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Microsoft releases improved, complex SMS 2003 beta

The latest SMS is now out, but do you need it? There are a lot of improvements, but this beta is also complicated and best suited for big jobs.

IT administrators say there is a lot to praise about the recently released public beta version of Microsoft's management software, but they warned potential customers that getting this product up and running at its full potential is no walk in the park.

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  • Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 is effective, but it's complex, and Microsoft does little hand-holding when it comes to providing tips for best practices. IT managers must do plenty of up-front preparation on their own, attend training classes or get help from colleagues to get the best out of this technology.

    Still, while SMS 2003 may be one of the most complicated of Microsoft's products, managers also said it can be one of the most helpful.

    "When you have everyone set up, and your site is working, it takes no longer to send software or virus updates to 5,000 people than it does to five," said Michael Schultz, a Groton, Conn.-based SMS consultant who has helped some of the largest enterprises set up SMS software.

    The public beta is not a completely new version of SMS 2.0. Rather, it's SMS 2.0 with a lot of enhancements. Some new features may seem minor, but they are the types of things that make an IT administrator's life easier, Schultz said.

    For example, Schultz appreciates the fact that the beta has incorporated the tools to do Web reports. It also has the ability to export data and makes it easier to see a package ID during deployment -- a task that used to require an in-depth search.

    The software's major changes are improvements to connectivity for mobile clients and improvements to software metering. One of SMS 2.0's biggest shortfalls was in serving the mobile client, and this function has been re-designed. In previous versions, it was nearly impossible to support mobile machines over dial-up connections -- a serious problem given the number of road warriors these days.

    There are still a few quirks in the installation process; one in particular has to do with the need to ship a large file down to the client, now called the "advanced client." But once the software is in place, it is very effective, said Ed Aldrich, an IT administrator at CVS Corp. in Woonsocket, R.I.

    The second problem to solve was one of license metering. In SMS 2.0, the feature had two modes of operation: active and passive. Both were cumbersome and really did not work at all, Schultz said.

    Using the active mode, if a company owned 100 licenses for Office but had 200 employees, the 101st employee logging in would be shut out. The passive mode lets anyone log in, but it's unclear who is using the software and when.

    Today, SMS 2003 has better reporting tools, and the metering process has been completely rewritten. No user is prevented from using an application, and yet IT administrators can keep better tabs on who is using the software so they can buy new licenses if they need to.

    The prior version also required more hardware because of the way the data was maintained and managed. The fact that the new software uses a native SQL implementation means that additional hardware is not required, thus there is also less stress on the network and on bandwidth, Aldrich said.

    But complexity remains customers' biggest qualm about SMS 2003 and also the fact that Microsoft has done little to help users get the full benefit of the software.

    "I would like to have a more intuitive interface at my hands," Schultz said. "[Microsoft] provides so much for you, and then they give you the instructions on how to do it in some obscure article sitting on the Web." Aldrich felt comfortable working with the software after taking two Microsoft training classes and attending a few conferences.

    Customers expect to see a few more test versions of SMS 3.0 and a shipping product sometime next summer.

    SMS 2003 is not a product for everyone. It's usually only recommended for customers with large Windows installations. Whether the software will ever rank among the best of its class in configuration management is still a matter of debate.

    "It's really for [Microsoft-only shops] and people willing to invest a lot of time and effort working with a product through its maturity," said Ronni Colville, research director at Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

    According to Gartner, other top manageability vendors include Novadigm Inc., Altiris Inc., and Landesk. Colville said that Landesk, a spin-off of Intel Corp., may be the truest rival to SMS in desktop and device management.

    Schultz said that for any environment with more than 500 systems, he would choose SMS, provided the company using the software had a skilled employee who could train the staff. Smaller companies with few employees dedicated to IT might not need all of the information that SMS 2003 provides.

    "But for large environments, where there are thousands of computers, it's a powerful and flexible tool," he said.

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