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Installation tools -- which ones should you pick?

Margie Semilof

If you're a Windows administrator, you have plenty of options for getting software installed on your users' desktops. But choosing the right tool may come down to just how sophisticated you want your desktop management strategy to be.

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    Customers are no longer simply picking an application for software distribution. They are creating a more grandiose strategy, which is an important piece of what is referred to as "change management."

    To deal with the many software adds and changes, not to mention users in remote offices who need attention, IT managers may choose from a full-featured system management application, such as Microsoft Corp.'s SMS, Novell Inc.'s Zenworks, Computer Associates' Unicenter, Altiris' Client Management Suite or Intel Corp.'s LANDesk.

    They might also use a less comprehensive installation method, such as those from OnDemand Software Inc., Bonita Springs, Fla.; Wise Solutions Inc., Plymouth, Mich.; and Installshield Software Corp., Schaumburg, Ill. Some of the latter are moving their products upmarket by adding more enterprise features, but they don't yet offer full-blown management capabilities.

    Unlike in the mid-1990s when enterprises used simple software installation utilities, today there are many more ways to skin the cat, said Brett Hill, a consultant who specializes in Microsoft technologies. The largest enterprises tend to use software management utilities like SMS, or enterprise management modules that have software distribution features. These packages have what is called "release delivery," which duplicates many of the same general features found in packages such as Installshield or OnDemand's WinINSTALL.

    "In the old days, programs like InstallShield were the only game in town, but in the last five years, that is no longer the case," Hill said.

    Analysts said IT administrators need to know their environments to choose the right tools. The products may seem alike, but a large enterprise doesn't want to use a tool that is best used installing applications on a small number of PCs.

    Martha Young, research director at Enterprise Management Assoc., Boulder, Colo., said customers looking for a software installer should consider the large management packages if they are looking for comprehensive desktop management now or over time. These applications also do a good job packaging up and scheduling the delivery of applications for the enterprise.

    But if you are looking to do simple desktop migration, you don't need comprehensive management features, Young said. "You might do just as well with [Eisenworld's] Aloha Bob."

    Companies such as Wise, OnDemand and Installshield have their differences. Young's colleague, Jeb Bolding, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Assoc. said Wise aims more for enterprise software developers. WinINSTALL and InstallShield are best in situations where corporate developers and vendors are distributing to systems where they have no visibility to that desktop.

    Also Wise and InstallShield are known for packaging applications, and they also guide users through the process of installing software on a PC.

    SMS is better for IT managers who are broadcasting software updates or patches out to thousands of desktops. "Applications like SMS and LANDesk have repeaters where they can push out installations," Bolding said. "End users can go to the repeaters. Also, SMS has auditing logs and other features designed for corporate users."

    Workflow Management Inc.'s Standard Forms division, Palm Beach, Fla., is one company using SMS to push applications out to its more than 1,000 end users' workstations, which the software can also manage.

    "We see Wise and InstallShield as tools for developers to deploy their applications," said Mark Resh, CIO at Standard Forms. "They may have some features for mass distribution, but SMS, LANDesk and Tivoli are more useful to push out your installation package."

    But the next generation of installers should offer more sophisticated management features. Jack Palmer, president and CEO at OnDemand, said WinINSTALL is expanding beyond its original role as a delivery tool.

    OnDemand, which was an early pioneer in application installation technology, is re-entering the market. The company said in late June it has regained control of the WinINSTALL that it had originally developed but had ended up with Veritas Software Corp. during the course of several corporate acquisitions.

    Veritas has turned WinINSTALL technology back over to OnDemand, which had developed the application in the mid-1990s, but the company was sold to Seagate Technology, which was subsequently acquired by Veritas.

    The software can schedule installs to run at off hours and targets a single or group of PCs, among other things. A new version coming out at the end of the year will include some hardware and software inventory features, a conflict resolution database, and the ability to install multiple applications to a group of servers.


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