Remote Administration tool makes the job easier

Managing computer networks involves tracking hardware and software, administering software licenses, and providing tech support. Vector Networks' LANutil32 Elite combines management functions into an integrated suite for managing Windows 2000- and Windows NT 4.0-based networks. LANutil32 Elite bundles two products that Vector Networks also sells separately: LANutil32 Suite 5.01, which contains network management functions, and NetSupport PC-Duo 5.03, which provides remote control functions. This complicated program uses vendor- specific jargon, but modest study time lets you master the functions. LANutil32 Elite's excellent online Help and documentation answered most of my questions about the product.

Lengthy Installation
LANutil32 Elite installation and configuration are multistep processes. First, I installed Vector Networks' ODBC support software. Although a company representative said the ODBC software would be unnecessary if I had a recent service pack (I used NT 4.0 Service Pack 5—SP5), the LANutil32 Console program wouldn't install without the ODBC support. Then, I created a share, which the vendor calls the Offline Area, on a file server. LANutil32 uses the Offline Area to collect client information for the management database. Conventional networked clients automatically report to the Offline Area, although you can also collect data on a disk and manually transfer the information to the Offline Area.

Next, I installed the Console software, and LANutil32 started the Site Creation Wizard. I created a new LANutil32 site, defined the ODBC parameters, and selected Microsoft Access for the database. The wizard automatically created and activated the Data Source Name (DSN). I defined the new site as the global site, which means that it stores the Package Definitions (i.e., characteristics of applications that the system uses to distribute and manage software). LANutil32's User Prompt feature presented me with default questions (e.g., name, phone number) that the Console would ask of new clients that I placed under LANutil32's management. The User Prompt also let me add new questions. Finally, the wizard provided an option to create a custom installation kit on a network share from which to install the client software.

To install the management agent on a client, I browsed the network for the share that hosted the custom installation kit and ran install.exe from the \kit subdirectory. The program asked the questions that I had defined in User Prompt, then the agent silently reported the client's inventory information to the Offline Area. I ran the Console program and waited for the clients to show up on the display. LANutil32's documentation warns that this process can take up to 10 minutes, but it took longer than 20 minutes on my system.

The Console's default window, which Figure 1 shows, has three panes. The Groups pane outlines groups of systems under management. LANutil32 provides predefined groups, such as Microsoft Word users and users that have Pentium processors, and lets you create new groups. LANutil32 recognizes two types of groups: static groups, which have a fixed set of member PCs, and dynamic groups, whose members can change according to hardware inventory information that clients report. You can change a dynamic group's definition by right-clicking a group and selecting Modify Group. LANutil32 uses SQL queries from the management database to define groups. For example, the query that defines the Big Memory PCs group is SELECT * FROM NODES WHERE NODES.TOTMEMORY > 64000. To create fixed groups, you can use a drag-and-drop interface that you access from the Modify Group option.

The Nodes pane lists the selected group's client systems (i.e., nodes) and their characteristics. You right-click a node to perform operations on it. In this context, LANutil32 offers no keyboard equivalent to the right-click, which I found inconvenient.

The Operations pane of the Console window has 10 tabs, each with several icons representing various LANutil32 operations. One useful operation is the LANutil32 scheduler, which you can use to run jobs at specific times. For example, you might schedule inventory information collection or application installation to run at night. When you submit a job, the job goes into the Jobs table in the management database, from which the scheduler collects and runs it. Jobs output their results to the database and Job Log. LANutil32's interface for creating jobs was difficult to find, but powerful. To create a job, I right-clicked the operation I wanted to schedule and selected Submit Job. Then, I named the job, selected when and how often it would run, and chose how and where it would log results. By default, the job logs results to the management database, but you can modify the job to make it log results to separate files in various formats.

Using LANutil32
Hardware Details and Software Details are among the options you find when you right-click a node in the Nodes pane. Hardware Details displays a hardware inventory, software characteristics, and the user information that the User Prompt feature collected when you installed the client. The displayed data includes information about network shares, drive sizes and types, video parameters, processor and memory information, NT services and their states (i.e, running or stopped), OS version, and network configuration parameters.

Software Details attempts to list the system's applications and components. The list includes each application's name, version, program type (e.g., utility, programming), and location on the system. However, LANutil32 can recognize only applications listed in its Package Database. On my system, LANutil32 couldn't recognize the Netscape 6.0 beta.

LANutil32 offers a clumsy yet useful process for customizing the program so that the inventory reports applications that LANutil32 doesn't recognize. You can customize the Software Inventory process by opening the Software Inventory icon in the Operations pane's Console tab and selecting the Report directories that contain unrecognized applications check box, but activating the process in that manner reports hundreds of trivial programs that exist throughout the hard disk. To limit the size and scope of that list, LANutil32 provides a box into which you can type a comma-delimited list of directory names (e.g., \Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\*, \Winnt\*) that you want Software Inventory to search. This feature would be easier to use if it offered a Browse button and directory selector; however, you need to enter the list only once for the group on which you want to perform the function.

The Software Details and Hardware Details options list information from the management database for a particular node; the options don't collect information for the database. You use Software Inventory and Hardware Inventory operations to collect data from the Offline Area and the clients. For example, when I ran the Software Inventory operation for a system on which I had installed Opera Software's Opera Web browser, Software Inventory detected Opera. I then ran the Software (Publish) operation to write an updated software inventory to the database, which subsequently showed the changes and flagged the newly added software.

