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NT Enterprise
Inside Systems Management Server
Can Microsoft's SMS give you the ultimate view of your enterprise? We reviewed the latest version to find out.

-- by Tom Henderson

When Systems Management Server (SMS) arrived more than two years ago, Microsoft touted it as the ultimate tool for managing PCs within distributed Windows NT networks. But like NT before it, SMS has been slow to gain a foothold within corporate America-until now. A growing number of enterprises are using SMS, including Chevron, Mobil and Texas Instruments.

SMS supports inventory and asset management, electronic software distribution, configuration testing and network connectivity analysis. Using SMS, an NT administrator can, for instance, scan thousands of Windows 3.x PCs to see whether they're equipped with enough RAM, processing power and free hard drive space to run Windows 95. If so, SMS can package Win95-and hundreds of Win16 or Win32 applications-for distribution across a network and to selected remote PCs.

Some industry observers say that SMS, while promising, has taken a back seat to Microsoft's other server initiatives. For example, during the last two years the software giant has shipped major upgrades of all its server offerings (such as SQL Server 6.5 and Exchange Server 5.0) except SMS.

Now, Microsoft may finally be getting serious about systems management. On the enterprise level, Microsoft is integrating SMS with Computer Associates' Polycenter (recently acquired from Digital) and Hewlett-Packard's OpenView. It is also working with a major user group to improve SMS's versatility (see sidebar, "Ask the SMS Experts")

In addition, Microsoft has enticed dozens of software vendors to develop SMS-compatible management products (see sidebar, "Embracing SMS") and delivered SMS 1.2, a subtle upgrade that includes enhanced inventory and software distribution features. Another upgrade, version 2.0, is already under development.

Eager for a firsthand look at SMS 1.2, NT Enterprise Edition took it for a test drive on Unitel Corp.'s production network, which I manage when I'm not writing for WINDOWS Magazine. When Microsoft's SMS team caught wind of our test drive, it was more than happy to share the company's long-term systems management road map (more on that later)

SMS up close

SMS 1.2 costs $1,129 for a 10-user license. An additional 20-user client pack is $889. SMS requires Windows NT Server (at least version 3.51 with Service Pack 3), 32MB of RAM and 100MB of disk space (though Microsoft recommends a hefty 500MB for production environments) on an NTFS partition. Like NT, SMS supports IPX, NetBEUI/NetBIOS and TCP/IP networks.

SMS also requires Microsoft SQL Server 6.0 (starting at $1,399 for a five-user license) or later. The database can serve as a repository for network inventory data, technical support data or electronic software distribution information. SQL Server can also support ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) links to Excel and other software products.

For this article, we installed SMS 1.2 and SQL Server 6.0 on a 200MHz Pentium Pro Compaq ProLiant 5000 with 128MB of RAM and Windows NT Server 4.0. Using SMS, we attempted to manage dozens of PCs running a mix of Windows for Workgroups, Win95 and NT Workstation 4.0, as well as dedicated servers running Novell NetWare 3.12, Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) and a nonproduction NetWare 4.11 system. The network also included an SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) management console running Novell ManageWise, which competes with SMS (for more on ManageWise, see sidebar "SMS Alternatives")

Installation was a breeze, with SQL Server requiring a mere 20 minutes and SMS a scant 15 minutes. During SMS's installation, we created three SMS sites (think of sites as a hierarchy or pyramid). At the pyramid's top is the primary site, which must contain a SQL Server database. Secondary sites, by contrast, do not have a SQL Server database running. Secondary sites forward inventory and status information to the primary site's SQL database.

The information flow between SMS sites is important to understand for several reasons. First, it's possible to route data through an SMS network so that it takes advantage of the speediest network path. Also, network administrators who understand SMS information flow can more easily pinpoint network problems as they occur.

Documenting domains

Within the primary and secondary SMS sites, numerous SMS domains (not to be confused with MS Network Domains) can exist. An SMS domain is used to organize client and server computers into groups. SMS domains can contain Windows NT, LAN Manager, LAN Server, and NetWare clients and servers. In contrast, MS Network domains contain largely Windows (and to a lesser extent Macintosh) desktops.

Once domains are established, SMS modifies the log-in/log-on scripts on the servers within a domain. A file called RUN_SMS.BAT is added to the servers and executes when a user logs into the network. The first time through, RUN_SMS.BAT installs a Package Control Manager and an Inventory Agent on a user's PC.

