Last month, Microsoft released the first two products in the System Center 2010 wave: the management suite System Center Essentials 2010, and the backup-and-recovery-focused Data Protection Manager 2010. I've been evaluating these products in late prerelease form, and I'll share my impressions and what I've discovered here.
System Center Essentials 2010
System Center Essentials 2010 is the latest revision to the integrated systems management suite designed for midsize businesses. Microsoft already offers the full System Center suite for enterprises but has recently focused on filling the gap that often exists between product offerings for tiny shops with fewer than 25 people and global corporations with 5,000-plus users.
Microsoft has a pretty wide definition of what a midsize business looks like: It suspects such a business has between 25 and 400 PCs and five to 50 servers, doesn't already have systems management software, has fewer than five IT generalists in its internal support operation and predominantly uses Microsoft software. (Clearly that's a model picture in Microsoft's view.) Obviously, this vision is a bit more likely in the smaller end of that space, with more heterogeneity probable in the upper end of the midsize market.
In any event, Essentials 2010 is designed to help make an environment not managed by specialists every bit as efficient and healthy as one that is. Essentials 2010 attempts to achieve three key goals:
- Monitor the total environment of a network and proactively alert administrators to, and sometimes automatically fix, problems that crop up, anywhere from a client PC to a server to a piece of software.
- Deploy software and patches in an efficient, streamlined way, rather than sneakernetting CDs and DVDs around the office.
- Integrate virtualisation strategies and techniques into a market that traditionally hasn't been ready for that complexity.
Essentials 2010's interface will be comfortable for Outlook users, the team redesigned the interface to be more fluid and expose more functionality with fewer clicks. The administrative console is easy to navigate. Thanks to the comprehensive task list that appears in the pane on the right, I didn't spend a lot of time looking for features.
Updates and software deployment
Essentials 2010 integrates Windows Server Update Services more fully with Essentials' administrative console, monitoring capabilities and deployment features.
At its core, WSUS attempts to automate the patching process as much as possible. Between Essentials and WSUS, the tools can discover which updates are required in your environment and set auto-approval deadlines for update deployment. These are the dates at which a particular update will automatically be deployed, even without an administrator's explicit approval.
Another feature is the ability to perform those update installations according to the class of machine, workstation or server. Since patching is likely a manual process in these environments, Essentials tries to take the menial work out of the task and improve system health. In the end, it works pretty well.
Essentials also attempts to make the process of deploying software much more streamlined than running software discs around an office. It puts an attractive, easy-to-use interface around Group Policy-based software deployment and also adds some intelligence found in the suite's big brother, System Center Configuration Manager, so that pushing out Office to 150 clients, for example, doesn't take weeks.
I found the deployment wizards much simpler to understand than the native Windows Server/Active Directory tools. The additional capabilities for non-Microsoft Installer-based software packages not found natively in Windows are also welcome.