Reviews Are in: SMS 2003 Is a Hit

Microsoft's latest version of Systems Management Server includes a bevy of new features that early users say save them time and money.

It was a long time coming—some four years in the making—but feedback from early users of Microsoft Systems Management Server 2003 suggests that Microsoft got it right with its latest management tool.

Most users say they were able to quickly deploy SMS 2003—even in large environments—and quickly take advantage of new capabilities, including greater support for laptops and roaming users, tighter integration with Active Directory and other Windows 2000 components, improved asset discovery and management, more scalable software metering and Web-based reporting tools. Another plus: SMS 2003 appears to be free of the kind of show-stopping bugs that plagued SMS 2.0, which required a service pack to fix more than 110 bugs just seven months after its 1999 release.

Rather than complaining about bugs, early SMS 2003 users are talking about advanced features that make them more efficient at tasks including software upgrades and patches and help them make better use of existing software—capabilities that enable them to quickly get a return on their investment in the management tool.

Upgrade Experiences
Most users report that their upgrades to SMS 2003 went off without a hitch.

"The initial installation and transition was pretty flawless," says Joseph Casalino, a senior network engineer with Fairbanks Capital Corp., which recently upgraded from SMS 2.0 to SMS 2003. His company used the Microsoft SMS 2003 Concepts, Planning and Deployment guide to help with its initial testing and to learn appropriate procedures for removing SMS 2.0 Feature Packs before upgrading.

Check out the Systems Management Server 2003 Concepts, Planning, and Deployment Guide for more information.

Jason Griffith, an MCSA and network administrator with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, which has been beta testing SMS 2003 since "day one," also reported a smooth upgrade. "Microsoft spent a great deal of time testing the migration and upgrade tools," he notes.

Due largely to the still-limited Microsoft knowledge base of known issues, however, troubleshooting SMS 2003 "is less straightforward" than SMS 2.0, Casalino says. "We've had random client problems, but usually upgrading the workstation to the Advanced Client fixes whatever issue the Standard client was having."

Lamont Coon, an MCSE and senior systems engineer with Hy-Vee Inc., a supermarket retail chain with stores throughout the Midwest, contracted with Microsoft Consulting Services to help plan an SMS 2003 implementation that would not interrupt production activity in its stores.

Hy-Vee installed five new Dell systems as SMS 2003 Primary Site Servers (with SQL Server 2000 databases) in its primary datacenter, and installed SMS 2003 on existing servers at remote locations. Overall, Coon says, the roll-out went off without a hitch. "More than half of the 220 sites were installed in the course of two weeks, with the primary limitation being the physical distribution of CDs with Windows 2000 SP4 and the SMS installation files to each location," he says.

Staffing Requirements
Once they've rolled out SMS 2003, most users find it isn't overly onerous to manage and support. Chris Hight, an MCSE and network administrator with snack food distributor Lance Inc., supports 450 clients (75 of which are mobile users) all by his lonesome. Lance's SMS implementation initially involved two in-house support technicians, along with assistance from Microsoft support technicians who showed Lance's IT staff how to use the product. "Once that was done, we have only one person to configure and maintain the application—me," he says.

Coon says his company likewise tapped only existing IT staff to fill its SMS 2003 staffing requirements. "The Retail Operations group at Hy-Vee runs with only a handful of people to manage 220 stores. As such, SMS staffing had to be absorbed by the regular staff as much as possible," he says.

Figure 1. Patching is integrated into SMS 2003 and is handled through the Distribute Software Updates Wizard.
Figure 1. Patching is integrated into SMS 2003 and is handled through the Distribute Software Updates Wizard. (Click image to view larger version.)

Training Requirements
As with staffing, training requirements for SMS 2003 are minimal, at least for anyone who is familiar with the product's Microsoft Management Console (MMC) underpinnings. Griffith applauds Microsoft for applying a consistent user interface and continuing to improve on its MMC-based tools. "This makes managing the product easier, and it is easier to explain to other staff how to use the product," he says.

That doesn't mean no training or re-training is required, however. Because SMS 2003 is "an extremely comprehensive system," organizations should develop an equally comprehensive training program for IT staff, says Chris Ferrari, a Windows administrator with Aventis Pharmaceutical Inc.

"Training is best applied toward the release implementation and operational aspects of this system," he says, including understanding new and modified components such as Advanced Client, management point operation, installation methods and roaming concepts. "This is absolutely required for the administrator to successfully deliver on any of the solutions that SMS 2003 is capable of. Also, you need a thorough understand of software distribution and release management cycle best practices to [build] a successful software delivery solution."

Figure 2. SMS 2003 is integrated with Active Directory and uses it for client discovery.
Figure 2. SMS 2003 is integrated with Active Directory and uses it for client discovery.
(Click image to view larger version.)

Bandwidth Management and Patching
Early users give the product high marks for its improved support for remote users and mobile clients. In part that stems from new or improved bandwidth management capabilities, such as support for Microsoft's Background Intelligent Transfer Services (BITS), which can detect the amount of bandwidth available when sending new software and patches to client machines. "This feature has led to our bandwidth being used more efficiently and effectively," Griffith says.

Product Information

Systems Management Server
Server licenses start at $1,219
Microsoft Corp.

Lance's Hight, who was also an SMS 2003 beta tester, agrees. "We have around 20 remote sites with DSL and partial T1s and have no issues pushing large updates down to their computers," he says. Another 50 or so users employ VPNs with a mix of broadband and some "pretty poor" dialup connections, but even they can download updates in a reasonable timeframe. "With BITS I can push out patches and get no complaints," Hight says. "I'm finding the successful application of patches to my Windows NT 4.0, 2000 and XP desktops to be in the range of 95 percent to 98 percent."

