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Benefits of client management suites
A number of factors are pushing SMBs to adopt a more systematic, policy-based approach to client management. One is the need to comply with government regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In addition, client installations are becoming more complex as end users become more mobile and computing devices more diverse. "We're seeing mobile devices proliferating and becoming integral to the business process," said Steve Robb, a senior marketing director at Sybase Inc. subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions Inc. in Dublin, Calif.
Mobile management products lower the total cost of ownership by 10% to 15%, according to J. Gold Associates in Northborough, Mass. "Companies failing to deploy adequate mobile management tools face nonproductive users who must often struggle with old or outdated applications, out-of-date files ... and the need to send devices back to the office for updates," the research firm stated in a July 2005 report entitled "Managing Mobility in the Enterprise."
Suites eliminate much of the grunt work and technical complexity from client management. Administrators can access and interact with a full set of management functions through a single console and standardized Web interface, rather than having to deal with a different console and command set for each tool.
Software modules take care of many basic management tasks automatically, eliminating administrative overhead and often paying for themselves within months.
For example, if you deploy a new PC manually, it typically requires about four IT man-hours and costs another four hours in lost employee productivity, said Michael A. Silver, a research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. In contrast, the same job takes about an hour and a quarter using automated deployment software, he said. That translates into big savings, given that companies replace a quarter to a third of their PCs every year on average, according to Gartner.
During the past year, vendors have increasingly targeted the SMB market with entry-level and limited versions of existing offerings.
Prices have generally remained low for client management suites, primarily because Microsoft charges so little for its widely deployed and increasingly versatile Systems Management Server. SMS Server 2.0 currently costs between $100 and $300 retail, for 20 clients.
Some vendors offer price incentives for customers to purchase bundled products. Lindon, Utah-based Altiris Inc.'s Client Management Suite, for example, starts at $92 per seat for a full set of management applications. Bought separately, the operating system and application delivery modules cost $47 per seat. Patch management costs $29 per seat.
The past year or so has seen a major consolidation in the client management market. Industry heavyweights such as Symantec, Computer Associates and Altiris have been aggressively adding platform features through acquisitions and internal development. As a result, many suites now offer soup-to-nuts client lifecycle management, including remote control for problem resolution, backup management and security configuration management.
Vendors are also providing deeper integration of management modules, enabling them to collaborate and share data with one another and with Microsoft's SMS. For example, iAnywhere's Afaria can collect asset and inventory data from mobile devices and load it into SMS's database.
Client management suites tips and gotchas
Here are some questions to ask a vendor representative:
Does the platform support mobile clients? Most client management suites were designed to manage desktop clients over high-speed corporate LANs. To manage devices on the road, however, IT administrators must be able to perform remote troubleshooting, or download a bulky software file, over a slow dial-up line or an unreliable overseas connection. Here are couple of useful features to ask for:
Bandwidth awareness and throttling: The ability to determine bandwidth capacity and traffic levels, and adjust transfer rates accordingly.
Checkpoint/restart: The ability to continue a download exactly where it left off, after a session is disconnected.
Does the platform support non-Windows clients? Linux and Unix? How about Blackberries and other handheld devices?
What types of applications and formats does it support? Some platforms provide scripting tools to extend support to homegrown and specialized software programs.
Does it work with Active Directory? For Windows shops, this eliminates the need to build and maintain a separate set of user accounts and security settings. The third-party platform can then use AD business logic to target client systems within a particular organization, distribution list or security group.
How well integrated are the modules? Can they be accessed and utilized via a single console and set of commands? Can they work in concert, share data out of the box, or does the customer have to write some code first?
Analyst viewpoint: Michael A. Silver, research VP, Gartner:
Ease of use is key for smaller companies where only a few, or even one IT administrator runs the shop. The product won't manage itself: You'll need to dedicate some IT resources to packaging software (for deployment) and operating the product.All suites have strengths and weaknesses. Before you shop, rank functions according to importance, and which will be easiest to use, based on your business processes and culture. Take the time to set up an infrastructure to support it. You might want to bring in a service provider who can help with the installation and transfer of knowledge to your IT team. Initial setup (of the platform), and packaging applications (for deployment on target clients) require a lot of handholding and training. Really small companies might want to outsource desktop management to an MSP like Everdream or Triactive.
Product samplingMicrosoft's Systems Management Server
Altiris' Client Management Suite
LANdesk's Management Suite, Security Suite and Handheld Manager
iAnywhere (Sybase subsidiary), Afaria (primarily for mobile devices)
BMC's Magic Desktop Automation Express suite
CA's Business Protection Suite, and Desktop Protection Suite
HP OpenView Client Configuration Manager
Elisabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.