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System Center Essentials 2010

  • Editors' rating
    8.3 Excellent

Pros

  • Virtual as well as physical machine management
  • Simplified installation
  • Enhanced console
  • Automated patching
  • Scalable to 50 servers and 500 workstations

Cons

  • Lengthy deployment
  • No direct management of VMware virtual machines

It's been a couple of years since Microsoft launched System Center Essentials 2007, giving mid-sized businesses access to the same system management tools as enterprises in a more affordable and usable format. System Center Essentials 2010 (SCE 2010), which is now available as a Release Candidate, majors on the ability to manage virtual as well as physical machines. The console interface also gets an overhaul in the new release, and it's designed to be much easier to deploy by the IT generalists who are typically charged with getting it to work.

Getting started
Up to 500 desktops and 50 servers can be managed with the new Essentials — which, in essence, bundles together of the best bits from Microsoft's core System Center management products. That's Operations Manager for server and application monitoring and Configuration Manager to collect inventories and manage software distribution plus, in the new release, Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) to handle the virtual machine (VM) side of things.

Support for automatic updates is another core feature, based on Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) technology, with everything fronted by a common integrated console.

As you might imagine, the end result is a hefty package, so it's worth taking time to read the associated documentation before starting out, if only to make sure you have the right hardware and software to run it. In particular, be aware that a virtualisation host is required in order to take advantage of the VM management option. This may sound obvious, but could take some buyers by surprise. This can be either the Hyper-V hypervisor or an implementation of Microsoft's Virtual Server, with the former preferred for maximum functionality. Note too that you can import virtual machines from VMware, but cannot manage VMs on the VMware platform directly, as you can with the full Virtual Machine Manager product.

In our tests we used a 64-bit Windows Server 2008 R2 system with the Hyper-V role installed. There's support for 32-bit platforms and Windows Server 2003 if that's all you've got, but the virtualisation options will be seriously limited in that case.

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The lengthy SCE install is shortened by loading up missing prerequisites during the process.

Installing SCE 2010
Installing SCE 2007 can be tricky, so a lot of work has gone into simplifying the procedure in the 2010 version. One small but significant enhancement is the ability to install prerequisites such as the .NET Framework and supporting SQL Server during the process. However, it's still a far from trivial procedure, with over 5GB of data involved. Even on our modest test LAN, this took the best part of half a day to get through.

On the plus side, start-up wizards help with a lot of the post-installation work, automatically discovering systems and applications on the network and installing both the client agents and management packs needed.

A big change here is the selective installation of management packs depending on what's found on the LAN, instead of the 70 or so loaded up in advance by Essentials 2007. There's also the option of adding additional management packs when new servers or PCs are detected, as well as keeping installed packs updated automatically and building dynamic management groups on the fly when new systems are found.

Putting SCE to work
Having used the previous version for a while, we were soon up and running with SCE 2010. However, it can still take a while to get used to both what the product can do and how it works — especially if you're new to system management. That said, the management console is much improved with a new Outlook-style interface (reflecting the console in the latest full System Center products), which we found very intuitive.

The SCE2010 console now lets you manage virtual as well as physical Windows machines.

The new console provides separate workspaces to manage computers and work with the monitoring, system update and software distribution options, with associated lists of common management tasks, reports and help sources as appropriate. There are also workspaces for general reporting and administration with click-through support in each to take you from summary views to more detailed information.

Everything is done from within the console and there are wizards in abundance which help to make it as painless as possible. We were particularly impressed by the new virtualisation options, which are seamlessly integrated into the product so that virtual machines are simply listed alongside physical systems when you open up the Computers workspace.

Wizards and templates help when creating a new VM from the SCE console.

Adding a new host and installing the management agent proved straightforward, and there are wizard-driven tools to build new virtual machines from scratch and import an existing VM — either from a Microsoft virtual hard disk (VHD) or a VMware folder. Templates are also available to assist with VM creation, along with a tool to help you decide which servers are best suited to hosting your VMs according to the resources required.

Physical-to-virtual machine conversion is another process that can be managed from within the console, as well as monitoring and managing virtual machines in much the same way as with the full SCVMM package. There's even support for live VM migration across Hyper-V hosts, and in our tests it all worked remarkably well. We did have one small gripe: the need to copy source VHD and VM files into a special library folder before the SCE tools could find them. The same also applies to CD/DVD images used to install the OS and other software onto a VM.

WSUS now automatically decides what updates to distribute.

The bottom line
Virtualisation is definitely the big draw for SCE 2010, but there are enhancements to the other tools as well — not least the software update option. Based on WSUS technology, the changes here are aimed at automating the patching process in order to, for example, discover exactly what updates are needed across the whole network, set auto-approval deadlines and handle distribution differently on workstations and servers. There's also support for third-party update services and a clean-up wizard to help keep the update database down to a reasonable size.

Prices for SCE 2010 have yet to be announced, but are unlikely to differ much from the current version. So for a small network (10 servers and 50 PCs) you can expect to pay upwards of £2,500 (ex. VAT). Upgrades for existing customers will also be available and, either way, it's a worthwhile investment: System Center Essentials 2010 extends an already very capable management tool and brings it, a little belatedly, into the virtual world.

 

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