I dreaded new software versions in the 1990s when I was working as a network administrator for a large insurance company. A new software package meant I would spend my weekend manually feeding floppies to about a thousand workstations.
Thankfully, those days are history. Admins now have easier and more efficient ways of distributing software to workstations in large organizations.
One method of deploying software involves using Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003. SMS Server 2003 not only distributes software for you, it even monitors the distribution process so that you are better able to provide assistance to machines that might be having trouble accepting the new software.
Step 1: Establish your target
In SMS 2003, the first step in deploying software to clients is to determine which clients need the software. Those clients are then placed into a "target collection," which is a term for a group of computers that the software will be distributed to.
A target collection can contain a single computer, every computer on the network or anything in between. One advantage in creating a collection is that the collection is based on Active Directory containers. This means, for example, that you can build a collection that contains specific users, or you could create a collection based on group membership or even domain or site. You can even create dynamic, query-based collections. For example, you could tell SMS to create a collection of all PCs that are running Windows XP.
Step 2: Create a distribution point and "package"
The next requirement for deploying software with SMS is to establish a software distribution point, which is simply a repository of software accessible to SMS. When SMS deploys software, it gets the necessary files from the software distribution point and copies them to the client machines.
In order to distribute software to clients, you must create a software distribution package and then "advertise" that package to the clients in the target collection.
A software distribution package is a collection of the files required for installing the application that is being deployed. Items like programs, source files and source file paths make up the packages. In SMS, a package is the basic unit of software distribution. One interesting side note about packages is that they don't technically have to contain every file required by the application that's being deployed.
For example, suppose that the setup program for an application was designed so it uses DEFRAG.EXE to defragment the hard disk prior to installing the application. In such a case, DEFRAG.EXE would not have to be included in the package because it is part of the operating system and can be run locally on the client machine.
Creating packages for SMS is something of an art form, and there are several ways you can do it. One method uses the SMS Administrator console to define the package's properties while another method involves creating a package definition file. A package definition file is a file with the .SMS extension (.PDF in older versions of SMS). A wizard that imports .MSI files creates the package definition files.
Another way you can create an installation package is to use the SMS Installer, which is a utility that can create a setup program or an MSI file for an application.
Advertising the distribution package is Microsoft-speak for making the program available to the selected clients. The SMS server sends out the advertisement, which contains the name of the application that's being deployed, the target collection and the scheduling configuration. The scheduling configuration contains information such as when the application should be deployed and when it expires.
New UI for Version 4
While you now have the basics of software deployment in SMS Server, Microsoft is hard at work on the next version of SMS Server, currently known as Version 4.
There isn't much information available regarding Version 4 right now, but I can tell you that Microsoft is working to make it easier to use. The next version will have a new user interface that is more task oriented, and the interface will also take a more model-based approach to systems management. The idea is that this new approach will make it easier for you to use SMS as a tool for maintaining compliance with regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The major upgrade will ship sometime in the Longhorn wave of products in 2006 or 2007, according to Microsoft.
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at www.brienposey.com.
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