Systems management is one of today's hottest IS topics. What this topic lacks in flashiness it makes up for in importance. Systems management is not new; the idea has been around since mainframes dominated computing. But systems management is becoming increasingly important for Windows NT environments as growing numbers of business-critical applications and databases run on NT.
Managing these resources means making sure users can run applications, access data, send email, and complete the other computer-related functions their jobs require. Systems management involves resolving all the administrative questions that surround the use of computers: Is a computer down? How well are applications running? How do I add users to the system and grant them privileges? Is the network having problems? How can I deploy applications? How can I ensure that users can access the applications? What can I do to optimize performance? How do I recover information if a server goes down? How do I track compliance to software licensing agreements?
The list of questions systems managers must address goes on, and the proliferation of distributed systems adds more management tasks to the list. No single software package answers all these questions, but Microsoft's management initiatives in NT 5.0 and enhancements to Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0 help large, heterogeneous IS departments run mission-critical NT applications.
The Next SMS
SMS 2.0 is currently in beta 1. Microsoft might release beta 2 by the third quarter of 1998 and release SMS 2.0 to manufacturing by the end of 1998. The final version will run on NT Server 4.0 on both Intel and Alpha platforms and will support Windows 3.1, Windows 9x, NT Workstation 3.51 and 4.0, and Macintosh clients. Beta 1 requires NT Server 4.0 on an Intel system, Service Pack 3 (SP3), SQL Server 6.5, Internet Explorer (IE) 4.01, a Win32-based client, and an NT or LAN Manager network.
SMS 2.0 beta 1 includes improvements to SMS 1.2's installation, user interfaces (UIs), management information, software distribution capabilities, and scalability. In addition, beta 1 includes software metering, a feature SMS 1.2 doesn't offer.
Easier installation. Installing SMS 1.x requires familiarity with SQL Server, access to a Primary Domain Controller (PDC) or Backup Domain Controller (BDC), and a lot of work. To make SMS setup easier, Microsoft merged SMS 2.0 installation with SQL Server installation. SMS 2.0 includes SQL Server database tools that help administrators who aren't familiar with SQL Server install SMS. In addition, you can install SMS 2.0 on any NT 4.0 server that is a member of a domain; you don't have to install SMS 2.0 on a PDC or BDC.
Better UIs. Microsoft has redesigned the UIs for SMS 2.0. The SMS Administrator program is now a collection of Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-ins, as Screen 1 shows. This redesign means that the SMS Administrator program is not a standalone application but a module of functionality you snap in to the MMC frame. Eventually, all BackOffice administration programs will be MMC snap-ins, so the administrative UI will be consistent across all BackOffice programs.
Microsoft has also improved the client UI. The SMS 2.0 client interface is a 32-bit agent that remains invisible to the end user except when distribution packages are available. Software distribution in SMS 2.0 leverages the Add/Remove Programs infrastructure and provides a mechanism for administrators to advertise software--to notify users when applications are available for installation from a distribution point at an SMS site. When an application is available and its installation requires user intervention, users see an icon in their taskbar. This concept is similar to NT 5.0's application advertising.
Finally, Microsoft has unified the interface that reports on SMS components. New status tools in SMS 2.0 provide a common reporting mechanism for status reports for all SMS 2.0 components.
More management information. One of SMS 2.0's most interesting advances is its support for Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM). WBEM's Common Information Model (CIM) component provides a common method of representing management information from disparate sources. Microsoft will include CIM (which is a Desktop Management Task ForceDMTFstandard) in NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 (SP4), NT 5.0, and Windows 98. SMS 2.0 uses a WBEM-compliant agent to gather hardware information about the computer it's running on. SMS 2.0 is the first Microsoft application to use the WBEM standard to gather management data. (For more information about WBEM, see the sidebar "What Is WBEM?" page 137).
SMS 2.0 gathers software inventory information in a new way. Rather than comparing filenames to a predefined database of applications to determine what software a computer contains, SMS 2.0 searches each of a client computer's executable files for version resource information. This approach makes the software inventory process faster, more efficient, and more dynamic.
SMS 2.0's network tools also include improvements. Microsoft has enhanced the SMS Network Monitor. The Network Monitor can now automatically interpret what it finds, which makes the tool more approachable for administrators who don't know how to decode packets. SMS 2.0's Network Monitor includes experts, tools that monitor the network for problematic Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) servers, duplicate IP addresses, and Internet break-in attempts. Experts help Network Monitor analyze packet data intelligently. You can rely on Network Monitor experts to detect certain network problems.
In addition, a new network topology tool in SMS 2.0 graphically displays the network routes between servers in a site. The tool won't replace full-featured network monitors, but it comes in handy. For example, you can use the tool to help you find the network problem that caused a software distribution attempt to fail.
Stronger software distribution capabilities. SMS 1.x lets you target machines on a distribution list for software distribution. With SMS 2.0, you can distribute software to any combination of users, user groups, TCP/IP network segments, and machines. This capability lets you distribute software to the specific user group that needs it.
SMS 2.0 offers flexible distribution because the target distribution list is dynamic. Instead of creating the list on the central server, SMS 2.0 distributes the rule set for software distribution to all sites by transmitting a small rule definition with every package. This approach makes each site aware of the software distribution rules, so when new users join a site, SMS uses the rule set to determine which applications they need to receive.
