A look at the System Center Configuration Manager 2012 beta

The second beta of SCCM 2012 has key features for remote application management. It also delivers applications to end users regardless of which device they are using.

It’s been nearly five years since Microsoft revised its System Center Configuration Manager, the enterprise software deployment and device management product. Now in open beta, the company has said the final product will be delivered later this year.

Currently, System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2012 is in its second public beta and many of its key features planned have already been nailed down, although much work remains for the final release. Since SCCM is an important tool for software distribution in many organizations it might help to get some early experience with SCCM 2012 and its new and improved feature set.

A user-centric approach to applications
The biggest change to SCCM 2012 is a user-centric application delivery model. Instead of delivering applications to a given workstation or device, the new approach assumes that a user has access to multiple devices and wants to run applications on all of them. This not only includes moving from one workstation to another and having users’ profiles follow them, but also multiple phones, notebooks, tablets and so on.

Microsoft also added support for several types of mobile devices that admins once had to sneak into their IT departments, including iPads and iPhones, Android and Symbian-based devices and so on. However, with so many more devices in the mix, security is likely to become a concern. That’s why SCCM 2012 also includes tight integration with Microsoft Forefront Endpoint Protection (FEP), so admins only need one source for updates and deployments.

Another corollary of this user-centric approach is an application delivery system that can be tied to specific locations or device types. For instance, a given application can be natively invoked on a desktop. If the same user moves to a tablet where the program cannot be executed natively, it can be applied via remote virtualization. This makes the range of applications available to a user much broader, even if they’re using devices which normally don’t run the same programs.

Applications can also be delivered natively via Citrix XenApp and Server App-V. Applications can be also be automatically upgraded to the latest versions, although end users get a bit more control over when the installations take place. This is especially helpful for administrators dealing with forced reboots due to Microsoft Update.

Smarter administration and distribution
A major architectural change to SCCM 2012 is a simpler hierarchy of administration. In practical terms, this means less bandwidth use for updates and less administrative overhead. In SCCM 2007, the hierarchy of SCCM-controlled sites was administered in a top-down fashion. But SCCM 2012 uses a star topology, with the endpoints (the primary and secondary sites) taking on more work. The central administration site doesn’t actually deal with the clients themselves, but is reserved for meta-management and reporting. Note that an installation of SQL Server is needed for secondary sites -- something that was not required in the 2007 edition. If SQL Server is not detected, an instance of SQL Server Express will be automatically installed.

SCCM 2012 also gives administrators the option to migrate software distribution and deployment templates from SCCM 2007, as well as SCCM 2007-edition distribution points. Therefore, admins don’t have to completely scrap a SCCM 2007 setup to use SCCM 2012 or to create a parallel infrastructure.

In addition, each node has single-instance storage awareness for software distribution. For instance, if a software update has been distributed to various endpoints, SCCM 2012 checks to see if copies of that file already exist at the endpoint. If the file exists, it simply uses the extant copy instead of pushing a redundant one down the wire.

The best place to download the current beta of SCCM 2012 is the official product page. Also check out the Configuration Manager Team Blog and the product forums. There doesn’t appear to be an official sub-forum for the beta edition of SCCM 2012 as of yet, but questions about the beta do get answers from MVPs there.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about personal computing and IT for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including (among others) Windows Magazine, InformationWeek and the TechTarget family of sites.

This was first published in May 2011
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