Exam Reviews

SMS 2.0 Behind the Scenes

There's no substitute for hands-on experience with SMS. Plan on spending lots of lab time to prepare.

Microsoft Systems Management Server has never been an easy product. SMS 2.0 has made many improvements to the interface to reduce the learning curve of commonly used features like software distribution. On the other hand, you need to know more than ever about what’s going on behind the scenes. While you can’t expect an easy exam, you can anticipate a fair test that will assess your skill in implementing and administering SMS.

The Nature of the Test

The questions on my version of the beta exam were all multiple choice or multiple multiple choice. That’s right—the dreaded “choose all that apply” answer lives! In these questions you’re presented with several answers and told to check the boxes for all that apply instead of just choosing the best answer. How many apply? Usually at least two. In earlier Microsoft exams, there was speculation that for some of these questions, none of the answers applied and you were supposed to leave it blank. This caused a nasty reaction from the testing software, which told you if you left it blank it’d be scored as wrong. If you really feel like there’s no right answer for a question, you probably need to reread the question.

The version of the test I took (a beta) offered no simulations or fill-in-the-blank questions. Also absent: scenario questions, in which you’re given a scenario, a list of required objectives, a list of desired objectives, and a list of actions taken. You’re supposed to say if the actions produced all of the objectives, all of the required but none of the desired objectives, all required and some desired, or none of the objectives. Instead, you may come across a related question style that gives you several objectives and a list of actions. You’re required to say which objectives are achieved as the result of these actions. These are some of the tougher “choose all that apply” types of questions.

SMS 2.0 (70-086)

Reviewers’ Rating: “This exam is a well-balanced test of how well you know your fundamental SMS installation, configuration, and operation.”

Title:
Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Systems Management Server 2.0

Number of questions in reviewed version of exam:
98 on beta; fewer on actual exam.

Time allowed: 3 hours for beta; expect around 90 minutes for the live exam.

Current Status: Live as of June 1999.

Who should take it?
While this counts as an elective for the MCSE, only people who really plan on working with SMS should take this exam.

What classes prepare you?

  • 827, Administering SMS (3 days).
  • 828, Implementing and Supporting SMS (5 days).
    (There’s almost no overlap between the two classes. 827 is the prerequisite for 828 and must be taken first.)
  • A self-paced training kit (1241) may be available from Microsoft Press by the time you read this.

The beta test wasn’t adaptive for obvious reasons. In order to create a proper adaptive exam, the questions must be tested and analyzed for their level of difficulty. The live exam will probably be out a little while before it changes to an adaptive format (if it changes) so Microsoft’s exam experts can gather data on how the questions “perform.”

As with any Microsoft exam, you should look over the preparation guide and familiarize yourself with the list of objectives covered. The main areas are planning, installation and configuration, configuring and managing resources, integration and interoperability, monitoring and optimization, and troubleshooting.

If you’re going to attend an instructor-led training class, plan on spending eight days in the classroom. The official Microsoft curriculum consists of two classes: a three-day admin class and a five-day support class. (You can read my brief rundown on these classes in the June 1999 issue.) If you’re serious about the exam, plan on attending all eight days. When you look at the preparation guide, pay attention to the skills matrix showing which exam objectives are covered in which classes.

One of the biggest benefits of an instructor-led class is having a classroom lab to experiment in. If you plan on prepping on your own, you’ll really need to dig up two or three computers capable of running SMS. There’s just no substitute for hands on experience with this product. Plan on spending lots of lab time to prepare.

Installation and Configuration

SMS 2.0 offers two installation modes, Express and Custom. Express seems designed primarily for reviewers; it automatically enables several features and services. For working in a production environment, you’ll usually want to use Custom mode. There are many distinct differences between the two installations. Knowing those differences can help you avoid costly mistakes, both on the exam and on your network.

I was a little surprised to see several questions about SMS licensing on the test. I guess there’s been some confusion about how many licenses are required for SMS servers, SQL servers, and SMS clients. (“Additional Information,” below, provides a couple of resources to educate you on this.)

Microsoft would never ask anything as trite and simple as, “What are the basic hardware requirements to install SMS?” Its exams use more sophisticated forms that test your synthesis of several facts. Be sure you know the required hardware, software, and file system configuration; they may be part of answering a bigger question about SMS installation.

Even though SMS 2.0 can minimize the amount of information you need to know about SQL, you need to know enough to get and keep the product running. What are some of the considerations if you install SQL on the same box as your SMS Site Server? How will that affect your installation? What if you need to move SQL Server to another box? These are all questions you should know before you begin your installation.

Microsoft has found that a lot of SMS administrators either incorrectly configure or are unaware of the site boundaries. If you don’t know what happens when you aren’t assigned to a site’s boundaries, you’d better find out.

Tip: Practice drawing a diagram of your network or a fictitious network and decide on different boundaries. Figure out which clients would be discovered and which ones would be installed.

