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If your company has just a handful of desktops, servers, or network devices, tasks such as jumping from desktop to desktop to install software updates or attending to the needs of a specific user aren't that difficult. However, if your company has dozens to thousands of desktops and servers, adding just one security patch can take days.

If you administer a large environment, you need to be able to control your systems centrally without having to visit each desktop. You need a way to report on the current state of affairs and know what happens when someone changes a configuration. Change and Configuration Management (CCM) software gives you those capabilities and helps you get a grip on your sprawling system.

Out of the box, Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000 Active Directory (AD) include IntelliMirror, a basic CCM framework. IntelliMirror leverages various Group Policy functions to control and manage desktops and servers. Group Policy lets you configure a huge variety of changes to your desktops and servers, set key security settings, control desktop settings, and perform software distribution; it even contains basic desktop deployment facilities. IntelliMirror is free and works well, but some larger customers might need additional features. For instance, IntelliMirror lacks a centralized reporting facility, a centralized data repository, and the ability to schedule software installations, which large organizations might require.

IntelliMirror isn't designed for giant rollouts. To that end, Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) is a tool that helps CCM provide a stronger set of core features, such as enhanced software distribution and patch management, and additional features such as remote control and software metering. (For more information about IntelliMirror and SMS, see "SMS, IntelliMirror, and MOM," February 2002, http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 23554.) SMS is a baseline product, and although it offers some solid CCM core functionality that IntelliMirror can't provide, SMS implementations also take a lot of planning and contain many intricate components. (For more information about SMS feature packs, see "Adding Value to SMS," May 2003, http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 38488.) You might want to consider third-party CCM options, such as the products in this article, which compete head to head with SMS in ease of use, additional features, and ease of deployment and manageability.

If you want to find a third-party CCM solution, start your search with this Buyer's Guide. As you evaluate products, think about which capabilities you most need. Being able to query and report on the state of your systems is a vital capability that all tools should provide. If you also need the ability to centralize desktop rollouts, look for products that provide "bare-metal" OS installations. If you mainly want to manage application settings and the look and feel of desktops, look for CCM tools that let you configure options such as Microsoft Outlook profiles, maps to printers, and desktop shortcuts. SMS 2.0 (and the newly released SMS 2003) include patch-management features, so you might want to choose a CCM tool that also helps you quickly install security hotfixes.

When it comes to selecting a CCM tool, laptop computers are another important consideration. SMS 2003 lets you distribute software to laptops in the background even over slow connections. When the software is finished streaming to the client, the installation occurs locally. So if you have dial-up users with laptops, you might want to investigate a product that has similar functionality.

CCM can help you get a grip on desktop, laptop, and server configuration changes. Instead of running from box to box, check out a CCM tool and make your life a little easier. If you need a tool that can help you manage your network infrastructure, you'll also find help in this Buyer's Guide—see the sidebar "Network CCM Tools."

Corrections to this Article:

  • In Jeremy Moskowitz's Buyer's Guide: "Change and Configuration Management Tools" (January 2004, http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 41097), an incorrect toll phone number was listed for ManageSoft. The correct number is 617-532-1600.

    In the "Change and Configuration Management Tools" product table, two vendor names were dropped from the contact information that accompanies each product listing. Novadigm is the vendor to contact for Radia Management Suite, and ScriptLogic is the vendor to contact for ScriptLogic 5.0. We apologize for any inconvenience these errors might have caused.