The Inventory Agent collects information and builds a report about the PC, then places the report onto the server. Primary sites collect the reports from secondary sites and populate their own databases. Next, this information is sent up the SMS hierarchy, or pyramid, to higher-ranking primary sites.

This inventory process can be time-consuming. For example, it took SMS about 10 minutes to collect information from my networked Compaq LTE5300 notebook (a 133MHz Pentium containing nearly 1GB of data). Fortunately, network inventories can be scheduled to start-and finish-during the evening or on the weekend, assuming client PCs are logged on and using password-protected screen savers.

The accuracy of SMS inventory information can vary. Hardware configuration information (such as the type of network card a PC is using) is typically dead-on accurate. Likewise, SMS can correctly identify most popular desktop applications from Microsoft (surprise, surprise), Corel and Lotus, among others. Once you learn the ropes, it's possible to teach SMS to accurately identify less-popular applications.

When network changes are made (for example, if a user installs a new word processor), the adjustments are propagated to the SQL Server inventory database. Important files, such as CONFIG.SYS, AUTOEXEC.BAT and the minutiae of "INI," can also be transported upstream to your SQL Server repository.

SMS 1.2 also includes Seagate's Crystal Reports application. This addresses one of SMS's greatest shortcomings-reporting. Earlier SMS releases lacked applications with decent SQL Server reporting access, but Microsoft cured the problem by coupling ODBC 2.0 drivers with Crystal Reports.

SMS can also receive and send SNMP messages, including filterable NT error messages, to an SNMP management console or application. Finally, SMS monitors low-level traffic on the network segment that it's attached to, which is useful for connectivity troubleshooting.

The most evolved and impressive SMS offering is electronic software distribution (ESD). The ESD module uses Package Definition Files (PDF) to package and distribute software across LANs and WANs to a stunning variety of client offerings, including NetWare, NT, LAN Server, LAN Manager, DOS, Windows 3.x, Windows for Workgroups, Win95, Mac OS and OS/2.

Smaller networks can generally use the PDFs included with SMS to install, say, a new word processor to dozens of remote desktops. However, new software releases often require modifications to PDFs. One solution to this problem is to buy the BackOffice Resource Kit Part One, (often called BORK or ResKit) for SMS. The kit ($79.95) lets consultants, analysts and administrators customize software distribution packages and client-side installation routines. (For more information, visit www.microsoft.com/mspress/text/booabs/5-932-3b.htm.)

SMS shortcomings

Unfortunately, SMS suffers from several glaring shortcomings, including a steep learning curve, sophisticated yet poorly integrated application components, and a host of different file formats and applications that you must constantly deal with.

To compensate, Microsoft's SMS development team is working on an SMS upgrade, code-named Opal. The upgrade aims to reduce SMS's complexity; make network administration tasks batch oriented-with wizards and guides; deliver a new management console to monitor tasks performed by SMS; and finally, get away from the complicated toolkit approach that plagues SMS.

Some Opal components could be shipping by the time you read this. For instance, a preview of the new Microsoft Management Console (MMC) is available for download at www.microsoft.com/products/backoffice/management/mmc/helpmenu_productnews.htm.

The bottom line

Thanks to numerous software company mergers and acquisitions, the systems management market is still being defined in terms of functionality.

Where does that leave SMS? Certainly, it's a product NT enterprises should evaluate. However, Microsoft must continue enhancing SMS to support and manage UNIX and NetWare servers, along with future technologies from NT 5.0 to Active Directory and even the so-called network computers (diskless computers that use applications residing on a server). Microsoft's greatest challenge is to deliver these enhancements without increasing SMS's complexity.

Contributing Editor Tom Henderson is vice president of engineering for Indianapolis-based Unitel. Contact Tom in the "Enterprise Administrator" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here.

Microsoft Systems Management Server 1.2

Price: 10-user license, $1,129; additional 20-user client pack, $889

Memory requirements: 32MB RAM; 100MB to 500MB disk space

Platforms: Windows NT

Client support: Full support for DOS, Windows 3.x, 95 and NT; inventory and software distribution for OS/2 and MacOS

Pros: Solid solution for managing primarily Win16 and Win32 desktops

Cons: Only runs on NT Server; requires SQL Server (not included); no management of UNIX or NetWare servers

Microsoft Corp.


Circle #853

Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.

Windows Magazine, March 1997, page NT28.

[ Go to March 1997 Table of Contents ]