SMS 2003 Mobile Support

In the October 3 Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I mentioned that Microsoft had announced plans to improve support for mobile users in Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 (formerly code-named Topaz). Earlier this week, I spoke with Bill Anderson, lead product manager of Microsoft's management business group. Not only did we have a fascinating conversation, but Anderson asked for feedback specifically from Mobile & Wireless UPDATE readers!

I began by asking Anderson to discuss SMS 2003 support for traditional notebook PCs. "We will see the product expand its best-of-breed LAN-based support to mobile users, who operate on slow-link connections or on multiple high-speed connections in different offices. We've used some of the technology behind Windows Update to provide a Background Intelligent Transfer Services (BITS) API—and exploited that API. BITS provides throttleable transfer so we don't interfere with business-critical connections. BITS also provides broken-link support. These features are supported in Windows XP (BITS is native in XP) and Windows 2000; Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 98 users will see SMS 2.0 behavior."

Anderson continued, "For roaming users, the SMS client software will connect with the SMS site hierarchy—and the Active Directory (AD) structure, if that's present—to locate the nearest distribution point with any required files. Clients now get instructions from a management point, rather than a client access point—and you have the option to create multiple management points if you wish." Anderson also noted that the BITS API is public—any other vendor can use it, "and we'd encourage that."

At Anderson's mention of Windows Update, I asked whether corporate IT departments would need to set up a central Web site as a distribution point. "Don't think of this in terms of an Internet Web site—you still have an SMS distribution point, but it uses HTTP standards instead of the old file-sharing model. From the administrator's point of view, it's no different than earlier versions of SMS—you create a package and determine which users are authorized to use BITS for access to the package."

Anderson also noted that "Active Directory (AD) integration is a major feature for SMS 2003—customers told us that they wanted to be able to leverage their investment in the AD structure to provide logic for software distribution. You can use any AD construct—a site, or organizational unit (OU)—as an SMS target. You can target all machines with Microsoft Office 2000 installed and 512KB RAM within a particular OU."

How about support for NT 4.0-based LANs (and Win2K-based networks that haven't implemented AD)? Anderson responded, "By default, SMS 2.0 defined a site based on IP subnets. In SMS 2003, you can simply point to the AD hierarchy, and it will automatically pick up all the subnets. You can add additional subnets, if necessary. And SMS continues to work in a non-AD world; you can still communicate and distribute software on an NT 4.0 LAN."

For Mobile & Wireless UPDATE readers, however, the big news lies in Microsoft's plans to expand SMS 2003 beyond traditional PCs. Anderson said, "We've started to find that PDAs and other handheld devices—such as Point of Sale (POS) systems, specialized handhelds, and so on—are moving to Windows-based OSs. IT administrators are being asked to administer them. When we ask customers how they manage these products, we find that they're using SMS for PC devices, then going to a third-party product in the non-PC space."

Anderson went on, "Three to 6 months after SMS 2003 ships, we'll offer a device-management feature pack. It's an add-on that will support Pocket PC, Windows CE.NET, and XP Embedded devices. A 150KB manageability client will ship with Pocket PC 2003 and Windows CE.NET—and it will support any kind of connectivity: dial-up, wireless, or through the cradle using ActiveSync. All OEMs will have the option to include our client with Pocket PC 2003 and Windows CE.NET devices, but it's up to the OEM to include the client. It will also be available as a separately installable CAB file on devices that don't include the software by default. We're investigating Pocket PC 2002 and Windows CE 3.0 devices but haven't made a decision yet."

Regarding features, Anderson said, "First and foremost, expect an implementation of our asset inventory functionality, so you can determine both the hardware and software configuration on the devices. Second, enterprise software distribution. And third, configuration management. Don't expect full AD functionality, but we should be able to provide scripting support to, for example, turn on the power-on password protection feature."

I asked about support for devices running non-Windows OSs, and Anderson responded, "Our expertise and core competence is in the Windows OS. We're expecting that our partners will provide integrated add-on products to support devices that use other OSs. SMS 2003 is an open platform—if someone wants to write a Palm OS client or a client for the Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry, that should be possible." Anderson also told me that "the 150KB client for Windows CE.NET and Pocket PC is being ported to XP Embedded for small-footprint devices. Or designers can choose to use the complete SMS 2003 client that's used on full-up PCs."

I asked about support for Tablet PC devices, and Anderson said, "We have one running the SMS 2003 beta client now. I'm not sure if it will be fully supported in the initial release, or a month or two later."

About price and availability, Anderson reported, "SMS currently is sold on a client access license model, currently starting at about $50 per client. We haven't made a final decision about pricing for non-PC devices as yet. SMS 2003 just went into a public beta, and early adopters are deploying the product now. We're hoping to see a final release in the second quarter of 2003. That will depend on early adopter feedback. The device-management feature pack will follow that release by 3 to 6 months."

My thoughts? I'm delighted that Microsoft has committed to providing script support in addition to asset inventory and software distribution for non-PC devices. On the other hand, I note with some annoyance that Microsoft is providing this support only for devices running the Pocket PC 2003, Windows CE.NET, and XP Embedded OSs, which leaves out the entire existing installed base of today's Pocket PCs, handheld PCs (H/PCs), and Windows CE 3.0 devices! In principle, Pocket PC 2002 devices—which support field-upgradable flash ROMs—should all be supported, but reflashing the ROMs will be necessary. Given the problems we've seen with upgrades from Pocket PC 2000 to Pocket PC 2002 (as reported in earlier editions of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE), I'm not optimistic about how well this upgrade will work out in practice.

To my surprise and delight, Anderson said that he'd appreciate feedback on this topic from Mobile & Wireless UPDATE readers. (I warned him to be careful what he asked for!) He's particularly interested to know whether you would value support for Pocket PC 2002 and Windows CE 3.0 devices. If you have a comment to share, drop a note to me at [email protected] I'll collect your messages and forward them to Anderson.

For more information about SMS 2003, go to the following URL.

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