Product Reviews

PC Ground Control

PC-Duo Enterprise provides comprehensive configuration management for enterprise networks.

PC-Duo from Vector Software is the latest iteration in the company's series of LANutil products. Modular, scaleable and easy to use, PC-Duo's management capabilities gives network decision-makers the information they need when choosing the configuration of their desktop population. Positioned for small business markets, PC-Duo's modular design allows companies to buy the pieces they need, rather than getting roped into buying the whole suite.

PC-Duo's modular design comes in six basic areas: Inventory (hardware and software), Software Metering, Software Distribution, Remote Control, Diagnostics and Help Desk. Each piece provides a good measure of functionality and visibility.

The Inventory pieces offer immediate visibility to the hardware and software characteristics of the machine population. By using the pre-configured Groups, or creating some of your own, you can quickly identify hardware characteristics and establish and maintain an equipment lifecycle, rather than making those knee-jerk purchases that can liquidate the budget. The Software Inventory tool can be configured with rules to differentiate between revisions of software and trained to identify any software package based on installed files. There's also an Asset Tracking database that keeps dibs on those miscellaneous devices, such as ZIP drives and PCMCIA cards.

The Software Metering tool answers the industry problem of "shelfware," which damages a company's IT budget. PC-Duo can identify who's using what, when and for how long. This way, decision-makers can find out if those guys at the end of the hall really need Microsoft Project or not. Like the Inventory tools, the Metering tool can be configured to scan as rigorously as necessary.

Remote control is getting to be a standard for any desktop management suite, and PC-Duo is no exception. Remote support personnel can take control of, or just monitor, a desktop. Overall, the biggest ROI for remote control is in how much time is saved by support folks not having to visit workstations for small problems.

PC-Duo's Software Distribution tool sort of reminds me of how Windows 2000 deploys software through Group Policy. You can define a group of computers, including DOS and 9x boxes, and deploy software using MSI, InstallShield or the Setup program. The only downside I saw was the fact that, if you're running a Win2K network, this piece won't be of much use. But because PC-Duo is modular, you don't have to buy it if you're only running Win2K on your network.

One thing I did like, in particular, was the Diagnostics tool. Although, semantically, I would call this a Configuration Baseline Tool, it allows you to take a snapshot of a software package or even a whole system (things like registry settings, environment variables, file listings and so on) so you can effectively revert it back to working standard, should something go wrong. This allows for quicker understanding and resolution to problems because now you can take all that wonderful configuration baseline data you've collected and use it to troubleshoot problems you may encounter down the road. Despite the semantics, though, this module is pretty handy.

The last tool is the Help Desk. PC-Duo provides a very customizable and Web-enabled issue-tracking system. Users can pull the status of waiting trouble calls, and help-desk personnel can quickly manage the tickets. The only disappointment is the fact that the Help Desk isn't tied into the rest of the suite. Personally, I would have liked to be able to pull problem histories by PC.

The software is quite easy to get going, although I did get a little confused with some the terminology. The bottom panel is populated with icons that PC-Duo calls, "Operations." I would tend to refer to these as "Functions," "Applets," or maybe even "Shortcuts." Once I figured out what things were, the interface became pretty intuitive.

I do like the architecture of PC-Duo. Each functional area is modular, comprising of the Site Database; the Enterprise Console; a Task Schedule; and an Offline Area, where client information is published for the Database to use even if the Client is offline. PC-Duo can also run Real-Time, however, it runs better using the Offline Area.

PC-Duo's database is build around standardized SQL calls, allowing just about any database to be used with PC-Duo. For small networks, PC-Duo can run on an Access database or it can scale up to SQL, Oracle or any other ODBC-enabled source. Reporting is done through Crystal Reports so you can customize them as well, making this tool quite moldable.

Although PC-Duo manages everything from DOS to Windows XP on the Microsoft front, it doesn't manage things like Linux, OS/2 or Macintosh. Novell environments can be partially managed, just as long as there's a Microsoft Networking Client installed. PC-Duo also doesn't support SNMP so it can't really do device management, something I would personally like to see.

Another thing that I didn't really like, and perhaps this is more of a preference, is the fact that the remote control service provided me control of it outside an established logon. When I look at a logon screen, all I expected to see was the "Press CTRL-ALT-Delete to logon" dialog and not some other dialog floating about. I think it would get distracting to users to see something like that out there.

PC-Duo's management capabilities address six areas: Inventory, Software Metering, Software Distribution, Remote Control, Diagnostics and Help Desk.

I did notice that the Evaluation guide was a little misleading. It specified that the client would be loaded with the Enterprise Console, so there would be no need to load it; however, I did have to go through a separate procedure to install the client to the server so the Enterprise Console would monitor it, even though both were on the same server. Even though that's not a limitation of the software, it can be a bit confusing. I also noticed that PC-Duo can generate a lot of alerts to the Application Log, so admins using this should pay attention to their App Log during deployment and burn-in.

All in all, I think PC-Duo is a great tool for the small business market. It's respectably priced, easy to use, functional and modular. When compared to its closest competitors, Intel LanDesk and Altiris Client Management, PC-Duo is a bit more expensive; but it's so much simpler to use, it may just be the better choice to keep track of everything. And really, at the end of the day, time saved is money earned.

PC-Duo Enterprise pricing starts at $487.50 for five workstations, $1,762.50 for 25 clients. With LANutil Inventory, PC-Duo is $600 for five PCs and $2,215.50 for 25 clients. Other discounts are available based on volume.

About the Author

Rick A. Butler, MCSE+I, is the Director of Information Services for the United States Hang Gliding Association.

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