SCE: Big-Time Management for SMBs
Microsoft's new System Center Essentials fits the bill for managing small to midsize businesses.
Tim Vander Kooi says he didn't realize how hard life was before he had Microsoft System Center Essentials (SCE) in place to manage his 32 servers and 250 PCs. Vander Kooi, a systems administrator at Explorer Pipeline in Tulsa, Okla., was previously using several third-party tools along with Microsoft Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). That was helping him keep his environment running smoothly, so he didn't even know what was hurting him.
"SCE probably saves me 12 hours a week right off the top," he says, "but it lets me do another 60 to 80 hours worth of work per week that I couldn't do before, simply by actually letting me see information I could never see before."
Vander Kooi knows he should have been keeping comprehensive software and hardware inventories of his environment, for example, and monitoring his event logs regularly.
"I never did because I didn't have the time or resources," he says. It would have taken another full-time person to handle those duties. "With SCE, I get a report e-mailed to me every morning that says, 'Here's the status of your network and here are all the issues you need to worry about.' It lets me be more proactive."
All in One
SCE works well for readers managing small to midsize businesses (SMBs) because it combines several key tools. It handles device and network management and monitoring, software/hardware inventorying, patch management and software deployment from a single management console. The result is significant time savings for troubleshooting and software deployment.
"I really like that everything's centrally located, like the patch management and software distribution," says Brian McFarland, a systems administrator with Chromatography Ventures, a biomedical research facility in Chicago. McFarland has been using SCE for nearly two years to manage of total of 12 devices. "I'd say I probably save about a third of my time now, just because everything's right there."
Vander Kooi says before he had SCE in place, troubleshooting and repairing problems with PCs or servers in Explorer Pipeline's remote locations was a daunting task.
"We have 250 people on the network. Of those clients, only about 75 are here at headquarters in Tulsa," he says. "The rest are distributed between Houston and Chicago, where our pipeline runs. If I lose a hard drive in Chicago, that's not an easy fix for me."
If employees in Chicago had PC problems, they had to pack up their machine and ship it to Vander Kooi in Tulsa. He would diagnose the problem, order the parts, fix the device and ship it back -- a process that took up to five days under the best of circumstances.
"With SCE, now we can see when things are starting to go bad or hard drives are starting to fill up," he says. "That lack of downtime for our distributed personnel has really been a huge deal for us with this."
Besides easier troubleshooting and reduced downtime, Vander Kooi says SCE's software distribution component is the one feature that greatly improves his quality of life.
"We use SCE all the time for pushing software now. We used to use Group Policy for that, but then we had to do a lot of custom .MSI writing and it was a hassle," he says. Packaging applications into .MSI files, testing and deploying them used to take him anywhere from four hours to four days.
"SCE lets us push out .EXE files or .MSI files. I just say 'install' and it pulls all the metadata in, so it has all the naming info and it shows up correctly in add/remove programs," he says. "If they're .MSI files, we can create packages that let us go back and uninstall them later, with just the click of a button."
Being able to uninstall packages is almost as important as seamless installs.
"A lot of times, you find an upgrade doesn't install over the old one. SCE lets us uninstall a previously installed piece of software and then push the next one. That aspect alone has just been huge for us. It has saved a lot of time, effort and drive space."
Vander Kooi also likes being able to tie software distributions to specific groups using Active Directory's Organizational Units (OUs). "Now we can create groups based on our OU structure, so all we have to do is drop a particular computer into an OU on our network and we can automatically distribute the correct software," he says. "It's automated and it lets us set different rules for patching our servers, or updating our clients in Chicago, or whatever."
Reporting Done Right
SCE's reporting also earns high marks. Based on SQL Server Report Services, it lets you build a variety of custom reports that further ease troubleshooting and management.
"Reports come up on a dashboard and show me what I have as far as alerts on the network and what the health is -- and it even lets me drill down into the patching," Vander Kooi says. "Before I would push out software, and out of my 250 users, 245 would be great, but five of them would fail for some reason. I couldn't figure out which five they were, why they failed or what was going on."
SCE puts all that information right in front of him. "I can see at a glance -- out of my 250 machines -- which are waiting to receive the update, or [which] ones have downloaded it to their machine and are just waiting to install," he says. "And if it fails, I can see which machines have failed."
Additionally, SCE links the fail messages to Knowledge Base articles on Microsoft's Web site. "It will have links directly to the KB article on Microsoft's Web site telling me how to go and fix the problem, which is pretty nice," Vander Kooi says.
Good Fit for SMBs
Although it's missing some features (see "SCE Wish List"), readers say that overall SCE is a good fit for SMBs. It offers the right range of features at the right price.
|SCE Wish List|
Readers say Microsoft System Center Essentials (SCE) fits the management bill for small to midsize businesses, but there's always room for improvement. Here's a look at what they hope to see in the next release:
- More integration with other System Center tools: Tim Vander Kooi, a systems administrator at Explorer Pipeline in Tulsa, Okla., currently uses Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager for backup, and he's considering Forefront for virus protection.
"I can't run those on the same server as Essentials," he says, noting that they conflict with each other, especially when it comes to reporting. "They all want to point at the same Report Server page, and it gloms up everyone's reports and none of them work."
Eventually, he'd like those problems hammered out. "As an SMB, I don't want a backup server and a virus-management server and network-management server. I just want to have one management server, so it's easier for me to control and look at everything in one place. Today I can't do that."
- Less Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) reliance: In some cases, SCE can't perform management functions. You may need to access the underlying WSUS console instead.
"Sometimes you still need to use the WSUS console, and that's a trick you learn over time," Vander Kooi says. If you set SCE to download updates for Windows 2000, 2003 and XP, for example, but then later remove Windows 2000 from your environment, there's no way to go into SCE and edit it out.
"You can't get rid of those from SCE's console today," he says. "Instead, you need to go to WSUS to clear them off the hard drive and free up that 200MB or whatever of space."
- Local SQL Reporting Services required: Vander Kooi uses his current SQL Server to support SCE, but quickly learned SCE requires its own local instance of Reporting Services in order to work.
"You have to install the SQL Reporting Services local to the SCE server, even if you're using a SQL Server across the network," he says. "You can't use a remote SQL Server Reporting instance on a different server to show the reports on a SCE server. That took us a while to figure out."
"We looked at Altiris and LANdesk, and even Ops Manager," Vander Kooi says. "All these are great products, but we couldn't afford them. I'm sure big companies like them, but for me, they were enormous overkill. SCE brings a lot of capabilities together at a price we can take. When you think of the man-hours saved, it paid for itself easily within the first two months we had it on the network."
Joanne Cummings is principal writer and editor for Cummings Ltd., a freelance editorial firm based in North Andover, Mass.