Sites and Site Hierarchy

One of the few areas where previous SMS 1.2 experience will help you is site and site hierarchy issues. The difference between a primary and secondary site is still determined by whether or not it has a SQL database. Be sure you know the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one or the other. Parent and child relationships still function pretty much the same way; the child initiates the relationship with the parent site. As in the SMS 1.2 exam, you’ll find plenty of questions dealing with how to rearrange your SMS family tree. Know the procedures for moving a primary site and secondary site and for removing a site from the site hierarchy.

Senders are still the cornerstone of site-to-site communication. The mechanisms for changing the percent of bandwidth used and the available hours of the sender have changed a little, but you still need to know how and when to make these adjustments. SMS 2.0 adds a new sender called the courier sender. This sender can be used to send large packages on removable media (like a tape or CD) to reduce traffic across slow WAN links. Practice sending a few parcels through the courier sender and study up on how you’d use this new tool.

Integration and Interoperability

One area that straddles the site topic and interoperability topic is how to deal with 1.2 sites. If you’ve been keeping up on the changes to 2.0, you know that SMS has dropped some formerly supported client platforms; if you didn’t know, you need to find out which ones. You may need to retain a 1.2 site to support these retro clients. Be sure you understand how 1.2 sites will fit into your site hierarchy. Do some research on how 2.0 primary sites relate to 1.2 secondary sites. Don’t forget to learn about the different administration requirements for 1.2 and 2.0.

The exam could include questions on how to upgrade from a 1.2 site to 2.0. Although the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) doesn’t cover this topic, yet, there are two white papers from Microsoft that should fill you in on the details. Check out “Microsoft Systems Management Server Version 1.2 and 2.0 Interoperability” and “Systems Management Server Version 1.2 to 2.0 Upgrade,” both available from the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft has an upgrade course in the works.

You may not have any 16-bit clients anymore, but Windows 3.x is still out there, and you still need to know a bit about how to support those clients. Get a basic understanding of what features they can run, how to discover and install them, and how their inventory process works.

Configuring and Managing Resources

From the objectives Microsoft lists under “Configuring and Managing Resources,” it looks like you could also call that, “How to do all the SMS basics.” You’ll have to show you know how to work with inventory, software distribution, and software metering/licensing. Remote tools are covered elsewhere.

In addition to knowing how to configure hardware and software inventory, you’ll need to know how to optimize the processes. How do you take more hardware inventory? Less? What happens if you scan your hard drive for every .DOC file during software inventory? What would that do to your network traffic? How would that affect your Software Inventory Processor? What files should you be collecting and which ones should you definitely not collect? Aspiring minds should want to know these things. Once you have your inventory, what can you do with it? How do you look at it? What would you do if you wanted to customize your inventory?

Tip: You can use custom MIF files to add information to your SMS database. NOIDMIFs let you add attributes to your existing computer information, while IDMIFs let you add completely new “architectures” or tables to your SQL database.

Software distribution is a major feature of SMS 2.0, so you need to know how to make it work. The process really starts with collections, so make sure you know what they are, how they work, and how they’re updated. Of course, queries are what make collections really tick, so you have to understand the query mechanisms.

Tip: Don’t worry. You don’t need to understand the cryptic WBEM Query Language (WBEM = Web-Based Enterprise Management) for the exam.

The best way to prepare for the software distribution questions is to make some sample packages and deploy them to a sample client. Try different package definitions, create some custom programs, and experiment with the options on your advertisements. Try making a package with no source files, just a program. If it doesn’t work, that’s even better! You’ll be able to practice your troubleshooting skills by looking at log files and status information. When you’re done, practice removing the software from your distribution points. See what happens to your advertisements when you do!

Another component of software distribution is SMS Installer. You don’t have to know how to write scripts in the Script Editor, but you should be familiar with how to make a package, install it, uninstall it, and roll it back. Roll up your sleeves and start practicing. [Read Bill Heldman’s article, “Pushing Software with SMS Installer,” in this issue.—Ed.]

Software metering is a new feature in SMS 2.0, so you’ll need to spend some extra time getting to know it. There’s no substitute for actually running through the steps of setting up the entire process. Set up the servers and clients. Set up some licenses. Set up some exclusions. And, of course, do all the troubleshooting if, or when, it doesn’t work for you.

Reporting has been included under the heading of “managing resources.” If you’re practicing with this one, I should let you know there’s a problem with one of the services you need. The InfoAPS service is supposed to start automatically, but it doesn’t. It’s the reason you get that “one or more services failed to start” message when you reboot your site server. InfoAPS is part of the Crystal Info reporting product included with SMS 2.0. (It’s an SMS-specific version of Seagate Crystal Info version 6.0.) You won’t be able to open the reporting tool without it. Just go into the Control Panel and start it manually. If it doesn’t respond the first time, start it again. Persistence should eventually pay off.