Ed Aldrich, an SMS administrator with a major nationwide pharmacy chain, says improved support for mobile and remote clients in SMS 2003 enabled him to reduce costs by eliminating a third-party application he used to manage remote, dial-up laptops in the field. Bandwidth management was also a make-or-break feature for Hy-Vee, Coon says, because many of its stores operate with 128K bps of bandwidth, or less.

SMS 2003's enhanced patch facility was the most eagerly anticipated feature at Hy-Vee, Coon says, because it enables the company to manage and conduct routine maintenance on remote servers without sending people on-site. He also cites SMS 2003's strengths in vulnerability identification and reporting.

Figure 3. SMS 2003 can defer client patch installations to keep them in line with IT policies.
Figure 3. SMS 2003 can defer client patch installations to keep them in line with IT policies.
(Click image to view larger version.)

Active Directory Integration and Reporting
Microsoft shipped SMS 2.0 in February of 1999—a full year before Active Directory appeared in Windows 2000. Not surprisingly, some users believe that SMS 2003's full integration with AD is one of its most important new features.

"The integration allows for efficient client roaming and binds SMS with [Active Directory] Sites/Subnets, which alleviates the burden of subnet maintenance from the SMS Administrator," says Ferrari. AD integration also creates the framework for automatic assignment of Advanced Clients, a significant improvement from SMS 2.0. "[C]lient push installation … has never been easier thanks to AD Discovery components."

Figure 4. SMS 2003 helps track patch deployment status.
Figure 4. SMS 2003 helps track patch deployment status.
(Click image to view larger version.)

Ferrari also likes SMS 2003's MSI Source Point Management feature, which he says is a "top notch" addition for any organization that wants to enhance its Distributed Software Library solution. "Source Point Management coupled with the comprehensive distribution mechanism provides the framework for a truly scalable distribution network," he says, noting that the ability for a roaming client to automatically heal an MSI to the most local distribution point is an "invaluable" feature.

Users are also enthusiastic about SMS 2003's new reporting facility. Hight even argues that the product can be cost-justified on that basis alone. "The reporting tool … is one of the most amazing parts of the application. It seems that I can find out anything about my computers from this tool," he says, noting that Lance uses the tool to discover applications that should not be installed on its client computers. "We also use it to determine how many computers are still using NT 4.0 and which can or cannot be upgraded. We've only started finding how much information this tool can provide."

Ferrari agrees, noting the tool creates professional-looking reports, is easy to navigate and enables end users to gather the information they want, whether by modifying existing reports or creating them from scratch. "The reports will be welcomed by management, especially when coupled with the many successes to be had from this system," he says.

SMS 2003 Migration Lessons Learned

While most users made the switch from SMS 2.0 to SMS 2003 uneventfully, those who did have troubles offer a few suggestions:

  • For client issues, Fairbanks Capital's Casalino suggests simply upgrading to the Advanced Client from the Standard client.
  • If you haven't already, deploy Windows 2000 SP4 and reboot before installing the SMS 2003 Management Point, says Hy-Vee's Coon.
  • Follow the SMS 2003 release notes, Coon says. For example, if you've enabled "Advanced" security with SMS, you've got to create an entry in Active Directory for the SQL Service Principle Name.
  • Coon says his company experienced several problems when it attempted to install SMS 2003 on Windows 2000-based Exchange servers that were also domain controllers. "We could not get the Management Point to successfully install. If there is not a MP on the site, the Remote Installation component will not push the Advanced Client."

Figure 5. The Distribute Software Updates Wizard in SMS 2003 helps identify what programs require software patches.
Figure 5. The Distribute Software Updates Wizard in SMS 2003 helps identify what programs require software patches. (Click image to view larger version.)

Finding the ROI
With some SMS 2003 experience under their belts, early users are now trying to crunch the numbers to determine the return-on-investment for the product.

Aldrich, the SMS administrator with the pharmacy chain, says he sold his upgrade from SMS 2.0 based on the new software metering feature in SMS 2003. The feature enables him to provide actual usage data on applications installed across the SMS client base, some of which cost more than $5,000 per client, and find out which are not being used. Those applications can now be reallocated to new users, often obviating the need for a new software purchase. "Based upon the numbers shown from our top five products, the SMS 2003 total upgrade cost was amortized immediately in saved software procurements," he says.

Aventis' Ferrari says that SMS 2003's software metering and enhanced inventory capabilities will probably be an ROI-generator in his environment, too. "These components effortlessly provide data for software usage tracking and license harvesting which could potentially save any company big cash," he says, noting that software metering also supports Citrix and Terminal Server users.

Figure 6. SMS 2003 can generate reports that detail patch compliance.
Figure 6. SMS 2003 can generate reports that detail patch compliance. (Click image to view larger version.)

Hy-Vee's Coon can't yet point to any hard numbers, but says his company expects to realize ROI on a number of fronts. "SMS 2003 is expected to reduce the cost of travel, physical distribution of media and time requirements by the Hy-Vee Retail team for all but the largest packages," he says. "Previously, installations took place by hand or by physically distributing media and having non-technical people insert them into the system. Both were time consuming and error prone."

SMS 2003 helped Griffith to eliminate remedial tasks, such as viewing client information or overseeing basic software deployments. That meant the company didn't have to hire summer or part-time help to handle such chores. "This created a return on our investment in about four months," he says. Doing more with less—that's what management is all about.

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