Easily change your laptop's settings as you travel

Mobile PC users are familiar with the hassles of frequently changing their laptops' configurations. Users who have little technical expertise can have difficulty changing IP addresses, drive mappings, printer configurations, and dial-up settings when they switch locales, so they call their systems administrators for help. Symantec's Mobile Essentials 2.5, which automatically changes machines' configurations, can make life easier for mobile users and their administrators.

Mobile Essentials manages mobile PCs' location-specific settings by using location profiles that an administrator, an end user, or both can set. You can use Mobile Essentials to create and manage your location profiles independently. You can also deploy Mobile Essentials to many mobile users, and one or more administrators can oversee the creation and distribution of location profiles.

The Location Administrator and the Client are Mobile Essentials' main components. The Location Administrator is a suite of tools that lets you create and maintain location profiles, deploy profiles to users, and organize profiles into groups. The Client has an interface that lets an end user select a location profile or configure a new profile. The Location Administrator and the Client have nearly identical system requirements and can run under Windows 2000, Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 3 (SP3) and later, and Windows 9x. Hardware requirements are a 90MHz Pentium CPU with 16MB of RAM.

For this test, I installed the Location Administrator on a Dell Precision WorkStation 410. I launched the Location Administrator and began creating location profiles for my mobile clients. The GUI was easy to learn, and I could create profiles after spending only a couple of minutes reading the Mobile Essentials' implementation guide. Seven icons represent the groups of settings that you can manage for each profile, as Figure 1 shows. The flexible tool set that Mobile Essentials provides for DUN impressed me. You can create a phone book of DUN profiles and assign them to a location profile as necessary. All the standard Win2K and NT DUN settings are available, and you need to set them only once in the Location Administrator. Figure 2, page 132, shows Mobile Essentials' Dial-Up Networking Manager and its hierarchical view of phone books and connections.

The Location Administrator's General settings let you specify geographic information (e.g., city, country, time zone) for a profile. The Dialing settings let you record dialing rules (e.g., callingcard numbers, numbers to reach outside phone lines) for specific locations. The Network settings let you configure domain membership and drive mappings. The TCP/IP settings let you set static or dynamic IP addressing, DNS and WINS server entries, and default gateways. Using the Printers option, you can configure location-specific printers and determine whether Mobile Essentials deletes the printer settings or takes the settings offline when you change locations. The Other Programs option can change location-specific settings for applications such as Web browsers, mail clients, and Microsoft Proxy Client.

To test Mobile Essentials, I configured three location profiles. The first profile was for a LAN connection to the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab network, the second profile was for a LAN connection to a separate physical network that I set up in the Lab, and the third profile was for a dial-up connection to Windows 2000 Magazine's parent company's corporate network. In the LAN-connected location profiles, I provided the appropriate domain administrator account and password so that I could rejoin each location's domain. I set up connections to printers and mapped drives in each network, including a volume on a Novell NetWare 4.11 server on the Lab domain. Each network had an IP addressing scheme, so I adjusted the default gateway and DNS server entries accordingly. I set each profile to use DHCP to obtain the client's IP address and WINS server address. Finally, I configured Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to use the appropriate connection (LAN or dial-up) and set the default Messaging API (MAPI) profile for each location. I named and saved each profile, and the profiles appeared in the Location Administrator's treeview of available profiles.

The Location Administrator has a wizard for deploying new or updated location profiles to Mobile Essentials users. The wizard gives you three options for deploying profiles. One option is LiveUpdate, a utility that delivers updates to other Symantec products such as Norton AntiVirus. The second option is to let the wizard generate a profile that you can distribute through a network share or FTP site. The third option is to use the Mobile Essentials automated email distribution method, which requires you to install an email agent on each mobile client. The agent monitors a mobile user's inbox for email updates from the Location Administrator that carry a particular subject line. The email agent recognizes the message and imports the attached profile into Mobile Essentials. You can use the Location Administrator to choose your deployment recipients through a hook to your MAPI address book. The process worked flawlessly with Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook 98.

The wizard-driven Administrative Client Setup tool creates an unattended installation of the Client software. The simple setup tool creates an installation batch file with command-line arguments that it bases on the options you choose (e.g., the Client software's location, options that users can modify, a standard or silent installation). You can even bundle location profiles. The wizard also prompts you for a local account that has administrative rights and a password. Mobile Essentials uses this account to log on to NT and make the necessary changes to the PC's settings. The system stores the encrypted account information with the Mobile Essentials installation.

After you finish using the setup tool, you can deploy the Client installation through a network share, a logon script, a CD-ROM, or an FTP site. The only obstacle to an easy deployment is that you need to have administrative rights to install the Client on Win2K and NT OSs. An alternative to giving end users these rights or installing the Client manually is to use a third-party deployment tool.

For the client PCs in the test, I used two Micron Electronics laptops, one running Win2K Professional and the other running NT 4.0 SP5. The third client was a Hewlett-Packard (HP) desktop running NT 4.0 SP6a. To install the Client software from a network share, I used the batch file I created earlier. After each client machine rebooted, a Location Selector dialog box prompted me for the location profile. I matched each client machine with a location profile for the client's network, then clicked OK. I entered my NT user ID and password. I noticed right away that the clients' boot time increased by 10 to 30 seconds. After each client logged on, a window appeared that stated the client machine needed another reboot to add Act as Part of Operating System and Change System Time privileges to the account that the Client software uses. These changes give the Client software sufficient rights to make necessary configuration modifications to switch the client machine's location. After the second reboot, the Client software had changed all drive mappings, printers, and network settings automatically. Other settings that I had configured in the location profiles (e.g., default MAPI client, browser settings) were correct.

Next, I used Mobile Essentials to switch locations. As I shut down each PC, a Location Selector dialog box appeared and gave me a choice of locations from the profiles that I had installed on each client. The Location Selector dialog box that appears at shutdown is an optional feature that lets users choose their next location and ensures that their new settings will be correct the next time they boot their machines. I chose different locations for each client machine. On the clients that I moved to a domain, error messages appeared because the clients had immediately tried to contact the new location's domain controller but hadn't physically connected to the proper network. I ignored the messages and moved the physical connections. On reboot, the clients that joined domains required another reboot to finalize the configuration changes. The reboots were time-consuming, but all the necessary configuration changes were correct.

When I physically disconnected my PC from the network before I chose a new location on shutdown, Mobile Essentials delayed the shutdown by almost 2 minutes before it timed out trying to connect to a domain controller. This delay might frustrate some mobile users. When I chose the dial-up location profiles, no shutdown delays occurred.

Mobile Essentials met my expectations of consolidating and automating laptop settings for different locales. The documentation was well written and organized, the Location Administrator was easy to learn and use, and the deployment tools were helpful for busy administrators. Mobile Essentials is a useful tool that lets end users change locations—without calling their systems administrators for help.

Mobile Essentials 2.5
Contact: Symantec * 800-441-7234
Web: http://www.symantec.com
Price: $69 per user; volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Easy-to-use product; thorough documentation; effective administrative tools for management and deployment
Cons: Requires two reboots to switch between domains; slows clients' boot process