Microsoft SMS 2003 beta gets user nod

Microsoft Corp. Monday will release a beta version of its Systems Management Server 2003 software, providing the enhanced support that corporate IT departments have been seeking for mobile clients.

Users are anxious to get their hands on the new version because the aging SMS 2.0, which shipped four years ago, didn't work well when distributing software to PC and laptop users on dial-up connections.

"It generates a lot of network traffic, and it isn't network-aware," said Michael Niehaus, an IT consultant at Marathon Oil Corp. in Houston.

Niehaus said he hopes SMS 2003, which Marathon Oil has been beta-testing, will "generate a fraction of the network traffic that the old SMS client did" and pay for itself "just based on support costs -- not having to figure out what happened to this or that PC when it disconnected in the middle of a software install."

Better Bandwidth Use

Binary Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS), a new SMS 2003 feature based on Microsoft's Windows Update technology, will allow software to be downloaded during lull periods, when users aren't expending their bandwidth to check e-mail or surf the Internet, Niehaus said.

If the client gets disconnected, SMS will pick up the download where it left off as soon as the user is able to reconnect.

"It might take two weeks to download a package to the machine, but eventually it will get there," Niehaus noted. "With SMS 2.0, getting updates to the not-well-connected machines can be a challenge. What are you going to do? Tell someone, 'Dial in and don't disconnect for six hours' ?"

But Microsoft's BITS feature will work only on machines running Windows XP or Windows 2000, and the 6.5MB SMS client piece must be distributed to them. Niehaus said his company will use Active Directory features to run a machine start-up script that will install the SMS 2003 client.

"There will be a little bit of initial pain to get the client pushed out, but we can live with that," he said.

Niehaus said his company, which has 11,000 PCs and laptops, distributes software packages that range in size from 30KB to 800MB. He estimated that 500 to 1,000 of the machines use dial-up or virtual private network connections, noting that a 6.5MB download via a 28.8K bit/sec. modem can take 30 to 60 minutes.

He said he doesn't anticipate his company will reduce that download time. But Niehaus hopes architecture improvements will help Marathon Oil cut down the initial two-hour processing time when a user requests software via a Web page, tells SMS to deliver the software and the software requests flows, from server to server, through the SMS hierarchy.

Other new features in the SMS 2003 version include tight integration with Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system and Active Directory (although Active Directory usage isn't required), and improvements to the product's software asset tracking capabilities.

Users will gain an application inventory option, rather than mere discovery, and they'll also be able to do software metering to see which applications are actually being used.

Niehaus said if certain packages aren't being used, an employee may be asked to uninstall the software to free up the license for someone else.

The final version of SMS is due to ship in the first half of next year, according to Martin Dey, senior product manager in Microsoft's Windows management business group.

But while the initial release will address the issue of mobile client support for PC and laptop users, it won't tackle the management problems associated with handheld devices running Pocket PC software or the Windows CE or Windows XP Embedded operating systems. That capability will ship in a value pack that will follow the main product's release by about three months, Dey said.

"It's important to Microsoft to have it, because their competitors do," said Ronni Colville, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. But she said she doesn't think users will be in any hurry to implement it.

"While wireless devices are being used, no one is doing any big management stuff on them," Colville said.

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