Persistence will also help in untangling the report designer. You should, at the very least, know how to schedule a report to run. While you won’t be tested on how to design a report, it’s to your advantage to read the Microsoft white paper on SMS and Crystal Reports and run through the report tutorial. Check ou the online help that comes with Crystal Info, too.

Monitoring and Optimization

Optimization is an important concern for SMS administrators. From the depths of SQL through hardware inventory through the detailed configurations of remote control, make sure you always know how to squeeze the best performance out of your SMS site.

Tip: An easy way to learn some SQL optimization for SMS is in the SMS Administrator’s Guide. There are whole sections devoted to this topic. Read them all. Don’t skip the sections on backing things up.

The exam matrix lists configuring the SNMP Event to Trap Translator under the Integration and Interoperability section. To me it seems like monitoring and optimization. I guess that’s just one more example of how one question can address several exam objectives. I’m sure it goes without saying, if you don’t know what SNMP is or what a trap is, you should find out before you take the test. This is one of the many areas of SMS where some TCP/IP knowledge is worthwhile. You don’t need to memorize any MIB variables or Object ID numbers for NT events. Just be sure you know how to install SNMP, especially when service packs are involved.

Tip: A good way to practice SNMP event-to-trap translation is to install it on a client computer, configure a few simple traps, and watch for them with Network Monitor. If you can do that much, you’ll ace the test questions on this subject. It won’t hurt your NetMon skills either.

While you’re practicing, it would be a good idea to set up Health Monitor agent on a server and run it through its paces. Practice monitoring all the critical areas of a server like network adapter, hard drive, and processor utilization. Find out what common failures would look like on this tool.

A lot of SMS administrative energy goes toward monitoring the services. Pay attention to which services are installed on the site server, distribution servers, software metering servers, and logon points. SMS has a service manager program you can use to start and stop services on your various site systems. You can also use this utility to enable logging for all the server components. If you haven’t met the SMS Trace utility, what are you waiting for?

SMS 2.0 provides status messages to get system feedback without the overhead of logging. This has an incredibly rich but potentially baffling array of choices to manage your status messages.

Tip: A good way to understand the status system is by studying the flowcharts in the SMS Administrator’s Guide; an online version is included with your SMS installation. Appendix D is filled with charts that trace the complex systems of SMS through the services, directories, and files. Generate some sort of event on a client system. Install a package or uninstall a component of the SMS client and watch the status messages flow up the system. When they get to the site server, they’re evaluated by the Status Filter Rules. Try creating a new rule and setting different actions for SMS to take when that status message arrives. After the message is filtered, one of the rules may have it written to the status database. Go into the Status Summarizer and practice querying the database for your status message. Experiment with setting different thresholds for the status summarizer in the Site Settings. Just be careful with your status settings—don’t experiment with anything on a production server!

Troubleshooting

The sneaky thing about troubleshooting is it can show up as part of many other questions. If your primary site installation failed, you have to know many requirements for setting up a primary site to diagnose and fix the problem. All but one of the troubleshooting topics starts off with “Diagnose and resolve problems involving…” (insert SMS topic here). If it sounds like every other topic is fair game for a troubleshooting question, you’re right.

The one exception under troubleshooting deals with restoring an SMS site. You need to know how to restore all of the site systems, from the SQL server on down to distribution points. And it’s definitely a skill that’s better practiced now, in a lab, than in your production environment after your site has gone down in flames.

Additional Information

You'll find the preparation guide for this exam at www.microsoft.com/
trainingandservices/exams/examasearch.asp?PageID=70-086
.

You can read the author’s First Look article on SMS 2.0, “Absolute Control with SMS 2.0,” in the June 1999 issue. Read about SMS packets in Bill Heldman’s article, “Pushing Software with SMS Installer,” in this issue.

The following Web sites offer SMS 2.0 information:

Sure, There Are Easier Electives…

I bet you’re probably shaking your head and saying, “Do I really want to do this?” True, there are easier electives. And easier products to manage. Your bosses probably won’t understand the complicated services you must lovingly care for. Your users won’t respect your product as vital to their daily lives, like they do email. It’s always been tough to find study guides for SMS. Heck, there isn’t even a specialized MSCE waiting for you when you pass! So why bother with all this?

I think the best SMS analogy I ever heard was from my friend Craig. He said, “SMS is like a washing machine. Without one, laundry is miserable. With one, laundry is less miserable.” Or something like that. The point is, these tasks need to happen on your network anyway. SMS can’t make them easy, but it can help make them much easier. Putting in some time to study for this test won’t be easy, but it should make running your SMS site much, much easier. If you really plan to work with the product, you may as well study as hard as you can and be one of the few who can say they really understand SMS. Passing this test will be just your first step on that long road.

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