SMS 2.0 Eases Use But Needs to Grow

The next generation of Systems Management Server (SMS), version 2.0, is brand new, having just shipped at the end of 1998.

SMS can help cut the cost of owning networked systems -- but only when skillfully wielded. It takes a bit of Windows NT technical knowledge to plan and install SMS and, when up and running, an SMS installation demands regular technical attention.

The major shortcoming of version 1.2 is its "modal" management interface. Related SMS management functions, such as modifying software packages and triggering software installations from them, can require tedious jumping back and forth between incompatible dialog windows. And behind its ungainly user interface, SMS 1.2’s core features were hard to use and unreliable.

"A lot of people using 1.2 found it to have too steep of a learning curve," says David Hamilton, product manager, systems management at Microsoft.

Version 2.0 offers many management features, new user interfaces, analysis tools and installation tools. The new GUI is task-oriented and more intuitive. It provides detailed, near-real-time information about the status of the SMS system as a whole, as well as management jobs in progress.

Unlike its monolithic predecessor, the new SMS GUI is modular. Integrated as a snap into the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), high-level administrators can delegate responsibility for specific SMS functions, such as software distribution, to administrative users who see only the console elements related to software distribution. In front of the GUI, a library of 11 wizards helps automate routine operations, such as software package and secondary site creation. Behind the GUI, Microsoft is adopting the industry-standard Common Information Model (CIM) as the foundation for the SMS 2.0 interface, enabling integration with SNMP and Desktop Management Interface tools from other companies, such as Tivoli Systems Inc. (www.tivoli.com) and Computer Associates Int’l Inc (www.cai.inc).

SMS 2.0’s network monitoring capabilities provide automatic network node discovery. The product automatically discovers and reports all subnets, servers, routers, and other network devices along designated network paths. When the process is complete, it can draw a map of the network.

To aid in LAN traffic analysis, SMS 2.0 provides experts that interpret collected traffic data, and monitors that look at traffic patterns to detect and report rogue DHCP servers, duplicate IP addresses, and attempted Internet break-ins.

Software inventory features also are improved. Abandoning its predefined database of software products and versions, the current version searches for the intrinsic version resource information for every executable on a client machine. The client software inventory procedure is now more efficient and gathers more accurate and comprehensive inventory information. The new inventory capabilities also test for Year 2000 (Y2K) software compliance. SMS ships with a Microsoft database of applications and Y2K compliance levels, and will accept Y2K databases from other vendors.

HealthMon, a new feature, provides performance information -- processor status, memory, physical disk status, and server work queues -- on mission-critical Windows NT Server and BackOffice processes. Administrators can accept predefined criteria for system health, or tune it as needed.

The thorniest management area of all, software distribution, seems to have drawn particular attention from Microsoft developers. In addition to improving the reliability and responsiveness of its core software package installation features, SMS provides new capabilities.

New to the product are options to pinpoint target software installations for designated users, user groups, and even TCP/IP network geographies, as well as specific machines and machine groups.

With the new scheduling features, managers can schedule installations to occur outside working hours, immediately, or when network bandwidth is plentiful.

A courier sender delivers SMS packages to target users and machines on physical media, such as CD-ROM. When the software arrives at a target destination, a local administrator attaches it to the system and the installation process is completed automatically.

While greatly improved, SMS 2.0 is not perfect. It still requires a fair amount of NT know-how to package and distribute software. Much of Microsoft's promise to reduce total cost of ownership, in fact, won't be realized until Windows 2000.

"The next area that needs quite a lot of work will be around the Windows 2000 Server product because it brings Active Directory into play," Hamilton says.

SMS will reap value from Active Directory when the technology becomes available, including improvements to software distribution capability and understanding of a company’s system organization and relationship between machines.

The enhancements that come as a result of Windows 2000 will be issued as a dot release or service pack after Windows 2000 ships.