Microsoft Corp.s systems management server has never been a technical leader in the server and desktop software deployment, inventory tracking and remote trouble-shooting categories. However, eWEEK Labs tests of the new SMS 2003, which is being released to manufacturing this week and will be generally available shortly, lead us to recommend that IT managers take a close look at this new, leaner Windows management platform.
In fact, we think that any organization that is evaluating mobile management systems should immediately put the $1,219 SMS 2003 on its short list. Our tests showed that Microsofts product isnt the best product available, but its integration with desktop management, new security and reporting tools makes SMS 2003 a heavyweight product, not just an also-from-Microsoft accessory.
SMS 2003s integrated patch management is also notable; its scalable software metering system now requires less hardware than previous versions of the product.
That said, Computer Associates International Inc.s Unicenter offerings, IBMs Tivoli line and Novell Inc.s ZENworks family are still very strong competitors. These products have an edge on Microsoft that is hugely important when we test in the server management space: heterogeneity. Rightly or wrongly, Microsoft continues to pursue a strategy of using third-party products to plug into SMS 2003 to manage Linux and Unix systems.
The three competitors take a more pluralistic—and, we think, realistic—approach to data center management by providing agents that offer direct support for the often-sweeping landscape of Unix and Linux operating systems commonly found in todays corporate data centers.
Of course, Microsofts strategy works when it comes to desktop systems, where Microsoft rules the roost. And SMS 2003 has addressed the major concerns that eWEEK Labs has raised since we started reviewing the product more than six years ago: The agent is now much smaller—roughly 5MB compared with almost 20MB in SMS 2.0, the previous version of the product.
Systems Management Server 2003
SMS 2003 isnt the best software distribution, inventory, remote control and now patch management tool, but it is good enough at its many functions that IT managers should put it on their short list of management platforms. The published price is $1,219, including 10 client-access licenses. The product is often included in corporate desktop volume license packs.
EVALUATION SHORT LIST
The most obvious benefit of the smaller agent—newly rechristened Advanced Client—is that it is less costly to distribute to far-flung machines. (The old client—well talk about it in a bit—is now called the "legacy client.")
However, shops that are using SMS 2.0 should include the cost of migrating their currently installed agents to the new version when figuring out their upgrade plan.
SMS 2003 was easy to upgrade in tests. The catch is that Advanced Client works only on Windows 2000 and later (Windows XP and .Net Server 2003). That means no to Windows 98 and Windows NT. As for Windows 95, users can ask, but they wont like the answer. All of Microsofts older operating systems can be supported with the legacy client, but doing so means trouble, if our tests are any indicator.
Before spending a lot of time on the weaknesses of using a mixed-client environment, its important that we talk about the new mobile support, patch management and Web reporting that could make the legacy problems worth overcoming.
It doesnt look like much, but SMS 2003s new ability to advertise a software download that waits until everything has been transmitted before starting the installation is a big deal. Part of the big deal is that SMS 2003 takes advantage of the work that was done by the Windows Update team at Microsoft. Our tests, which amounted to waiting for a software distribution job to kick off then pulling the data connection about 10 times, showed that the new feature worked flawlessly.
Aside from using BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) technology, which most readers will recognize as the basis of Windows Update, SMS 2003s Advanced Client also facilitates bandwidth awareness. BITS, along with a local cache management system on the client, worked neatly to deliver software safely to our mobile systems.
This isnt to say that SMS 2003 delivers the best mobile client management system. It doesnt, but IT administrators should look at mobile management more as a commodity offering and less as a premium service.
Companies such as Mobile Automation Inc. will likely go the way of Callisto Software Inc., a mobile-only business that was purchased by Novell in 2001 and is now the technology behind ZENworks for Handhelds and Laptops.
This is good for IT because it puts one of the hardest aspects of desktop and mobile management onto one platform, with one place to develop policies; create software installation and deployment packages; and gather reports on hardware and software assets, along with reports on the status of software deployments.
It cannot be said that Microsoft is responding rapidly to client demands for patch management, although that function is in this version of the product in a limited form. We were excited to try out the patch management tool, referred to as Software Update in the console.
Our recent experience with patch management tools, including those from Patchlink Corp., Big Fix Inc. and St. Bernard Software Inc., and the frequency of patch releases for Microsoft products means that we have a high expectation for success. IT managers should stand by. The good thing is that the same agent handles all patches and that the system ensures that patches get to the target machine as intended.
However, dont look for the additional explanatory notes, rough testing or prioritization that single-purpose vendors add to competing products. (In fairness, most of the other vendors are just passing along Microsoft technical notes that are published after being researched and tested by Microsoft.)
Our tests also showed important structural changes in SMS 2003. The product no longer requires a plethora of administrative accounts, especially local administrative accounts. Some functions that used to require this have been added to the wrapper technology that accompanies software distributions.
In pure SMS 2003 environments, the local and metropolitan area network model of communication has been entirely replaced with HTTP. Once digital certificates are distributed to end users (no small feat and beyond the scope of this review), much of the work done by SMS 2003 can be done securely.
This brings us, at last, to a mixture of SMS 2.0 and 2003 environments. To be clear, the new version talks seamlessly with the legacy client. However, many functions are curtailed (as in limited mobile software deployment) or require some of the old communication methods. Consequently, the number of systems needed to support the clients remains high.
Roughly 2,000 legacy clients can be supported by a single server in SMS 2.0. The number of Advanced Clients supported in SMS 2003 can theoretically rise into the hundreds of thousands for functions such as software metering.
One final note: Software metering is no longer a thorny problem, the way it was in all previous versions of SMS. Now software metering just counts license use and tracks session duration; it doesnt prevent users from accessing applications.
Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.