Update: Topaz Becomes Systems Management Server 2003

Microsoft Corp. officials on Tuesday announced that Systems Management Server 2003 is the formal name for the next version of SMS. The follow-on to the three-year-old SMS 2.0 had previously gone by the codename "Topaz."

In a keynote at the Microsoft Management Summit in Las Vegas Tuesday, Microsoft's director of the management business group, David Hamilton, said SMS 2003 will enter beta testing this summer.

SMS is Microsoft's software for change and configuration management for Windows-based desktop and server systems. It runs on top of Windows NT or Windows 2000 and requires SQL Server for the primary site server.

New since Hamilton discussed Topaz at an SMS conference a year ago is support within SMS for non-PC Windows-based devices, such as those running Windows CE or PocketPC. This support will come in the form of a free patch that will ship 3-6 months after the general release of SMS 2003. Microsoft is aiming to have a beta of the handheld piece available when SMS 2003 goes into general release.

Other features Microsoft officials discussed Tuesday were similar to what Microsoft announced a year ago when the product was supposed to enter beta in the second half of 2001.

The key features Hamilton discussed last year were better support for laptop users, integration with the Active Directory, enhanced software metering and browser-based reporting. Those features were all major themes on Tuesday, as well.

Microsoft's main focus with SMS 2003 is support for mobility through the laptop and non-PC Windows-based device features. According to Microsoft, up to 30 percent of the typical corporate environment consists of mobile and remote users.

"With today's increasingly mobile work force, the use of handheld devices and laptops poses a management challenge for customers that extends beyond the desktop," Hamilton said in a statement. "Management of the enterprise, from devices to the data center, becomes broader, deeper and more effective with Systems Management Server 2003 and its mobile support capabilities."

Michael Emanuel, senior product manager for Microsoft’s management business group, says the delay in SMS 2003 came because early testers requests and suggested changes turned out to be more involved than anticipated and because Microsoft had a “rock-solid” version on the market in SMS 2.0, which did enjoy better stability after its second service pack.

”It took a lot longer than we anticipated,” Emanuel says. “We originally said, ‘Let’s leave the SMS 2.0 infrastructure as alone as we possibly can and add mobile [laptop] support. But if you do that you ended up with two clients. [And] one of the things [early adopters] were desperate to use was SMS logon points. … Once you make that decision, you have to go back.”

Mobility support in SMS 2003 comes through the use of Background Intelligent Transfer Services (BITS); location awareness, for providing updates from the closest source to reduce impact on WANs; and user interfaces that allow network administrators to see mobile systems alongside desktops in collections for asset management and software distribution.

BITS, based on HTTP standards and Windows Update technology, allows mobile users to download software using only the available bandwidth and remembers where a download leaves off. “We have to be resilient, we have to work in the worst possible conditions,” Emanuel says. “We’re smart enough [with BITS] to back off if you’re doing something else.”

In a related development, Microsoft has changed SMS so that it can replicate changes to packages rather than blasting the entire package around the network each time there’s a change. “If you’ve already distributed a package of a significant size, then you only have to transfer the delta,” Emanuel says.

Microsoft did not build support for Active Directory into SMS 2.0, which shipped a year ahead of Windows 2000, or its subsequent service packs, the most recent of which, SP3, shipped in February 2001. At the time, Microsoft said SMS was its primary tool to help users deploy Windows 2000, so it was not a major requirement.

SMS 2003 does integrate with Active Directory, eliminating the need to create and maintain multiple management structures in Active Directory shops. With the Active Directory support, SMS users can map SMS functionality to business roles they have defined in the Active Directory. Active Directory will not be required to use SMS 2003.

“Customers say they want to be able to target people against Organizational Units and security groups and the kinds of information SMS has always provided, such as patch updates and service packs, the kinds of things that aren’t stored in the Active Directory,” Emanuel says.

Another big change in SMS 2003 is improvements in software metering, a feature introduced with SMS 2.0 for tracking application use across the enterprise, planning and budgeting software upgrades and ensuring license compliance. Customers ran into significant scalability problems with software metering in SMS 2.0, Microsoft officials acknowledge.

SMS 2003 effectively strips out what was known as online software metering in SMS 2.0. That offered tokens to users for software licenses so that an organization would never exceed its user allowances. Unfortunately, the approach was “very, very resource intensive,” Emanuel says. “I actually don’t know anybody who was using the online mode.”

Software metering has been rewritten to support only what was known in SMS 2.0 as the “offline” mode, which is essentially a software auditing tool that generates reports about how many copies of software are in the enterprise and how frequently they are used. The tool allows users to ask questions such as, “How many [copies] can I retire because we’re never using them.”

Web-based reporting, meanwhile, will be available for the first time in SMS with the 2003 version.

One other change since Microsoft’s last major address on Topaz-SMS 2003 involves Windows 95 support. Back in March 2001, it remained an open question whether Topaz would support Windows 95. Now Windows 95 is definitely out. “That’s because we’ve discontinued support for Windows 95 as a corporation. But we’re not about to retire SMS 2.0, either,” Emanuel says of the current version of SMS, which does manage Windows 95 clients.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.