Total Cost of Ownership

Everyone knows that the successful implementation of networked Windows NT systems demands an investment beyond the initial cost of the requisite software licenses and hardware platforms. There is the effort involved in configuring Windows-based technology properly, keeping it up to date, and rolling out new software releases and remedial Service Packs. Left uncontrolled, these "hidden" costs can quickly run up Windows' total cost of ownership (TCO).

Fortunately, Microsoft offers such controls through tools like its System Management Server (SMS). Microsoft says customers can use SMS to maintain automatic inventories of their Windows systems, roll out new software applications, schedule the execution of maintenance procedures on logical subsets of their computers, and remotely manage Windows PCs that need help.

Unfortunately, SMS doesn't quite work as advertised. The current version is painfully slow to navigate around, is easily misconfigured by even experienced users, and is prone to cryptic error messages that often prove misleading or incorrect. Worse, as an SMS installation is scaled up, its distributed parts sometimes lose touch. For reasons unknown, the basic building blocks of a large SMS installation, primary and secondary SMS sites, can stop exchanging status messages, lose management jobs, or fall out of touch with each other, while at the same time providing little or no useful diagnostic information.

To head off the torrent of mail I'm expecting to get from SMS fans, let me quickly add that this product is a terrific idea. On paper, and in practice when it works, SMS can take a month's worth of support work and boil it down to a few mouse clicks. I've seen it. I've worked with both version 1 and version 2 of SMS, and know from experience that it can substantially reduce the effort involved in keeping networked Windows systems up and running.

That said, I've also spent hours and hours on support calls with Microsoft trying to figure out and resolve some of the product's all-too-many quirks. Alright, bugs -- there, I said it. SMS has bugs; bugs made all-the-more difficult to ferret out and kill by the product's Byzantine inner workings. "I can't get my primary site to communicate with my secondary sites," I tell Microsoft support. "Zip up the logs and send them to me," Microsoft says. I then do just that -- zip up all 40 MB of logs, for each of my sites. A day later, I'm back on the phone again. "Try this," they say; then "try that." I try it all, but nothing seems to happen. Is this because a patched SMS needs some time to perk? Is it because I didn't follow the remedial instructions properly? Or is it because SMS is still broken?

After following an especially tedious series of remedial steps, my support guy told me that it might take as long as a week for our distributed SMS community to reset itself, and that I should call back if it isn't working by then.

A week! Hey, we're talking about computers here, not horses. A week?

Help, I'm told, is on the way. Without ever exactly admitting that SMS version 2 has reliability problems, was told by informed anonymous sources that a Service Pack 2 for SMS should be available by the beginning of July. The SMS development folks, the source said, can forget about making new versions of SMS until they have a current version that works. Hopefully, Service Pack 2 will put SMS back in the business of reducing the TCO of Windows.

In the meantime, Microsoft, can you sell me something that lowers the TCO of SMS? --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at al.cini@computermethods.com.