You can distribute applications on demand using SMS 2.0's send now feature. You can install applications using the elevated privilege feature, which lets SMS install an application on a computer even when the installation requires higher privileges than the computer's current user has. And, you can install applications in a user's context so that SMS sets the application's features and user-specific settings to the preferences of the computer's current user.
Software-metering function. A new feature in SMS 2.0 is its software-metering capability. If you are familiar with ABC Lan Licenser, you will be comfortable with SMS's software metering, which provides tools for analyzing, monitoring, and controlling the use of applications on any client or server. The tools give administrators the ability to maintain application quotas and designate a list of applications as supported on their network. SMS 2.0 also includes support for monitoring software usage for charge-back purposes and support for mobile users so they can check out software licenses for business trips.
SMS 2.0's software-metering tools are resistant to tampering. Users can't outsmart them by renaming applications because the tools automatically verify application resources' version information. Changes to filenames don't affect the software metering's effectiveness.
Improved scalability. Microsoft has improved SMS's scalability. According to Microsoft, SMS 1.2 supports up to 100,000 clients, and SMS 2.0 will support more than 100,000 clients. With SMS 1.x, spooling jobs can cause a network bottleneck; SMS 2.0 has a multithreaded despooler to remove this performance constraint. Microsoft has redesigned SMS's database architecture using SQL Server triggers to remove another potential bottleneck: The triggers notify other processes of changes to SMS's SQL Server database, so the processes don't periodically poll the database to determine whether changes have occurred.
Beyond beta 1. SMS 2.0 beta 2 will include more features and refinements, including Win16, Macintosh, Novell bindery, Alpha, and Novell Directory Services (NDS) support; MMC task pads; and seamless upgrades from SMS 1.2 to 2.0. For more information about SMS 2.0, visit Microsoft's BackOffice Web site (http://backoffice.microsoft.com).
NT 5.0 Management Initiatives
SMS 2.0 is an impressive product, but it's not a complete systems management solution. For years, Microsoft marketed SMS as a management solution, even though it was an administration tool. SMS 2.0 includes more management features, but systems management demands much more than SMS delivers.
NT 5.0 and the Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW) initiative demonstrate that Microsoft is beginning to understand that manageability is a critical operating system (OS) feature. ZAW consists of numerous elements that fit into three basic areas: SMS's management tools, Windows' management infrastructure, and NT 5.0's out-of-the-box management tools.
The Windows management infrastructure includes plumbing technologies such as MMC, WBEM, CIM, Windows Management Interface (WMI), and Windows Scripting Host (WSH). MMC provides the frame for snap-ins that offer management functionality and make up the UI. WBEM, CIM, and WMI provide standard methods of accessing management information in an NT environment. WSH provides a programmatic method for executing procedures that use management data.
NT 5.0's management tools include completely new features, such as IntelliMirror, Microsoft Installer (MSI), group policy templates (GPTs), and the Directory Service (DS). IntelliMirror helps administrators preserve users' machine state. If a user's computer crashes, an administrator can install a replacement machine on the network, then completely restore the user's work environment using information from the Intelli-Mirror server. MSI provides a standard method for installing applications on NT. This standard installation procedure reduces users' confusion and makes application setup consistent and reliable. GPTs are templates that let administrators manage policies in groups rather than individually. The DS lets directory-enabled users find and load applications that administrators advertise and publish on the network.
SMS 2.0's and NT 5.0's management components overlap, but for the most part the two products' features are complementary. For example, although SMS and MSI both provide standard methods of distributing and installing applications and SMS can distribute MSI packages, SMS targets the administrator need for enterprisewide distribution, and MSI installs applications on an end-user basis.
ZAW is Microsoft's attempt to make NT easier to manage and administer. Microsoft's ultimate goal is to make NT the most manageable OS on the market with the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO). The combination of NT 5.0 and ZAW will make progress toward that goal.
A Bigger World
NT management technologies are shaping up. Some of these technologies are still immature, but they won't stay immature for long. By blending products from Microsoft and independent software vendors (ISVs) that take advantage of WBEM, you can create powerful management solutions for NT. These solutions will not only let you monitor Performance Monitor counters, but also help you predict failures, model performance, and correlate events.
In a recent meeting I attended, Jeff Raikes, group vice president of sales for Microsoft, articulated three key requirements for new Microsoft products: simplicity, scalability, and manageability. SMS 2.0 meets these requirements, and NT 5.0 will take them a step further. None of the management technologies I've mentioned addresses management of platforms outside the Windows world. But if Microsoft delivers the management technologies it's promised, those technologies will enable powerful systems management for NT.
Keep your eye on Microsoft. It will not sit still in the management arena but will bring its expertise to this burgeoning segment of the software market. Over the next year, especially after NT 5.0 ships, I expect Microsoft to pay more attention to systems management problems. With that in mind, I challenge you to start thinking in larger terms than the point solutions that pervade the NT market. You have the choice of many technologies, and you must pick products that provide the solutions you need to run your business. Microsoft's management technologies are valuable, and they play key roles in the management of Windows machines, but these technologies don't satisfy all systems management requirements. Use Microsoft technologies to their fullest, and blend them with ISV management tools when you need to.