If there's one area of networking where you're truly spoilt for choice it has to be network management. Whether you want inventory, software distribution, help desk tools or licence metering there's a software product that'll do just what you want. Formerly know as Vision 64, Criston Software's Precision 5 offers the standard range of management tools but aims to stand out in this crowded market mainly due to its use of intelligent agents. Another key selling point is all components support Windows, Solaris and Linux and can be mixed on the same network as required.

Precision offers a basic range of functions comprising hardware and software inventory, software distribution and OS deployment plus help desk tools such as remote control. If you want licence metering then we suggest you check out products such as LANdesk Management Suite, Microsoft's SMS or perhaps Vector Network's PC Duo Enterprise. At the top of the hierarchy is the master database server and Precision supports SQL Server 2000 and Oracle 9i but if these are not available then it'll work happily with the bundled copy of MSDE. Installation on a Windows Server 2003 test system was comparatively swift and the management console can be run locally or from a remote system.

The main interface is somewhat unsophisticated but it provides a simple Explorer-style tree structure in the left-hand pane from where all functions can be easily accessed. Agents need to be loaded on each system to be managed and deployment options are extensive as you run a local installation, push the software out at scheduled times, email the executable or allow clients to pull the software from the server. We had no difficulties creating rollout jobs as we could search the network and add specific Windows 2000, XP and 2003 test clients to the push tasks. As each task runs it provides progress information so you can see which client is receiving the software and whether the rollout was successful although this must be manually refreshed as it doesn't update itself.

The agents are very unusual as they are capable of operating autonomously and can also function as relay servers allowing one system to pass data from a group of systems up to the master server. By comparing locally stored hardware inventory details the agents can work out amongst themselves which system is the best equipped for the job. A smart idea but a concern was each agent generates a lot of TCP, HTTP and Proxy port probes which caused our firewall to send out constant alerts. This cannot be modified as Criston advised us this is how the agents communicate with each other.

Once the agents are installed the master server picks them up and automatically add them to the device topology branch in the management console. The optional device topology graph is worth considering as it builds a map of the network showing the logical connections between each managed device and the master server. You can monitor basic system health as well as the icons used to represent the agents in both the topology tree and network graph change colour to show if an agent is no longer on-line.

Inventory accuracy is a great differentiator of network management software as we've seen a huge variation in capabilities. Testing across a range of Windows clients showed that while software identification was very good Precision scored above average for hardware accuracy. The level of information provided puts it on a par with LANDesk Management Suite 8 but a long way behind Vector Networks' PC Duo Enterprise.

Software distribution uses MSI packages or those created from before and after snapshots of an installation on a baseline system. These can be deployed to multiple workstations selected from the topology tree and a very useful feature is the ability to create groups by searching the database for systems with specific hardware components or installed OS. Plenty of help desk tools are provided and can also be accessed directly by selecting a system from the console tree. These include a file system browser with copy and paste functions, a remote registry editor and a decent remote control tool which we thought ran comparatively smoothly.

OUR VERDICT

With most network support departments under-staffed and overworked, these types of management products can be a boon. Prices and capabilities in this market vary dramatically, but Precision achieves its aims well enough and is competitively priced, making it worth considering for SMEs looking for a basic set of network management functions.