Microsoft System Management Server (SMS) 2003, which Figure 1 shows, is one of the most complex management programs I’ve evaluated, and the only one that supports a pure Windows environment. I conducted my SMS tests on a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 server with 1GB of RAM, running Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition with all the most recent patches. I used Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Service Pack 3a (SP3a) as the back-end database; before installing SMS with SP1, I used Dcpromo to create an Active Directory (AD) domain and domain controller (DC).

Installing SMS was easy. The product provided installation wizards and a handy Express Setup domain installation option. However, creating a working SMS environment proved to be more difficult because I needed to install additional Windows components, such as Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) and WWW Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV), on the Windows 2003 server. The SMS documentation mentions these requirements, but the references are vague and mixed with the requirements for installation on a Windows 2000 server. It would have been more helpful to have a complete preinstallation software program so that I could be sure I’d installed all the components that SMS required.

The entire installation process (from opening the shrink wrap to opening the SMS Administrator console) took just over 3 hours. Speaking of the Administrator console, which is a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in, I liked its familiar two-pane display.

My first task was to create several SMS packages. The dialog boxes and wizards that the product provides for package creation and advertisement were easy to follow and to understand. The Distribute Software to Collection Wizard made it especially easy to package, distribute, and advertise an SMS package to a target machine, although the Wizard’s simplicity is a trade-off for loss of configuration options. Publishing packages to clients demanded patience—the response time wasn’t a match for other management programs I’ve tested. At first, I thought that I’d made an error in scheduling, but I quickly ruled out that problem, as well as delays caused by excess network traffic. The delays remain a mystery.

SMS Remote Tools let you initiate a Remote Control session to remotely view workstations and assist users. I tested these tools by transferring files to a workstation over a 100MB LAN segment—no complaints. I especially liked the Ping Test utility. Unlike its command-line counterpart, this tool displays results in a graphic thermometer.

The product’s reports are extensive but not overwhelming. I selected 15 random reports and found all to be accurate. I also created three dashboard displays, which you can customize to show one or more reports simultaneously. This was an effective option, but I found that I needed to increase the screen resolution and use a larger monitor.

SMS has two diagnostic programs worth mentioning: Network Monitor and Network Trace. Network Monitor is a packet and protocol analyzer. Network Monitor can monitor traffic to and from any host that has the Network Monitor driver installed. This tool was useful but could use a tune-up; it had trouble decoding some of the packets I tested. Network Trace (similar to Microsoft Office Visio 2003) generates graphical SMS environment diagrams, which can be useful in diagnosing problems and in monitoring. The tool relies on SNMP, which might be a security concern for some SMS customers.

Microsoft Systems Management Server 2003 SP1
Contact: Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Price: Contact vendor for pricing
Reviewer: Douglas R. Spindler
Pros: Easy installation; familiar Windows interface; numerous, accurate reports
Cons: Supports only Windows platform; can be slow distributing applications
Rating: 2 out of 5
Recommendation: SMS provides software distribution, patch management, remote control, and other features to help you manage and troubleshoot clients. It is a highly complex program with a complicated licensing scheme that is limited to pure Windows environments.