Marathon Oil Co. has suffered through bug fixes, support issues, product testing and performance problems on the road toward implementing Microsoft Corp.s newest Systems Management Server.
But the dedication of such early adopters, along with a lengthy development and testing cycle for SMS 2003, has many believing that the long-awaited "Topaz" release of SMS may have finally delivered on its promise.
"With SMS 2.0, there was always some question as to Microsofts commitment. SMS 2003 erases [that] notion. Theyll keep trying to make it the best desktop management software out there," said Michael Niehaus, IT consultant at Marathon, in Houston.
While its now up to the market to decide how competitive the product is, early users such as Marathon and industry analysts believe it meets competitive standards in features, performance and architecture.
"Microsoft cant be looked on as the technology laggard in this market any longer," said Corey Ferengul, an analyst with Meta Group Inc., in Chicago.
Marathon made a commitment to SMS in late 1999 when it created a user-driven software delivery system on top of SMS 2.0 to automate the distribution of packages and updates to some 10,000 to 12,000 PCs. At the time, the tool posed several challenges.
"The code was very buggy," said Niehaus. "[We] had problems with broken clients, delayed inventory problems—basically an assortment of nagging issues."
The performance of software deliveries for the user-driven system was also an issue with SMS 2.0. While users expected the software to be delivered shortly after requesting it, the delivery was so slow that users would often call to complain. "If it was less than 3 or 4 hours, we wouldnt even investigate it," said Niehaus. With SMS 2003, "we got Microsoft to improve the performance of the delivery to something more in line with users expectations," he said. Now Marathon expects to average between 20 and 30 minutes for a delivery.
Scalability was another issue with SMS 2.0 because of the way the tool implemented active metering. But since active metering is a nonissue for most organizations, Microsoft in SMS 2003 rewrote the function to focus on usage tracking.
"Now you just tell the SMS client to monitor the list of executables that youve configured. It summarizes the information its gathered and pushes it all up to the server," said Niehaus. That allows users to identify trends and determine whether software is installed but not being used.
SMS 2003s redesigned Advanced Client also addresses efficiency problems posed by the architecture of the existing client. Those issues surfaced most often when users dialed in to Marathons servers over slow-speed links.
The redesigned Advanced Client is also easier to install and poses fewer support issues. Marathon discovered after deploying SMS 2003 some 300 broken clients that were not getting updates.
Marathon initially chose to implement SMS 2.0 as part of a plan to create the user-driven software delivery system. SMS offered a good API that Marathon could exploit to automate the packaging of new or updated software for distribution by its home-grown system, Niehaus said.
Marathon also implemented the delivery system and SMS with Peregrine Systems Inc.s Asset Center. "The client makes the request, and it goes into our asset management system, which checks that theres a license available and the dependent packages are in the machine. If not, it delivers those first," Niehaus said.
Marathon plans to use SMS 2003 to replace all its desktop hardware and upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP between March and July of next year. Marathon expects to shave a month off previous deployment times and eliminate the requirement to set up a staging room for upfront preparations. It also expects to save about $120,000 in hardware costs alone by eliminating the need for 15 of its 40 SMS servers. And with the reduced support requirements in SMS 2003, Marathon will eliminate two full-time positions.