Editor's Note: Information in this buyer's guide comes from vendor representatives and resources and is meant to jump-start, not replace, your own research; also, some products might have been left out, either as an oversight or from lack of vendor response.
It occurred to me that systems management software isn't necessary for a business, strictly speaking. It's possible that a business of any size could operate with their IT teams manually performing every operation that keeps their computers running. But it's easy to imagine the thousands of man-hours that would be wasted trying to run a business this way, and how much IT staff a business would need.
To keep your IT team from spending all day on routine tasks, you probably want systems management tools, and in the world of Windows IT pros, when you mention system management, you think of Microsoft's System Center suite. System Center is the standard by which all other products must be judged, and Microsoft's offering is no slouch. Every business is different however, and there's plenty of room for competing products that do more than System Center, or just do things differently.
This buyer's guide and table are focused mainly on larger suites that compete with System Center, but don't forget that many companies offer smaller products that do a few systems management tasks. You're generally going to pay a lot less for these, so if you have only a few tasks that routinely bog down your IT department, consider a product that focuses on those tasks instead of a comprehensive suite.
If you've decided to go with a suite, you still have some big decisions. There's a wide range of licensing costs and terms for different products, so do your research. Different products also have big differences in their areas of focus, so you might want to seek out someone who's already deployed a specific product and see if it can do what your company needs.
When you're considering a systems management suite, look at trends that are likely to affect your business. Server, desktop, and application virtualization are all becoming more common in IT departments. Virtualization technology is advancing quickly, so even if you don't need it now, the odds are good that you'll want something virtual soon, and that you'll want your systems management suite to manage it.
Another trend to watch is the use of non-Windows computers. Other OSs are generating a lot of interest, and smartphones are computers in their own right. Figure out what technologies you're going to be using for the next few years before you choose a systems management suite.
Deployment and automation should also be considerations in your choice. Managed deployment has some obvious benefits—the less work it is to get new systems going, the better. Automation's advantages can be harder to picture, but if your systems management solution is able to take over routine tasks completely, with little or no input from your IT staff, the rewards can be substantial.
A systems management suite is potentially a very expensive purchase, so it’s vital that you get a thorough understanding (and demonstration) of a systems management suite’s abilities before committing. Also make sure that you know what System Center offers, and whether your existing contracts with Microsoft will make System Center inexpensive.
As with any large IT purchase, it’s important to know what you’re being offered by a vendor. It’s much more important, however, to know exactly what you have, what you need now, and what you’re likely to need in the future. If you forget to account for your company's plans, you could choose a systems management solution that can’t handle the direction your company is moving.