system service. However, the tool had a hard time keeping communications going with the servers on the test network. For example, HealthMon took several minutes to acknowledge the local server that the console was running on, and it never succeeded in contacting the Exchange Server running on a Primary Domain Controller in a trusted domain.

In addition, HealthMon provides no alert forwarding mechanisms for chores such as notifying administrators of critical system-threshold events via Simple Mail Transfer Protocol-based e-mail or pagers, a key deficiency for many administrators. Finally, the tool provides no support for non-Microsoft server applications, such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes or Oracle Corp. relational database management systems.

SMS 2.0's remote client access tools retain much of the Version 1.2's functionality. The tools include remote control, file transfer, chat and remote execute and reboot. Any administrator knows that those capabilities are essential to successful enterprise systems management. The SMS collection provides a reasonably strong set of tools. However, especially with respect to remote control, you'll find better capabilities using stand-alone products such as Stac Software Inc.'s ReachOut or Symantec Corp.'s PCAnywhere.

Overall, we were not really impressed with the performance of the remote control feature. We were disappointed to find some features missing, such as the ability to automatically log the current user off the machine upon disconnect. Although we were able to require that the user be prompted when an administrator requests a remote control session, we were unable to bypass this security mechanism if no one was logged on to target machine.

One nice aspect about the SMS remote tools is that the client agent can be configured centrally from the SMS administrator console for all machines in the site. Unfortunately, that also means that the system does not allow for any deviations on any machines in an SMS site.

All in all, SMS 2.0 provides good improvements over the prior release and offers some new features. Primarily though, the product lays fundamental groundwork, such as with the WMI implementation, that will prove invaluable as Microsoft continues to develop the product in subsequent releases.

Overall, the best features that SMS has to offer still center on the product's traditional strengths: flexible, distributed deployment options, scalability, inventory, application distribution and software metering. Still, most of the new features that Version 2.0 adds do not obviate the need for redundant tools to complete the job.

-- Symoens is a free-lance analyst and an IT project manager at Vantis Corp. He can be reached at jeffsym@ix.netcom.com.

***

Microsoft Corp.

(800) 426-9400

www.microsoft.com

Price and Availability

SMS 2.0 is available on the GSA schedule, but Microsoft does not release GSA pricing. The estimated retail price for new users is $999. The price for a competitive upgrade is $649, and a version upgrade is $609 with a $40 in-box rebate.

Remarks

SMS 2.0 provides a strong solution for managing desktop inventory, license metering and application distribution. The product is a nice improvement over the prior version, but some features, such as HealthMon server management, Year 2000 compliance verification and remote control have shortcomings that limit their usefulness and necessitate adding tools for a complete solution.

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