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System Center Essentials 2007 Beta 2

The beta's not perfect, but this unified management solution shows promise for SMBs

You've probably heard about Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), which has been renamed System Center Operations Manager (Ops Manager). If your organization is like most small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs), however, you probably realize that these tools offer diminishing returns if you don't have the manpower to implement and maintain them properly, or if the size of your PC and server fleet isn't large enough to warrant management by large-scale tools such as Operations Manager.

That said, a lot of IT shops are caught between the need for an efficient solution to monitor and manage the operations of their fleet and the ominous complexity of the solutions available to date. Enter System Center Essentials 2007 (SCE). Microsoft is targeting SCE to SMBs, touting its simplified interfaces and processes for managing as many as 15 servers and 500 desktops (as of press time; these numbers could change). To see how well Microsoft can deliver on this promise, I took the Beta 2 release of SCE through its paces in a test environment.

Out of the gate, Microsoft creates some reasonably stout prerequisites for installing SCE. Supported OSs are Windows Server 2003 Standard and Enterprise Editions, Service Pack 1 (SP1); Windows 2003 R2 Standard and Enterprise; or Small Business Server 2003 SP1. Additionally, you need Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0; Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) 2.0; Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC) 2.80.1022.0 or later; Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 and .NET Framework 3.0. You need about 3.5GB of free disk space on the C drive for the installation. I attempted to point the installation of components to an alternate drive with plenty of free space, but there was no working around the disk-space check and I had to make room on my C drive before proceeding with the installation.

During setup, I was prompted to install Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express Edition or point to an existing SQL Server installation for the System Center Database. I chose to install SQL Server Express. I then had to choose whether I wanted to store updates for client computers on the server or let the clients go to the Internet for their updates. You'll need to weigh the pros and cons of each option, considering your available server disk space, number of clients, and connection to the Internet. I chose to store the updates on the server and specified the disk location where updates would be stored. I was then prompted to enter an account with access to all client systems that would be used to perform management tasks on client systems. The full installation, complete with SQL Server Express and database creation, took about 15 minutes on my dual-core Intel Xeon 2.4GHz server.

Before you can start to use SCE, you must complete three configuration tasks. The tasks, which you'll see the first time you open the console, rely on wizards to help you configure SCE product features, computers and devices to be managed, and settings for Microsoft Update.

The Product Feature wizard prompts you to select SCE's parameters. Settings include whether to use a proxy server, whether to create a Group Policy Object (GPO) for managed devices, client system remote control, and Agentless Exception Monitoring. Although you can configure and use SCE by using local policy, you reap better centralized control of your environment and will need to jump through fewer hoops, such as manually opening firewall ports, if you take advantage of Group Policy. The wizard ran through the configuration options I specified and completed all steps successfully.

I then ran the Computer and Device Management configuration wizard, which performs a discovery of computers and network devices, lets you select which ones you want to manage, then performs agent installation on any managed systems you select. The wizard lets you select either Auto or Advanced discovery options. I used the Auto option, and my three Windows XP client systems were discovered in less than a minute. I selected all three systems for management and the agent was queued for installation on the systems. All three, however, failed because they didn't have Windows Installer 3.1. I downloaded the required version from Microsoft and installed it on the three XP systems, but I had to go through the discovery process again to retry the agent installation. On the next attempt, the agent installation was again unsuccessful. This time, however, I was directed to look at the log files to determine the source of the problem. The logs turned up nothing, but I did refer back to the system requirements document and noticed my problem: Although SCE supports a wide array of managed computer OSs, including Windows 2000 SP4, Windows XP must be updated to at least SP2 to run. I don't have a complaint about the requirement for SP2, but tasks such as deploying SP2 are one big way in which SCE should be able to help smaller IT shops. It would be nice if Microsoft could find a way to help SCE users automate getting their PC fleet up to snuff as part of the deployment of this tool rather than saddling potential customers with the task of manually managing software prerequisites.

After ensuring that the test clients all met the requirements, I tried the discovery process one more time. This time the agent successfully installed on all three of my test clients.

I then ran the final task, Configure Microsoft Update Settings. The wizard synchronizes with the Microsoft Update site and asks if you want to download updates for OSs only or from a selection of other systems, including SQL Server and Microsoft Exchange Server. It also prompts you to select the languages for the updates you want to download and the categories of updates to automatically download. Finally, you can choose categories of updates to approve automatically as they are downloaded or you can choose to manually approve all updates before they are distributed to clients. I chose default values for the wizard with the exception of the last item, telling it that I would manually approve updates. After the wizard finishes, you select to synchronize immediately or at a later time. Your first synchronization can take some time and consume significant network bandwidth, but you do need to synchronize updates from Microsoft before the SCE Update Management feature will work properly.

