Building a Strong Foundation

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - Rolling out an enterprisewide desktop management system is similar to building a house. Without a solid foundation and a good understanding of the fundamentals, frustration and problems usually creep in.

However, if you can get past the complexity, price, and management challenges, a desktop management suite can give you a centralized set of tools that streamline administrative tasks and reduce the total cost of ownership of desktop systems.

In our recent shakedown of available desktop management systems, we found a class of mature products that embrace new and old industry specifications, such as Desktop Management Interface (DMI) and Web-based Enterprise Management (WBEM). All the products we scrutinized offered hardware and software inventory; desktop configuration and remote control; and software distribution and license metering to a variety of clients. One product dabbled in antivirus protection, as well.

Since our last look at these products in 1998, vendors have packed more useful features into their offerings, but a truly comprehensive product is not available yet. You still have to make some trade-offs and possibly use more than one product to meet all your desktop management needs. And plan to devote a significant chunk of your time integrating your choices into your computing environment.

The seven suites we looked at can handle your basic desktop management chores, but Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Management Suite 6.3 is once again our Blue Ribbon Award winner. It offers excellent client support, provides antivirus tools and is well-rounded in most of the other categories. The one complaint we have about LANDesk is that it could use some better desktop configuration tools.

Attachmate Corp.'s NetWizard Plus 4.11 and Veritas Software Corp.'s Desktop Management Suite (DMS) 3.5 were right behind LANDesk in our roundup. They are solid options as well, especially if your primary focus is software distribution, a category in which they both excelled in our test. In the software distribution arena, we found DMS to be slightly peppier in performance than NetWizard Plus.

Tivoli Systems Inc.'s IT Director 2.1 is an adequate, albeit pricey option. The lack of native license metering in the product could be a concern for some shops not willing to invest in a third-party add-on. Novell Inc. shops would do well to take a look at ZENworks 2.0, which offers strong inventory and distribution options, but also suffers from a high price tag.

Finally, Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0 remains an enigma. It is Windows-myopic, which is no surprise, and the most difficult of the packages to get running.

Vector Networks' LANutil32 Suite 5.0 does not truly excel in any one area but holds its own in most categories and, therefore, represents a viable option for budget-conscious sites.

Missing from our list of review participants are Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView Desktop Administrator 5.0 and Tally Systems Inc.'s Cenergy. These products were included in 1998's contest; however, both vendors declined to participate this year.

Setting up shop

Typically, a graphical user interface-based management console installed on a workstation is the primary management interface that controls agents distributed across the network. The console can be a native Windows application, such as Attachmate's NetWizard Plus; a Java console running in a Java Virtual Machine environment, such as Tivoli's IT Director; or a browser-based implementation, such as Intel's LANDesk.

Specialized agent or client software must be installed on each networked workstation. Usually, an agent runs in the background, processing software distribution and other instructions from a management server or console. Older agent software consumed an inordinate amount of CPU cycles to perform even basic functions, but today's client add-ons have been optimized to be better network citizens.

All management data, application logic and security parameters are housed on one or more core management servers equipped with back-end databases. These server engines are the glue that holds a desktop management system together. In most cases, they provide the bulk of the processing power. Large organizations should expect to dedicate more than one system to this task.

The back-end servers of the LANDesk, DMS and NetWizard Plus products stood above the crowd in terms of performance.

Maintaining an accurate snapshot of each desktop system in your enterprise is critical to pinpointing potential problems. At a bare minimum, you should be able to view system properties, such as operating system, video adapter, processor, memory and available disk space, as well as attached devices. And you should be able to see each machine's installed software right down to the version level. You should also be able to save hardware and software baselines for each system, allowing you to quickly flag changes to your desktops.

All the products we tested provide hardware and software inventory capabilities that are more than adequate. What distinguishes the products in this category are the user interfaces and their use of available on-screen real estate. The cleanest and most uncluttered interface belonged to Intel's LANDesk. Tivoli's IT Director was a close second.

We think the customizable inventory forms offered by DMS and LANDesk are a nice touch, allowing you to augment scanned information with manual entries. This duo also offers modules for Web-based inventory reporting, although both modules suffered from sluggish performance.

To support software inventory, most of the products reference cataloged programs against a customizable software dictionary made up of thousands of titles. DMS led the way with a dictionary containing more than 11,000 hardware and software entries. It was relatively easy to create and modify existing dictionary entries in all the packages.

The one exception to the dictionary rule is Micro-soft's SMS, which uses its tight integration with Windows to unearth information about installed software instead of using an online information store. In tests of this feature, SMS had difficulty recognizing some applications, such as Visio Corp.'s Visio drawing application, during the inventory process.

All the products use a database to store inventory information. LANDesk provides the most extensive back-end options, with support for IBM's DB2, Oracle 8 and SQL Server. Limited options are found in Novell's ZENworks, which uses a Sybase run-time engine; SMS, which requires you to use SQL Server 6.5 or 7.0; and LANutil32, which uses a proprietary database format.

Despite their database differences, all the products provide good inventory-reporting capabilities. Leading the pack are Veritas' DMS and Vector's LANutil32, which both integrate with Crystal Reports, the run-time for which comes bundled with both products. IT Director's support for HTML reporting is also a bonus, allowing you to scan inventory reports from any standard Web browser. The predefined reports included in ZENworks' reporting tool are functional, albeit a tad inflexible for our liking.

Intel's LANDesk also impressed us with its breadth of client support for all Windows platforms, DOS, OS/2, Macintosh and NetWare servers, including inventory support for Linux systems. While it doesn't provide support for Linux or other Unix flavors, IT Director does include AS/400 client support.

