HP Agents Tame Desktops

Finally equipped with a relational database and the best software packaging tool we've seen in a desktop management system, Version 5.0 of Hewlett-Packard Co.

Finally equipped with a relational database and the best software packaging tool we've seen in a desktop management system, Version 5.0 of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Desktop Administrator is now girded to tackle—and tame—enterprise environments.

Priced between $48 and $87 per managed desktop, Desktop Administrator is positioned to compete effectively with such venerable rivals as Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Management Suite and Microsoft Corp.'s SMS (Systems Management Server). Although Desktop Administrator didn't raise the bar technologywise in PC Week Labs' tests, we found its desktop agent prowess and software distribution capability far superior to those of any competing products we've tested to date. Desktop Administrator 5.0 started shipping last month.

Unlike many of its rivals, Desktop Administrator 5.0 made it easy for us to deploy a tiny 160KB base agent; then, to reduce the network strain typically associated with a large-scale rollout, Desktop Administrator automatically waited before deploying other agent components, such as software distribution and inventory. In comparison, competitors dump a fat agent on every desktop, which can clog up a network's arteries and slow everything down.

IT managers who passed up earlier versions of Desktop Administrator because of its weak flat-file database should take a long look at Version 5.0, which is accompanied by a very workable embedded relational database; it supports SQL Server. In short, Desktop Administrator is now a solid contender for any medium or large shop that needs a well-thought-out software distribution, inventory and remote control package.

In fact, this version of Desktop Administrator has overcome all of the major weaknesses we found during the April 19 Desktop/Mobile Management Shoot-Out at engineering and construction company Morrison Knudsen Corp. (See Page 76 for an update on how Morrison Knudsen is doing with Intel's LANDesk.)

Console security does, how ever, remain a concern, as Desktop Administrator 5.0 is still unable to associate varying levels of access with specific groups of users.

The only real improvement HP could make in Desktop Administrator would be to include support of the Desktop Management Task Force's WBEM (Web-Based Enterprise Management) standard. Although Desktop Administrator 5.0 supports the hardware-oriented Desktop Management Interface 2.0, it doesn't yet capture other WBEM inventory and performance information.

This would be a big step forward for Desktop Administrator—and any other desktop management suite—because adherence to the WBEM specification would greatly ease the process of tracking hardware and software information, especially in large networks where several management systems might be in use.

On a related note, we were also disappointed that Desktop Administrator 5.0 does not offer easy integration with such help desk products as Remedy Corp.'s Remedy; this would eliminate the need to fetch desktop inventory information more than once.

The big surprise in Desktop Administrator is the addition of the first truly workable software distribution packaging tool we've seen in a desktop management system. Usually, we recommend that users swap out the anemic software packaging tools found in desktop management products (especially Microsoft's SMS) with a specialized product, such as LANovation's PictureTaker. Not so with Desktop Administrator.

We used Desktop Administrator's snapshot tool to create distribution packages of Microsoft Office (big, complex) and Net3 Corp.'s Network Calculator (small, simple). Desktop Administrator automatically switched to a publish-and-subscribe method of software distribution, which made it easy to either offer packages to users or force an installation. This is a big improvement over the previous version, which required heavy IT staff involvement in every software distribution while limiting users' choices about accepting software.

We tested Desktop Administrator by loading the console onto a 450MHz Pentium III machine running HP's OpenView, with 256MB of RAM—about the right size for a site with 250 to 500 desktops to manage. Our test network consisted of 30 PCs running Windows 95 and 30 running Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, each loaded with a mix of business software.

As in previous versions of Desktop Administrator, the suite's tight integration between inventory and distribution made it a snap to distribute software to targeted groups of desktops based on such characteristics as the amount of memory or currently installed software.

Desktop Administrator has a well-integrated hardware and software asset tracking system, which made many administrative chores simple. After the base DTA agent was installed on all of our systems, we simply designated a group of computers to gather inventory: The collection was completed in a matter of minutes.

The extensive hardware inventory information, including the processor type, amount of RAM and BIOS information, provided us with all the details we needed to keep tabs on equipment. Furthermore, we could easily use data along with software distribution to make sure that target machines met the minimum requirements before we scheduled software deployments.

As in the previous version of DTA, the software inventory depends on a library of titles, which managers will have to keep updated to make sure that software reports are accurate. In tests, it was easy to add additional software titles to the library so that the inventory scan could recognize custom applications.

Remote control in this version of DTA is provided by Symantec Corp.'s pcAny where. The two products are tightly integrated, and, aside from a few awkward steps during the initial setup, it was easy to take over remote systems.

PC Week Labs Executive Summary: Desktop Administrator 5.0

In Version 5.0, HP's Desktop Administrator has gained a much- needed relational database, plus improved software distribution and better agent technology, equipping it for life aboard an enterprise. However, although DTA 5.0 has made great strides in its inventory and remote control tools, the package still isn't a trendsetter; it is, however, a solid workhorse.

Short-Term Business Impact: Implementing any desktop management product should almost immediately reduce the cost of software distribution while improving inventory accuracy. However, achieving such a payoff with DTA 5.0 requires careful planning and strict attention to detail, especially in placing secondary management servers—although any desktop management package warrants such attention to detail.

Long-Term Business Impact: As end users become accustomed to receiving new software via DTA and as help desk staffers begin relying on remote control to solve problems instead of walking to individual desktops, significant savings in desktop administration costs will accrue. Further, it's reasonable to expect that the amount of staff time needed to maintain DTA will drop significantly as applications managers become adept at preparing and distributing software packages.

Pros: Includes strong relational database; provides efficient desktop agents; software distribution is now superior.

Cons: Provides little support for Desktop Management Task Force's WBEM standard; lacks integration with help desk packages; lacks console security.


Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif.; (415) 857-1501; www.hp.com

Scoring methodology:www.pcweek.com/reviews/meth.html

Technical Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be con tacted at cameron_sturdevant @zd.com.