During last year's MyITforum 2001 conference (also known as the SMS & Windows Management Conference), Microsoft announced the new version of Systems Management Server (SMS), code-named Topaz. Network administrators who work with SMS know that countless hours are required to manage the pre—Service Pack 2 (SP2) versions of SMS 2.0. Microsoft proposed product changes to Topaz after listening to these supporters and has committed to a long and thorough beta program for the new server product. The features Microsoft is planning for Topaz differ from SMS 2.0 in many important ways.
Logon Server Dependency Eliminated
In SMS 2.0, you use smsman.exe to make a workstation an SMS client manually. For smsman.exe to work correctly, the Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4.0 domain requires logon servers to maintain some of the SMS installation files. Netlogon, the logon server share point, is edited to validate whether the workstation has an SMS 2.0 client. If no client exists, you use the smsman.exe SMS client-installation program to install the SMS client. If the workstation is remote, you can install the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit Remote Command (rcmd.exe) service so that you can run smsman.exe with the /Q switch, which lets you install the SMS client without displaying the UI.
This method is inherently inefficient. With SMS 2.0, the client receives information from the logon point when the bootstrap program runs. Preinstallation continues with the client as the preinstallation process writes a discovery data record (DDR). The client reads the site boundaries and the list of available Client Access Point (CAP) servers that the logon point provides, then goes to the CAP server to start SMS 2.0 client installation (i.e., writing to the client hard disk). Three separate communications pass back and forth from the client to the logon point before the client makes a communication request to the CAP server. Figure 1 shows the SMS 2.0 client-installation process.
Topaz provides greater efficiency because it doesn't require a logon server. With the logon server out of the picture, the client communicates directly with the CAP server. This direct communication permits a more efficient SMS client installation because the CAP server contains all the files necessary to install the SMS client.
When the end-user systems log on to the domain, the bootstrap and discovery code come directly from the CAP server. The client writes the DDR to the CAP, then the client reads the boundary information and list of CAP servers and begins the SMS client-installation process. This efficiency is achieved through smsmanv2.exe, a new version of the installation program. Figure 2 shows the Topaz client-installation process.
Better Mobile Client Support
The SMS 2.0 client is identical for servers, desktops, or laptops, so support for laptop clients is limited. The client in SMS 2.0 doesn't function optimally in low-bandwidth situations, such as 56Kbps dial-up connections or slow WAN links. Although mobile clients can move from subnet to subnet within the LAN, connecting and reporting to different CAP servers and receiving advertisements (i.e., a method for informing SMS clients that an .exe package is available for installation) can be a challenge.
For example, suppose that salesperson Jane User connects her laptop to the network from a dial-up connection. She begins to install an advertised package that contains the latest pricing information for company products. SMS 2.0 uses all the available bandwidth to install the program, so no network bandwidth is left to do anything else, such as read email, and Jane might lose her connection. Or, she might have to leave for a meeting with a new client and break the connection manually. Current SMS 2.0 intelligence writes a record to the CAP server stating only that Jane's installation was unsuccessful. So, the next time Jane connects to the network, the installation must begin again.
Topaz has a new client designed specifically for mobile users. With the new client installed on laptops, users aren't bound to a specific CAP from a specific subnet. Any CAP server can receive a DDR from the client, and any CAP server can send advertisements to the mobile client. A new Topaz support feature is the ability to "drizzle" (i.e., send .exe packages in small portions at a time rather than all at once) an advertisement to laptop users. Drizzling doesn't take all available bandwidth during the installation process, so Jane can reply to email during the installation process.
However, what if the dial-up connection is interrupted? Jane doesn't need to worry. As the drizzle-advertisement installation proceeds, Topaz writes checkpoints to a client file. These checkpoints provide a way to restart the installation from the point just preceding the interruption in service.
One additional Topaz mobile-client feature is the ability to use a Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 5.0 or later Web server instead of a CAP server as a Management Point Server. That is, the mobile client is designed so that you can manage it from a primary site that has the IIS service installed. With the use of HTML and XML, data communication is more efficient from laptop clients to Topaz. XML provides a format for providing structured data inside the HTML data. Also, XML uses standard Internet protocols to provide precise declarations of content across multiple platforms.