The LANutil32 License Groups feature lets you track licenses for your system's software. To create license groups, you double-click the License Group Editor icon in the Operations pane's Console tab. I created a new Win2KMagTest license group and made it Mandatory, which means that the specified applications need to exist on all of the license group's nodes. If a node is missing a mandatory application, the License Group Editor flags the node. LANutil32 lets you select from a list to add nodes or groups of nodes to the license group's client list. Then, you can add packages (i.e., definitions of software applications) to the license group's Packages list.

The License Group Analyzer lets you view license groups from many perspectives. For example, you can see which license groups are mandatory or nonmandatory, which license groups certain nodes require, and which license groups require certain applications.

The Reports tab in the Operations pane contains 33 preformatted reports based on a built-in version of Seagate Software's Seagate Crystal Reports. By selecting nodes and running reports, you can document network addresses, software configuration summaries, and other characteristics of systems that are under your management. You can preview, print, or export the reports to a variety of data formats. To create new reports or modify the formats, you need to buy a full copy of Seagate Crystal Reports.

LANutil32 can use a schedule to push program installations to clients. To push programs, you need to use the silent (i.e., noninteractive) installation option that most programs support. Activate the program's silent installation option, then use LANutil32's Package Defn. Editor to create or edit a package. A package contains application characteristics that the system uses to distribute and manage software. You can use the Package Defn. Editor to adapt the package to your installation requirements. LANutil32 includes a large selection of predefined parameters for applications, including silent-install command-line parameters, and Vector Networks periodically places parameter updates on the company's Web site.

LANutil32's software distribution feature, the settings for which are in the Package Defn. Editor, is one of the product's more complicated operations. When you select a package to run, this feature lets you specify a Client Filter, which prevents distribution to some systems based on their platforms or free disk space. LANutil32's software distribution feature contains many other settings as well, such as one that lets you specify when you want the installation to occur and another that lets you set a date after which LANutil32 won't distribute the package. Before you distribute an application package, you need to test your settings to ensure that they achieve the effect you want.

I used Microsoft FrontPage 98, which was on LANutil32's parameter list, to test LANutil32's push-installation abilities. The parameters included the target directory for the program files, and you can specify a license key and command-line commands (e.g., Del, Copy) that will run before or after the installation. Many predefined packages have different install types to accommodate uses of the application in various OSs. I accepted the defaults for FrontPage 98, and LANutil32 properly installed the software across the network onto my test clients.

PC-Duo
NetSupport PC-Duo is similar to the NetSupport Manager remote control product. (For more information about NetSupport Manager, see "Remote Control Administration for Windows NT Server 4.0," May 2000.) You need to install LANutil32 Suite and PC-Duo separately; you might want to install LANutil32 Suite first, then use it to distribute the PC-Duo software to clients. Because LANutil32 and PC-Duo integrate, the LANutil32 Console recognizes PC-Duo and lets you control remote systems without explicitly running the PC-Duo program. However, before you actually take control of a client, you need to enable remote control by running PC-Duo's Client Configurator program on the client. Figure 2 shows PC-Duo running Opera 4.0 Beta 3 on a remote client.

PC-Duo lets you easily control client and server systems; you can even use it to remotely install software that doesn't have a LANutil32 package definition on a server. Rather than create a package definition or physically visit the system on which you want to install the software, it's sometimes easier to use PC-Duo to install the software over the network. You can also set up a client system as a dial-in bridge that lets you connect to the network and use remote control to log on to any system that an administrator can control. Thus, you can remotely control any system to which you have rights. PC-Duo's Configurator feature lets you remotely do just about anything (e.g., reboot, print, transfer files) while you control a system.

PC-Duo is very powerful, but it's more difficult to use than some other remote control programs. The user interface (UI) can be difficult to understand, and the Configurator, with more than a dozen tabs, is too complex. Furthermore, in full-screen mode, PC-Duo operates differently from similar products. If the client's resolution is less than the controlling system's resolution, PC-Duo displays the remainder of the controlling system's screen as well as the client's screen. Other products blank out border areas, as is proper for a full-screen view. However, if you buy LANutil32 for its management features and you need remote control, your best remote-control option is PC-Duo because of its integration with LANutil32.

More Integration
LANutil32 works with Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) and other systems by generating Management Information Format (MIF) files from the LANutil32 inventory. The LANutil32 Console also integrates with UltraBac.com's UltraBac backup software and provides expert features you can use to build support for other backup systems. (For information about UltraBac backup software, see Ed Roth, "UltraBac 5.5 Stand Alone Disaster Recovery for Windows NT," July 2000.)

If you already use a remote control product, a management system that works directly with that product might better fit your needs than LANutil32, especially if you also manage systems that don't run Windows. (LANutil32 can take inventory from DOS systems but can't distribute software to them.)

LANutil32 Elite is a good choice for administrators of Windows-based networks looking for strong remote administration, software distribution, and remote control features. The product makes an administrator's job easier but doesn't eliminate the need for administrative expertise. LANutil32's installation is overly complicated and dozens of icons clutter the UI, but the online Help and documentation are excellent. After you master the product, its power will reward you.

LANutil32 Elite
Contact: Vector Networks * 770-622-2850 or 800-330-5035
Web: http://www.vector-networks.com/
Price: Contact vendor for pricing
Decision Summary:
Pros: Powerful, extensible design; good integration among various management operations
Cons: Lengthy installation; cluttered user interface; no keystroke options for common operations