Microsoft SMS 2003 beta enhances mobile support

Microsoft is to release a beta version of its Systems Management Server 2003 software, providing the enhanced support that...

Microsoft is to release a beta version of its Systems Management Server 2003 software, providing the enhanced support that corporate IT departments have been seeking for mobile clients.

The new version is needed because the aging SMS 2.0, which shipped four years ago, does not work well when distributing software to PC and laptop users on dial-up connections. "It generates a lot of network traffic and it isn't network-aware," said Michael Niehaus, an IT consultant at Marathon Oil in Houston, USA.

Niehaus said he hopes SMS 2003, which Marathon Oil has been beta-testing, will "generate a fraction of the network traffic that the old SMS client did" and pay for itself "just based on support costs - not having to figure out what happened to this or that PC when it disconnected in the middle of a software install".

Binary Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS), a new SMS 2003 feature based on Microsoft's Windows Update technology, will allow software to be downloaded during quiet periods, when users are not taking up bandwidth to check e-mail or surf the Internet, Niehaus said.

If the client gets disconnected, SMS will pick up the download where it left off as soon as the user is able to reconnect.

"It might take two weeks to download a package to the machine, but eventually it will get there," Niehaus noted. "With SMS 2.0, getting updates to the not-well-connected machines can be a challenge. What are you going to do? Tell someone, 'Dial in and don't disconnect for six hours' ?"

Microsoft's BITS feature will only work on machines running Windows XP or Windows 2000 and the 6.5Mbyte SMS client piece must be distributed to them. Niehaus said his company will use Active Directory features to run a machine start-up script that will install the SMS 2003 client.

"There will be a little bit of initial pain to get the client pushed out, but we can live with that," he said.

Niehaus said his company, which has 11,000 PCs and laptops, distributes software packages that range in size from 30Kbytes to 800Mbytes. He estimated that 500 to 1,000 of the machines use dial-up or virtual private network connections, noting that a 6.5Mbyte download via a 28.8Kbit/sec modem can take 30 to 60 minutes. He said he does not anticipate his company will reduce that download time but hopes architecture improvements will help Marathon Oil cut down the initial two-hour processing time when a user requests software via a Web page, tells SMS to deliver the software and the software requests flows from server to server through the SMS hierarchy.

Other new features in the SMS 2003 version include tight integration with Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system and Active Directory (although Active Directory usage is not compulsory), and improvements to the product's software asset tracking capabilities. Users will gain an application inventory option, rather than mere discovery, and will also be able to do audit software to see which applications are actually being used.

Niehaus said if certain packages are not being used, an employee may be asked to uninstall the software to free up the licence for someone else.

The final version of SMS is due to ship in the first half of next year, according to Martin Dey, senior product manager in Microsoft's Windows management business group.

While the initial release will address the issue of mobile client support for PC and laptop users, it will not tackle the management problems associated with handheld devices running Pocket PC software or the Windows CE or Windows XP Embedded operating systems. That capability will ship in a value pack that will follow the main product's release by about three months, Dey said.

"It's important to Microsoft to have it, because their competitors do," said Ronni Colville, an analyst at Gartner. However she said she does not think users will be in any hurry to implement it. "While wireless devices are being used, no one is doing any big management stuff on them," Colville said.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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