How do you manage Windows systems beyond the firewall? Do you feel more comfortable with managing the security and configuration of systems on your local network? A common problem in IT is how to manage systems, regardless of physical location, using a common tool set. This review focuses on Viewfinity Systems Management Suite, a set of mostly proprietary management tools for managing Windows endpoints from the cloud without installing on-premises server software.

Using a Windows XP machine, I started by signing up for a fully featured online Viewfinity trial account. After downloading and installing an .msi file, I logged back on to the website, and I was presented with a clean and straight-forward user interface that listed the main menu options: Computers, Policies, Reports, Deploy Agents, Software Distribution, and Patch Management. I used the Computers option more than any other (see Figure 1). This option provides the functionality to inventory a computer's hardware and software configuration. It also lets you perform common administrative functions, such as checking event logs, installing software, and remotely connecting to another desktop.

There are multiple options for searching out computers for agent deployment. I chose Active Directory domain membership, and in this way I rolled out the agent to several Windows 7 and Windows Server 2003 server systems … but only after a few false starts. Turning off the default Windows firewall gave me the best results with successful agent deployment, although opening just a few firewall ports will normally suffice. For remote users, an “email me the install link” option is available.

Only a small amount of system data is actually stored in the cloud. For example, when I tried viewing a Windows event log through Viewfinity, the system was slow to retrieve information because it reaches out over the Internet to obtain the logs. According to the system documentation, data is stored on the managed PCs due to security concerns. However, given this focus on security, it was perplexing that Viewfinity didn't use two-factor authentication for logon to the management website. I expected bank-like security, since you can remotely log on to managed machines from the Viewfinity website.

Viewfinity has a range of features that allow you to manage a PC without connecting via Remote Desktop, and I found all of them to be useful. I used the system-restore feature several times. Let me mention one very cool aspect of this feature: Without logging on to the source PC, I was able to roll back the machine to a restore point after misconfiguring a system. Because Viewfinity includes excellent status and software deployment tools, I used the bare-bones remote control solution less often than I normally would with other PC management packages. That aside, the remote control options allowed me to log on to the target PCs, exchange files, and chat with users.

To keep Windows patches current, Viewfinity handles Windows updates via a semi-customized Windows Software Update Services (WSUS) program. I configured the WSUS system with just a few clicks through a well-designed wizard, and since Viewfinity automatically configures the auto-update options for Windows Updates, I didn't need to configure any Active Directory Group Policy settings. After approving patches via the console during a patch Tuesday week, I checked the C:\Windows\WindowsUpdate.log file on a target PC and confirmed that the Viewfinity server was the patch approval source while updates were downloaded from the Microsoft website. Comprehensive reporting showed all patch successes and failures.

Software deployment is a simple two-step process. First, upload the software to Viewfinity's cloud, or point to a Windows share. Then, configure software deployment targets based on several options, including groups or single computers. To test an .exe file distribution, I uploaded the ubiquitous Cute PDF writer application to Viewfinity's application cloud, selected a PC group for deployment, and pushed the software. For .exe files, I found that typically the user has to click through the installation routine. So, before you push any software, it's critical to test the deployment locally.

MSI package pushes went smoother. I uploaded a Skype .msi file and a Snagit .msi file to the Viewfinity application cloud (I could’ve also specified a network share), and Viewfinity built the silent install script. Just as encouraging, the install succeeded. There are also helpful options for detecting whether the program already exists. I easily configured Viewfinity to check for the existence of a directory before installing an application. I specified a retry interval of once per hour in case the source machine was offline. Comprehensive status information categories – such as scheduled, in process, deployed, success, and failure – ensured that I always knew the deployment status of a package. Additionally, Viewfinity's report engine made it easy to configure the reporting of almost any data tracked in the system. This report engine appears to be based on Microsoft Reporting Services. Email is also a handy delivery option for scheduled reports.

After using Viewfinity for more than a month, I found that the system was easy to use. And, best of all, it allowed me to resolve problems without logging on to user machines, since a multitude of data is tracked and consolidated in the Viewfinity web interface. Managing machines inside and outside the firewall has never been easier!

 

Pros: Intuitive and efficient user interface, excellent status information, good software deployment tools.

Cons: Basic logon security.

Price: $30 per endpoint for an annual subscription with software support and maintenance. Tiered volume discounts available.

Rating: 4.5 diamonds out of 5 diamonds.

Recommendation: Viewfinity has an impressive range of proprietary features for managing Windows systems. Reporting is excellent and deployment is easy, since no management server is necessary. If you've been struggling to manage systems beyond the firewall, Viewfinity is definitely worth a try. 

Contact: Viewfinity, 781.522.7474, www.viewfinity.com.