Configuration Management Revisited, and a Look at Windows XP

Two weeks ago, I took a quick look at configuration management, and I'm providing a brief update based on reader feedback and a propitiously timed Microsoft announcement. Redmond is apparently responding to the configuration management challenge with some tools of its own over the next several months, so things could get pretty interesting.

Several readers mentioned Configuresoft's Enterprise Configuration Manager (ECM). "I am very impressed \[with ECM\] because it completely inventories your systems and can generate reports, based on different files, file versions, and registry entries—and the list goes on," one reader replied. Configuresoft shipped ECM 3.5 about 2 weeks ago; ECM expands on Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) and other tools by making it easy to track, control, modify, and restore hardware and software configurations on networked PCs. ECM also works alongside existing and current versions of SMS, which is a nice touch. And ECM offers other intriguing capabilities that aren't necessarily related to daily configuration management tasks, such as a Windows 98 and Windows 95 migration module and proactive security management.

Other configuration management solutions mentioned include Novell ZENworks and Novell ManageWise, which work in mixed environments; Xcellenet Remoteware for remotely installing software over slow links during periods of inactivity; and SMS, which currently offers basic services for configuration management as mentioned previously.

A number of readers reported using roll-your-own approaches that combine replication tools such as Norton Ghost and/or various scripting tools, such as Perl and Kixstart. I've seen and used this approach myself, whereby systems are essentially recreated over the network each time they're booted. And rolling out desktops with Ghost certainly makes a lot of sense, especially if you use Windows NT 4.0 and haven't yet moved to Active Directory (AD). Some readers noted that they ultimately passed over tools such as SMS and Tivoli because they were too complicated or "over-engineered."

And finally, a couple of readers noted that PC users tend to be fairly PC-savvy these days and that Larry Ellison's ideas about PCs not needing to be unique are outdated. With the growing proliferation of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and other non-PC devices, it might be impossible to track every application running on every machine. "This is America," one reader noted, "You guys need to live in your own monster for a while. Try to live with what you give your managed accounts, no cheating, no tweaking. I bet you can't." I agree that the notion of effective configuration management remains largely unrealized today. In many cases, users might see corporations that adhere too strictly to a strong configuration policy as overly domineering. But in companies where no effort is made to keep configurations under control, chaos results. I think the current generation of tools is good; it's simply a matter of education and, of course, money. But readers recognize the need to consider the user's standpoint when they roll out configuration mandates.

Microsoft has some interesting solutions coming down the pike as well. As I mentioned in the January 26, 2001, Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE Special Edition, the company is upgrading its SMS product with a number of releases in the coming months, as well as introducing a new product called Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). With these tools, Microsoft hopes to make Windows the premier managed environment.

The company will upgrade the core SMS product to provide better change and configuration management. It will ship a Whistler-compatible Service Pack 3 (SP3) release for SMS 2.0 sometime this month, to help enterprises roll out Whistler beta desktops immediately, if desired (I'm not sure why anyone would do this; Redmond believes there's a need). In late 2001, the next major version of SMS, code-named Topaz, enters beta. This product will integrate tightly with AD and offer better software distribution, metering, and reporting tools. And Topaz offers far more sophisticated support for mobile users.

On the operations management front, Microsoft has licensed Operations Manager (OpManager) from NetIQ to create a new product called MOM. MOM will enter beta this month and ship late this year. As a complementary product to SMS and other Microsoft servers, MOM will be used primarily for event and performance monitoring. You can use it in conjunction with Win2K and all of the .NET Enterprise Servers, such as SQL Server 2000 and Exchange 2000 Server.

In other news, Microsoft announced this week that the final name of Whistler will be Windows XP, with XP standing for "experience," ala the new user experience. The XP name will also be used for Office 10, which will be called Office XP when it ships in May. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates describes Windows XP as "the most compelling upgrade for both business users and consumers since Windows 95." Windows XP builds on Win2K—not Windows 9x—to provide a stable computing platform that doesn't need to be rebooted. And although many of Whistler's features are indeed consumer oriented—such as its CD-burning capabilities and digital-media integration—Whistler Server editions will build on all the good work that went into Win2K, providing improvements and simplification. I'm under a general nondisclosure agreement (NDA) until Whistler Beta 2 ships, but expect a lot of Whistler—excuse me, Windows XP—news in the coming weeks.

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