One-Stop Shopping for Desktop Management

PC-Duo is a veritable Swiss Army knife of management utilities.

My father gave me a Swiss Army knife when I was a young boy. Besides a pocketknife, it had a pair of scissors, screwdrivers, a saw, a corkscrew, even a toothpick. That all-in-one philosophy is a growing trend in desktop management software. Vendors are focusing on desktop management suites (DTMS) with full sets of programs and utilities to monitor and manage networks.

The principal complaint about DTMS has been that they are the proverbial jack-of-all-trades and master of none. DTMS supporters point to ease of use, the advantage of full integration, consistent performance, seamless interactivity and the advantages of single-source support. DTMS can also help save on hardware and software costs. Gartner reports that an unmanaged Windows XP desktop costs $5,309 over three years, whereas a managed XP desktop would cost only $3,335. Vector Networks' PC-Duo Enterprise takes a modular, management console-based approach to desktop management.

PC-Duo EnterpriseChoose Your Tool
PC-Duo Enterprise snaps into the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), so you can run all the modules—Inventory, Distribution, Metering, Help Desk, Diagnostics and Remote Control—from within the MMC systems management framework. Inventory Management helps you centrally audit and manage hardware and software inventory for all PCs throughout the enterprise. The hardware inventory routines use a combination of DMI, WMI and Vector Networks' own proprietary algorithms to collect more than 650 items of hardware and configuration data. It then records them in a central database, whether SQL Server, Oracle or a runtime version of Access.

You can also monitor software installed and in use on your network, automatically detect new installations and crack down on pirated applications or other software of questionable origins. You can define and allocate customized "packages" (groups of applications a PC might use that are typically based on a role, so you might have one for accountants and another for lab staff). The system will assess the situation and report on who has programs they shouldn't have, who doesn't have software they need and who has been running what.

Software Distribution facilitates installing new software and updates, including patches and hotfixes, across your network. You can also use the distribution module to roll out applications to client computers on a pre-determined schedule. Software Metering helps you identify unused licenses and determine application patterns. Help Desk is a Web-based module for centrally tracking and managing help desk issues and calls. You can create customized fields, automated workflow rules and customer reporting.

Diagnostics automatically protects critical desktop applications by taking "snapshots," and can restore the system when needed. This is similar to Symantec's Ghost, but PC-Duo fixes the problems while keeping all existing settings—a nice touch. Remote Control lets you control any client or server via a network (LAN or WAN) or the Internet.

The Remote Control module is the shining star of PC-Duo. Besides controlling applications, you can also use it to teach remote users. This may sound like XP's Remote Assistance, but it's different. Remote Assistance is limited compared to PC-Duo's remote operations. You can choose complete control (so the user can't do anything while you're working), shared control (so both you and the user can move and operate the mouse) and watch only (where you have no control, you're just watching the user).

Figure 1. PC-Duo Enterprise remote control features.
Figure 1. PC-Duo Enterprise remote control features give you a snapshot view of client system configurations with details on drives, network connectivity, memory allocation and system configuration. (Click image to view larger version.)

The Remote Control module also supports seamless drag-and-drop between the host computer and remote computer. This means you can have a streaming audio chat between computers so tech support personnel can explain what's going on as they're doing it. Screen multicasting lets you broadcast one user's screen to as many other computers on the network as possible (perfect for training en masse). There's even a scan function that sets up the tech support workstation to cycle viewing through a set collection of client machines. PC-Duo's reporting facility lets you run built-in reports like those found throughout the other MMC tree view nodes or you can customize your own.

The PC-Duo interface is clean and logically organized, and includes a large number of predefined reports and views. In the Clients' section of the Enterprise Console tree view, for example, you can view All Clients or a list of computers based on their physical characteristics. Hence, there are nodes for IBM computers, computers with 64MB of RAM and so on.

Having said all that, PC-Duo is not without its flaws. The Enterprise snap-in integrates nicely into the MMC, but whenever PC-Duo brings up property boxes or separate programs outside of the MMC interface, they're cumbersome and complex. PC-Duo also lacks comprehensive Active Directory integration. I was not overly impressed with PC-Duo's patch management capabilities, which were fairly limited. I would probably use a standalone product for that, were I to deploy PC-Duo on a medium-sized or larger network. None of these, however, are critical failings.

Simple Setup
PC-Duo's installation package includes client and server components. Obviously, you put the server components on the computer designated as the console. The help desk package runs as a Web application and needs to be on a system running IIS. Each client needs to have the client software installed on it. If you want a system to be remote controllable, you also need to install the remote control client separately. The installations are all managed from a single menu on the installer CD and you can easily select what you want to install.

After initial installation, PC-Duo's Enterprise Console (an MMC snap-in) immediately launches a wizard that walks you through the steps required to create a new "site." The wizard asks a few simple questions like the name of the site and configures the back-end database appropriately. It also creates a "client kit" and places it in a shared directory. This runs on the client computers either by the client accessing it from the server or by pushing it to the clients from the Enterprise Console. The client software will enable PC-Duo functions and let it communicate with the server. The client installer also examines the client computer's settings and installed software before reporting back to the server, which polls for new clients at a given interval.

Installing the console software was smooth and quick and was literally completed in about three minutes. There were only some minor glitches due to interference from anti-virus software.

Figure 2. PC-Duo Enterprise provides an overall view of software installed.
Figure 1. PC-Duo Enterprise provides an overall view of software installed on systems connected to your network, including details on whether the software is authorized and which version is installed. (Click image to view larger version.)

Know Your Needs
If you're in the market for a desktop management suite, this is a superb product and is definitely worth a look. PC-Duo Enterprise is easy to learn, logical and smooth. It is adaptive and an excellent option for your network management needs.

Whenever you're considering an integrated package like this one, though, carefully review whether or not you need all the functions and components or if you really only need one or two.