SCE 2007 Beta 2

PROS: All-in-one management tool for SMBs; leverages Ops Manager intelligence
CONS: Beta version contained numerous bugs; systems to
be managed must be well updated before they can be brought under SCE management umbrella RECOMMENDATION: If you struggle with management of your SMB fleet of desktops and servers, you owe it to yourself to give SCE a look.
CONTACT: Microsoft • 800-4269400 •

The SCE Console Interface
The SCE console's interface, which Figure 1 shows, is fairly simple and intuitive as compared with other complex management products. It's laid out in a columnar format featuring various panes for displaying information or choosing actions to perform. Using the View menu, you can customize to some degree which items are displayed together to suit your environment. Figure 1 shows the console with the Computers pane activated and other available items such as Details, Actions, and Navigation enabled. You can resize the columns horizontally and change the height of an item or pane within a column to suit your preferences. To enter a specific area of SCE, you choose the appropriate selection from the Actions item in the lower left of the console or from the Go menu. The choices are Computers, Monitoring, Updates, Software, Reporting, Authoring, and Administration.

Computers. In the Computers pane, you can view inventory and launch a wide array of diagnostic and maintenance operations on a system. Figure 1 shows some of the possible actions you can perform on the selected managed system.

Monitoring Systems and Network Devices. Microsoft has included some great MOM and Ops Manager functionality to simplify monitoring systems and network devices. I don't have the space here to even scratch the surface of the monitoring functionality available for Windows OSs and Microsoft applications. Monitoring capabilities for most anything you would want to monitor on your desktops plus the majority of mainstream Microsoft server applications are included in SCE. You can author a monitor for a specific service and even develop detailed custom availability monitoring for a Web application. I also tested monitoring for a couple of SNMP-managed devices on my network. For generic network devices, SCE collects uptime information taken from ping contact, but you can import management packs to expose additional capabilities for supported hardware. I imported the Microsoft.SystemCenter file from the SCE 2007 installation media and was presented with additional monitoring information for the Cisco switch on my network.

Deploying Software Updates. One big benefit of SCE is that it has tools for deploying and reporting about software updates from Microsoft. The features in SCE's robust updates management technology make it very easy to synchronize, approve, deploy, and report on updates and patches.

You can also use SCE to deploy updates and patches to third-party software installed in your environment. The distribution of non-Microsoft updates is very similar to the process of distributing software.

Distributing Software. You can use SCE to deploy software from .exe files, .msi files, and exe-wrapped .msi files. Its capabilities for software deployment, however, are nowhere near as comprehensive as that of Systems Management Server (SMS) or other enterprise-class software distribution tools.

SCE has no repackaging or scripting capabilities to customize a deployment beyond what is provided by the software manufacturer. On the upside, SCE quickly and easily pushes out standard packages. However, during my testing, the SCE console crashed the first couple of times I tried to deploy Windows Defender. After I cleared the Include all files and sub-folders in this location checkbox, I was able to create and deploy packages without a problem.

Reporting. You'll find two user-configurable reports: Availability and Configuration Changes. I presume more reporting options will be available in the final release. I saw many context-specific reporting options that appeared throughout the interface, but they weren't enabled in the Beta 2 build that I tested.

Authoring and Administration. As I mentioned in the Monitoring section, the Authoring pane is where you can add monitoring for OLE DB data sources, TCP ports, a Web application, or a Windows service to achieve customized monitoring capabilities for an application or service in your environment.

The Administration pane lets you configure settings for how SCE will operate in your environment. These settings include device management, security, notifications, and general operational parameters.

This is also where you go to import and manage management packs.

First Impressions: Fix Bugs, Start a Revolution
Overall, I think SCE will catch on for many SMBs. It boasts a wealth of worthwhile features in a concise, easy-to-use interface. Unfortunately, the beta version I tested still had too many bugs to give it an official stamp of approval. For example, the console crashed on me numerous times during testing. I'm sure Microsoft will work diligently to make SCE stable and robust. Then, SCE will be poised to start a small revolution in IT systems management, at least for SMBs.

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