Automate software distribution

A major task for systems administrators is distributing client software. Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) accomplishes this task, but SMS is a complex client/server-based application management package. Pentagon Solutions' Software Distribution Solutions (SDS) is a simple, server-based application that builds software-installation packages and distributes them to Windows clients.

SDS builds these packages on a client PC that you've configured similarly to production client systems (SDS doesn't support variables—if the build system has Windows NT in C:/winnt, the destination system must be the same). The product performs a preinstallation system snapshot on the build system to gather system settings (e.g., file, Registry). You install the software you want to distribute on the build system, and SDS performs a postinstallation system snapshot. The product compares these snapshots and combines the additional installed files and Registry changes with scheduling and security information (e.g., users that can install the package) to form an installation job. SDS then saves this job to a distribution server for client access.

You can configure the client PC to copy the software files and Registry changes to complete the software installation. SDS uses its Software Distribution Manager (SDM) to create and manage software installation jobs, as Screen 1 shows. You install SDM on your build PC. Creating a package-installation job on a build PC is easy when you run SDM from a local system, because SDS saves all the information about an installation job to the distribution server share. This method lets you reimage the build PC and reinstall SDM on any PC (before creating a new installation job), without losing information about previously configured jobs.

I had problems configuring SDS with its documentation because many configuration steps were out of sequence. Because of this error, I attempted to configure a setting for a job that didn't exist. However, Pentagon Solutions' prompt technical support provided me with a cheat sheet. SDS is complex enough to justify online Help, which the current version lacks.

After my initial configuration, I created and configured installation jobs easily. To create an installation job, use SDM to access the Manage Distribution Jobs function. Here, you can review all system and file changes for the created job before you save it, and you can perform manual changes on the Registry, files, and shortcuts. Because users without local systems administrator privileges can initiate the SDS job installations, you can add privileged user accounts that let users access the Registry and NTFS folders during installation. Another security feature lets you configure a distribution key that prohibits users from initiating a manual job installation without the key code.

The client portion of SDS requires no initial installation. When the client executable launches from a network share (via a user logon script or the user), the product copies the necessary configuration information to the client. If a user manually launches the executable, a window opens that lists the available installation jobs (users pick which jobs to install). You can email users a shortcut to the executable. If you configured the job to install automatically, installation starts without user intervention. Both methods worked without error for me. I built several software packages into distribution packages and installed them on NT 4.0 workstations. The installations were quick compared with the standard setup for the individual packages.

SDS is useful with the proper documentation. The product lacks installation job logging and a client service to schedule unattended installs, but SDS's cost is small compared with the labor of manually installing software.

Software Distribution Solutions
Contact: Pentagon Solutions * 705-253-4754
Web: http://www.onlink.net/pentagon
Price: $749 for 250 users
System Requirements: 486 processor or better, Windows NT 3.51 or later, Windows 9x, or Win3x