Microsoft supports Macintosh systems, but requires that each SMS server on the network be running SMS 1.2 in addition to SMS 2.0, a cumbersome prospect for most sites.

Distributing a software update to a large number of workstations is easily the most tedious task on a system manager's plate. As the workstation count adds up, trudging from system to system, logging on, installing the software and answering user questions quickly becomes a significant chore.

Centralizing and automating the process pays immediate dividends, especially if your network is filled with homogenous systems. Because PC hardware and operating systems differ, running a separate installation routine for each platform/operating system combination reduces your overall time savings.

We found the core software distribution capabilities to be uniform across all the products tested. Each contained a distribution package utility, and several installation options. Customized scripting can also be applied to execute before and after package install across all the products. The degree of scripting capabilities varied from package to package, with Veritas' DMS and Novell's ZENworks providing excellent scripting granularity.

Overall, DMS provides the most sophisticated software distribution capabilities via Veritas' WinINSTALL module. WinINSTALL's many options include distribution via e-mail and through an encrypted NT service. WinINSTALL's excellent installation features include WinINSTALL Program Launcher, which allows you to distribute software on demand.

There were a few other bright spots in the software distribution area.

Attachmate's NetWizard Plus includes some nifty fault-tolerant and rollback features. Tivoli's IT Director has product templates that streamline package creation. Every product except LANutil32 offers scheduled distribution and includes a snapshot utility that allows you to create installation packages by recording the pre- and post-installation differences on a clean workstation.

Intel's LANDesk offers a number of push and pull distribution options, including distribution using HTTP. This support lets you easily handledistribution over a slow dial-up connection. IT Director allows distribution nodes to be created on NT File shares and FTP locations, which let you distribute the software to one location and then let users install it at their leisure.

Another fundamental task of desktop management is software metering. By monitoring and controlling what applications users access, you can dramatically reduce your licensing costs and stave off an unexpected visit from the Business Software Alliance.

Most of these suites had good metering capabilities, but two products fell short. Tivoli's IT Director does not provide native metering support, but lets you integrate third-party products, such as ABC Systems & Development's LAN Licenser. Instead of providing active metering, LANutil32 offers license grouping, allowing you to determine which workstations on your network can install a specific application and flagging rogue systems that may have unauthorized software installed.

The remaining products rely on a pool of licenses that can be made available on an as-needed basis. Demand in excess of allocated licenses can be denied outright, passively monitored, allocated to priority users or offered through a first-in/first-out queue. Novell's ZENworks, which takes advantage of Novell Licensing Services and Novell Directory Services, makes it very easy to administer licenses in a NetWare environment. Intel's LANDesk allows you to track Dynamic Link Library files in addition to standard executables.

Microsoft's SMS offers license checkout for mobile users and the tracking of usage time for possible charge-back accounting.

Most of the products offer only limited desktop-configuration management tools.

Attachmate's NetWizard Plus let us manipulate registry entries and enforce system policies on Windows 95, 98 and NT systems. However, we had to install NetWizard's Remote Registry Service on each system to make that happen. SMS countered with support for propagating user profiles and enforcing logon restrictions across all Windows clients. ZENworks offers printer management and extensible system policies for controlling who can use specific printing resources and how a desktop can be changed.

All the products tested except LANutil32 offer some form of remote control capability for viewing and controlling workstations. NetWizard Plus, LANDesk, SMS and ZENworks all let you transfer files, directly edit resident files and interactively chat with end users. SMS takes remote control a step further by offering remote diagnostics and the ability to force client reboots. LANDesk offers the widest variety of remote client control, with support for Windows, OS/2 and Macintosh clients, and NetWare servers. DMS delivers the goods by throwing in a bundled version of Funk Software's Proxy remote control program.

Surprisingly, the only product to bundle full antivirus support is LANDesk.

LANDesk's virus detection tool is a version of the Norton AntiVirus client for Windows desktops. To protect servers and other clients, you'll need to use the Norton AntiVirus Corporate edition, at an additional cost. Unfortunately, the virus threat is glossed over by the other products, except Tivoli's IT Director and Novell's ZENworks, which provide integration options with other third-party products.

Novell bundles a 6-month subscription to Network Associates antivirus software.

All the products provide some degree of event notification - for example, alerting you that a remote installation of software failed or that a license threshold has been exceeded, usually in the form of an alert box or an entry in a system log file. Intel's LANDesk leads the pack in this area, offering a bundle of alert actions. Depending on the event, you can initiate an e-mail message, load a NetWare Loadable Module, generate an SNMP trap or send a message to a pager. ZENworks also provides integrated help desk support, allowing you to automatically generate a trouble ticket for any detected desktop problems.

To gain some semblance of control over your desktop environment, you'll need to endure the long, drawn-out installation procedure inherent in this class of products.We advise plenty of advance planning as well as a thorough review of the software's documentation.

Unfortunately, in some cases, rifling through the documentation can be as confusing and complicated as the products themselves. Tivoli's IT Director, Intel's LANDesk, Attachmate's NetWizard Plus and Vector's LANutil32 all offered adequate manuals. Novell's ZENworks relied primarily on online documentation, which was also passable.

Some of the pointers to documentation on the Tivoli Web site generated JavaScript errors in our browsers. The Microsoft SMS manual seemed comprehensive on the surface, but we often had to turn to alternative documentation offerings, such as online help or the Microsoft Web site, to clarify a problem or feature.

After completing our testing, we concluded that there is no perfect desktop management solution. Your decision should be guided by the features that are of most importance to your organization. However, we recommend beginning your search by giving Intel's LANDesk Management Suite serious consideration.

Coopee is the technical director at Industrial Media, a consultancy in Ottawa.

He can be reached at tcoopee@industrialmedia.ca.

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