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Expert releases tools to demystify Group Policy

Getting the most from Group Policy is tough for IT managers if they don't stay on top of it. One expert has launched his own products to help simplify the process.

Given the complexity of Microsoft's configuration manager, any tool that can make it easier for IT shops to manage Windows Group Policy deserves a look.

At least that's the thinking of one Group Policy expert and former IT manager who is formally releasing software tools that address what he describes as continuing deficiencies in Group Policy management.

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Darren Mar-Elia, who is the blogger behind the popular Web site, launched his own company in late 2006 called SDM Software in San Anselmo, Calif. Later this month, SDM Software Inc. will release the GPExpert Troubleshooting Pak, which will combine a tool that was quietly released in December, called GPHealth Reporter 1.0, with another soon-to-be-released tool called the Log Analyzer.

Mar-Elia's GPHealth Reporter 1.0 gives a bird's eye view of Group Policy that lets administrators figure out when it isn't working on a given system. The tool shows Group Policy processing time, slow link and loopback status and computer user details. The information is presented in a simple format marked in red or green according to status.

The GPExpert Troubleshooting Pack will combine the GPHealth Reporter and Log Analyzer to drill into all the logs that are generated by Group Policy.

GPHealth Reporter can be evaluated for free. It costs $75 per named administrative user.

Licensing model keeps costs down

GPHealth Reporter's low-cost licensing model makes it an interesting offering, according to Jeremy Moskowitz, a consultant, author and principal at Moskowitz Inc. "The licensing is per administrator, which keeps the cost down," he said. "If you have 15 administrators, you are paying for 15 licenses, not 10,000 users."

Group Policy is central to managing computers in an Active Directory environment. "To have the ability to remotely manage settings on thousands of machines is very powerful," said Dan Blum, senior vice president and research director at the Burton Group, a consulting firm with headquarters in Midvale, Utah. "But because it's so complicated, unless you are an administrator and work on that stuff full time, you don't hear about all the quirks or ins and outs," Blum added.

Group Policy is currently heading toward its third major version – the first was with Windows 2000 Server and Active Directory, the second came with Windows Server 2003 and a third will come out for Vista and with the arrival of Longhorn Server, which is likely to ship in early 2008. With the arrival of Vista this year, Group Policy has grown to about 3,000 possible settings, up from about 1,200 to 1,500 settings in XP SP2.

Over time, managing Group Policy has become easier, but people still don't understand its power and the mistakes that can still be made, said John Brunelle, an IT administrator at Smith & Nephew PLC, a London-based medical device manufacturer. "Any tool will help," he said.

Third-party Group Policy tools help with management

Windows Group Policy comes with its own rudimentary default tools, but there are many third-party tools available to help with management. Some of the vendors that make these tools include Full Armor Corp., Symantec Corp., Quest Software Inc., ScriptLogic Corp. and NetPro Computing Inc.

In October, Microsoft acquired Desktop Standard Corp. of Portsmouth, N.H., which also made policy management tools, to flesh out its own GP management capabilities.

"Each of the products is a little different, and I'm not sure that anyone has a superset," Blum said.

SDM Software's Mar-Elia said he is trying to focus his tools on troubleshooting, as opposed to providing GP extensions or GP version control, which is most commonly available from third-party vendors. "The goal is to continue this trend of reducing Group Policy complexity," he said.

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