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Analyzing the Windows Intune value proposition

Windows Intune is touted for its promising feature set and price. But a closer look at the cloud-based antivirus product might make admins think twice about investing in it.

Microsoft recently launched its Windows Intune service, a combination of remote management services and Windows client OS licensing that breaks new ground for the company, specifically its cloud computing ambitions.

Potential customers should look carefully at Intune, however, because most of the services it offers are already available at a lower cost -- usually from Microsoft itself. While Intune's $11 per month price is attractive, the majority of customers should measure its cost and functionality against the alternatives to avoid a costly, long-term relationship. In fact, many customers may find that Intune duplicates services that they already have in-house.

Microsoft lists the following as Intune's major features. We'll use them to analyze the product's value proposition:

  • Centralized management console
  • Update management
  • Malware protection for PCs
  • Remote Assistance
  • Hardware and software inventories
  • Licenses for Windows 7 Enterprise

Centralized management console
Windows Intune has an online management console that lets administrators view the status of each computer enrolled in the service, including its current patches, antivirus signature files and so on. The console is useful in many environments, but unless Intune can completely replace other IT services -- which in most cases it can't -- it only increases costs.

For example, an admin should be able to interpret any alerts the console raises and respond to them accordingly. Small companies might not have those skills in-house, however, so they're better off with a support contract from a small business partner. The $5,500 per month they pay for Intune could be used to hire an IT technician who can provide a broader range of maintenance and troubleshooting services.

Update management
The majority of' Windows PCs download and automatically install updates from Windows Update at no charge. Large enterprises can intervene in that process by setting their PCs to download updates from an internal instance of Windows Server Update Services (also free) so they can test updates before installing them. Small organizations usually have no need for that.

Companies that use standard hardware and common applications, such as those from Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec, will find the free Windows Update quite adequate. Since Microsoft already does a lot of compatibility testing with common software, WSUS has more value in larger organizations with a lot of custom software, making Intune a costly duplicate.

Malware protection for PCs
Windows Intune includes Forefront Endpoint Protection (FEP), a business-oriented product that protects against viruses and spyware. It also uses the same engine as Microsoft's free Security Essentials, which is useful for businesses with 10 or fewer computers.

If you purchase FEP separately from Intune, it's 72 cents per month per computer, less for larger-volume customers. It also runs inside System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), which many larger customers with Enterprise Agreements already have a license for.

Remote Assistance
Although Remote Assistance has been built into the Microsoft client since Windows XP, Windows Intune might work better under certain circumstances because it can be initiated from the console. Therefore, companies should consider the number of times they've used Remote Assistance in the past year, how often it failed and whether Intune is a better option.

For instance, Microsoft's small business partners commonly use Remote Assistance to support their small business customers. But if Intune connects to someone in trouble, does the admin know how to fix the problem? If a partner is already being paid for these services, there's no need to pay for them again through Intune.

Hardware and software inventories
Inventory software can be valuable, particularly for large companies where it's hard to keep track of what specific customers or users are up to. But as Microsoft itself notes, large companies are better off with on-premises tools like SCCM than they are with Intune because of the software's powerful inventory tools. And since small firms generally don't sweat such inventories, Intune doesn't hold as many benefits.

Licenses for Windows 7 Enterprise
Windows 7 Enterprise has some important features, particularly for multinational enterprises and portable users. But if a Windows 7 user subscribes to Intune and later decides to discontinue that subscription, he may have to do a clean install of a down-level edition of Windows 7, such as Windows 7 Professional, because he no longer has a right to use Windows 7 Enterprise. (Note that Windows 7 Enterprise cannot be installed on computers purchased with consumer editions of Windows, such as Home Premium.)

Customers who value the features in Windows 7 Enterprise can get it for a lower cost in two other ways:

1. Within 90 days of purchasing a new computer with Windows 7 Professional, purchase Software Assurance for the operating system on the new computer. This entitles you to permanently upgrade to Windows 7 Enterprise at a lower cost (no more than $108) than one year of Windows Intune.

2. Purchase a new computer with Windows Ultimate (about $50 more than Windows 7 Professional) or upgrade an existing computer from a business or consumer OS using the Windows Anytime Upgrade (about $140). The latter option appears to be more expensive, but since you can upgrade from a consumer OS -- which is about $100 cheaper than Windows 7 Professional on new computers -- it's actually less expensive overall.

In other words, the feature set in Windows 7 Ultimate is identical to that of Windows 7 Enterprise. It's also less expensive than Windows Intune. In as little as one year, you get a perpetual license, not just a subscription.

Does Windows Intune ever make sense?
Given this analysis, it would seem that Windows Intune never makes sense. However, I wouldn't dismiss it entirely.

Remote users that need to tap every ounce of Remote Assistance functionality might find some additional insight into a problem by using the Windows Intune console. They can also benefit from Windows 7 Enterprise. For instance, features like BitLocker and DirectAccess are more valuable on portable desktops than on regular desktops. Laptops can be left in taxis or are stolen from hotel rooms, so it can be reassuring to know that confidential data is safely protected by BitLocker. 

In addition, BitLocker can be beneficial for remote workers, who are more likely to use virtual private networks, while regular desktops are usually wired into a physical network.

Intune also makes sense for a really small company with limited IT capabilities. Intune may be only a partial solution, but it's better than none. Small companies that need more capabilities can also cut a better deal with a services partner. For example, if Intune can cut the cost of a monthly services and troubleshooting contract with a small business partner from $500 a month to $400, it pays for itself for a company with less than 10 computers.

Small business partners might offer such deals because they can monitor multiple customers from the online Windows Intune console, potentially saving time and reducing trips to customer premises to fix problems.

Paul DeGroot is a writer, trainer and principal consultant at Pica Communications, which specializes in Microsoft licensing strategies and policies.

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