One Windows management console to rule them all: Will it ever happen?

A single Windows management console is IT's dream, but it may not be attainable. Figuring out how to handle multiple dashboards is the next best thing, and several tools can help.

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Keeping tabs on multiple versions of Windows is a huge concern for IT. Some tools can manage multiple client and server operating systems through a single view, but finding one Windows management console to do it all is still a challenge.

The number of Windows platforms is increasing, thanks to Windows Phone and Windows 8, and more organizations will look at integrating mobile devices into their overall Windows management strategy. The upcoming release of System Center 2012 will also have admins taking a closer look at their Windows networks and the clients they manage.

Comparing enterprise management tools

Enterprise management systems are often complicated, multifaceted software environments. The offerings from Altiris, CA Technologies and Hewlett-Packard, for example, consist of multiple components offered in the form of "suites" or "solutions."

These suites provide configuration, deployment, monitoring, asset management and inventory, service and lifecycle management, and many more services under various umbrellas. Constructing an appropriate Windows management console for a particular enterprise setup is like building a house to meet the specific needs of its intended inhabitants.

Though hundreds of Windows management tools are currently available, I chose five common offerings as representatives of the larger overall population:

  • Altiris Client Management Suite include client and server components, as well as backup, antivirus, storage management, system protection, data loss prevention, mobile management, network access control and more than 100 other functions.
  • CA Technologies IT Management Solutions offers an array of management tools, utilities and services, much like Altiris and HP. These include configuration and release management, IT asset management and service desk, service-level and service portfolio management.
  • Dell KACE offers systems management appliances to handle tasks that include software distribution, patch management and service desk functions, as well as system deployment services, such as network OS installation, disk imaging, centralized deployment, image management and inventory assessment.
  • HP IT Management Solutions include an IT Performance Suite and components such as application lifecycle management, automated network management, business service and client automation, data protection, and change management.
  • Microsoft System Center includes components for Configuration Manager, Endpoint Protection, Data Protection Manager, Operations Manager, Service Manager, Virtual Machine Manger, an Orchestrator and more.

While each of these offerings presents a conceptually unified front to would-be purchasers and users, a full-fledged management system usually involves integrating multiple products and services. Except for Microsoft System Center, which does use a common dashboard for its operation, other vendors are far more likely to offer a single Windows management console that displays overall status, conditions and monitoring data, with multiple management consoles attached as "drill-downs" into the individual component tools as needed.

Managing servers, clients and mobile devices

Of course, there's more to an enterprise infrastructure than these three classes of devices, but let's take a look at how servers, clients and mobile devices figure into the example Windows management consoles.

Table 1: Server OSes managed, by console

Platform Supported OSes
Altiris Client Management Suite Windows Server 2000 -- Windows Server 2008 R2, Unix, Linux, Mac OS X
CA Technologies IT Management Solutions Windows Server 2000 -- Windows Server 2008 R2
Dell KACE Windows Server 2003, 2008, 2008 R2 (except Data Center, Cluster Server), Mac OS X
HP IT Management Solutions Windows Server 2000 -- Windows Server 2008 R2, Unix (HP-UX), Linux
Microsoft System Center Windows Server 2000 -- Windows Server 2008 R2

What does server management really mean?

In the era of the highly virtualized data center and the cloud, server management is an elastic concept. Both physical and virtual servers must be provisioned, set up, configured and equipped with necessary services and storage at the front of their lifecycle.

In the cycle's longest leg -- namely, maintenance -- admins must monitor each server and update it with upgrades, patches and fixes. Service and software elements should be added or removed as needs dictate. In addition, IT must provide for backup and restore functions. At the end of the lifecycle, servers must be decommissioned and deleted or properly disposed of.

To varying degrees, all of the Windows management consoles covered in this article provide these functions. Admins are increasingly focusing more on virtualized servers than physical ones -- VMs certainly outnumber boxes significantly -- but modern enterprises must accommodate both types of servers.

Table 2: Desktop OSes managed, by console

Platform Supported OSes
Altiris Client Management Suite Windows .2000, XP, Vista, 7, Mac OS X, Linux
CA Technologies IT Management Solutions Windows .2000, XP, Vista, 7
Dell KACE Windows .2000, XP, Vista, 7, Mac OS X, Red Hat 3 and higher
HP IT Management Solutions Windows .2000, XP, Vista, 7, Linux
Microsoft System Center Windows .XP, Vista, 7

What does client management really mean?

One of IT's security concerns around client management and desktop virtualization is access control, particularly for mobile desktops and remote users outside the organizational firewall. Of course, the same lifecycle elements mentioned for servers also apply to desktops and notebooks. The backup and restore/reimaging functions are perhaps even more important, however, because  worker productivity depends on a desktop's proper functioning and availability. Virtual snapshots and frequent system images can speed rebuilds and restores, increasing productivity.

Proper desktop and notebook management requires policy-based admission and participation controls, along with security measures against malware, unauthorized use and other forms of attack. Centralized security and policies go hand in hand, providing reasonable guarantees of security and proper compliance with regulatory requirements, acceptable-use policies, and workplace guidelines.

Table 3: Mobile OSes managed, by console

Platform Supported OSes
Altiris Client Management Suite Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile/CE
CA Technologies IT Management Solutions iOS, Android, iOS, Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile/CE, Windows Phone 7; complete mobile application programming interfaces (APIs) and tool sets for mobile service providers and operators
Dell KACE Llimited iOS app management
HP IT Management Solutions iOS, Android, iOS, Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile/CE, Windows Phone 7; complete mobile APIs and tool sets for mobile service providers and operators
Microsoft System Center Android, iOS, WP 7; requires Exchange Active Sync Connector (sync only)

What does mobile management mean?

As bring your own device (BYOD) and company-issued mobile devices proliferate in the workplace and beyond, organizations must secure and manage them as completely and carefully as servers and desktops. As Table 3 shows, not all OSes fall under every Windows management console's umbrella, and companies may find their chosen or allowed mobile devices at odds with their management environments until those issues are resolved.

The same policy-based admission and participation controls must apply to mobile devices as to desktops and notebooks that are more likely to be organizational assets. Centralized security and policies should also apply to mobile devices, despite laissez-faire attitudes to BYOD equipment belonging to employees or contractors.

HP and CA's support of customized management regimes for mobile device infrastructures and development tools for other mobile device OSes is particularly promising. But this is an area still very much in development, so we to keep an eye on them for some time to come.

No holy grail yet, but someday?

There may be dashboards to provide unified views of modern enterprise environments, but with the possible exception of offerings from Microsoft, no single Windows management console will do the job for all management tasks.

Alas, the more heterogeneous an organization's IT environment happens to be, the more OS versions it must manage (especially when these start shading off into "legacy territory" -- as with Windows 2000 today and Windows XP from 2014 on). Even as technology changes and matures, the need for admins to understand how to use multiple Windows management consoles remains.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ed Tittel
is a longtime computer industry writer with over 100 computer books and thousands of articles to his credit. His most recent book is Computer Forensics JumpStart. Check out his IT Career JumpStart and Windows Enterprise Desktop blogs for TechTarget.

This was first published in March 2012

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