Topaz uses Active Directory's (AD's) organizational unit (OU) structure to help you leverage AD. Topaz lets you schedule Topaz advertisements according to AD's targeting of machines or users. This new feature allows greater accuracy in identifying all the systems in a particular OU.
Topaz pulls the information that its database uses from AD, then places that information in a cache. As you update and edit OU information, the Topaz AD data cache is refreshed according to a schedule. Topaz administrators can designate schedules that support individual environments regardless of whether the changes to OU information are dynamic or static.
Here's how the targeting works. The Topaz system-discovery process gathers information from the attributes in AD. If you're targeting machines, the information Topaz gathers includes domain, OU, site, and AD security groups for machines. If you're targeting users, the information Topaz gathers includes domain, OU, and AD security groups for users. With respect to targeting specific systems, Topaz also supports the gathering of information about universal and nested groups. Topaz enables more complex targeting by combining the collections (i.e., the targeted information it gathers) in its database with AD OUs.
Topaz also has new site boundary support with AD that operates by using AD site names. This support lets you define TCP/IP site boundaries in one location, then use AD to more clearly target machines or users within the site you've defined. With this new feature, you can mix IP subnets and AD site boundaries to define a Topaz site. In addition, AD site boundaries let you create subnetted companywide IP boundaries to split or combine supernets.
Many SMS administrators have said that they can't use SMS network discovery either because their sites contain non—Microsoft DHCP servers or because company network routers filter the browser traffic. Topaz provides an alternative to network discovery that discovers systems directly from the AD machine account. With SMS 2.0, network discovery isn't an active method to discover clients. Rather, SMS 2.0 network discovery is a passive method of updating clients with component changes. You can think of SMS 2.0 network discovery as a maintenance process for updating or repairing the SMS client according to changes you make to the SMS site configuration. Unlike logon discovery, which discovers the system and installs the client automatically, SMS 2.0 network discovery only discovers the system—you must use other methods to make the system an SMS client.
Windows Installer Files and More
In addition to the elimination of logon server dependency, added mobile-client support, and better user and machine targeting through AD, Topaz offers other features you're sure to find helpful.
Package creation through Windows Installer files. Topaz supports the ability to use Windows Installer (.msi) packages. You no longer need to convert small or simple packages to .pdf files. Topaz still fully supports the PDF format, but the format isn't necessary for package tracking.
Add/Remove Programs integration. With Windows Installer, end users must learn only one method for installing Topaz-advertised programs. Unlike SMS 2.0, in which the advertised program appears in SMS Package Manager, the Windows Installer package displays the Topaz advertisements in the Control Panel Add/Remove Programs applet.
Web-based reporting tools. If you're not fond of Crystal Decisions' Crystal Reports for SMS 2.0, you'll like Topaz's Web-based reporting tools. Topaz can create canned and custom reports based on views from the SMS Provider schema. The detail isn't as good as third-party products such as Altiris's Web Reports for SMS, but Topaz does provide greater flexibility through use of an IIS server.
Improved site-to-site package replication. Topaz provides better site-to-site package replication than SMS 2.0 because it sends only changed files. With primary sites, SMS 2.0 resends the entire package source to child sites, even if you've changed only one file in the source directory tree. Topaz detects changes and sends only changed files to the child site. Also, in SMS 2.0, you must manually resynchronize the child site with the parent site, whereas Topaz automatically repairs a child site package source if the child site becomes out of sync with the parent site.
Start Your Research
I've introduced you to a few of the more impressive features and improvements that Topaz will offer. Information about the new version of this server is sketchy at best, but see "Related Resources" for a few links that will help you start your research. At press time, Microsoft has scheduled the first public Topaz beta release for fourth quarter 2001.
"Microsoft Management Roadmap: SMS Topaz"
"Microsoft won't slam windows on Systems Management Server"
"Microsoft shows tip of management iceberg"
"Microsoft Takes Important Next Steps on Road to Best-of-Breed Management Solutions"
"Microsoft Management Roadmap: Next Steps After Management Strategy Day"
"Microsoft gives new life to SMS"