Arm yourself with this estimate the next time you requisition a desktop-management suite: The cost of an unmanaged Windows XP desktop is $5,309 over three years, whereas a
managed XP desktop runs only $3,335, according to Gartner. If you have a lot of desktops, the justification for spending the big bucks on a management suite may be in the savings per desktop over time. Cheaper alternatives are available, but they'll cost you in terms of the time it takes to research, implement and maintain them.
No matter how you go at it and what your budget allows, your desktop-management suite must keep track of your resources, distribute/install software and patches, and keep your software licenses up-to-date to avoid lawsuits. Any additional capability is icing on the cake.
More advanced features--tiered administration, dynamic groupings, report generation and notification, remote control and accounting packages--come in pricier offerings, like Altiris' Client Management Suite, which can run, with all the bells and whistles, more than $70 per node. Simpler suites, such as Software Innovations' Systemhound and Vector Networks' PC-Duo, offer inventory scanning, software-license monitoring and report generation and might be enough for you.
Most suites are modular, so you can negotiate out functionality you don't need. Vector Networks offers at least 39 different software combinations, each with its own price. You can skip the suite and get solo inventory-scan products, such as Tally Systems' 30-day free trial of its WebCensus for 100 nodes. Trouble is you must manually engage the scans from each user's PC rather than schedule recurring scans. The inventory database is not accessible, so you can't write your own queries and reports.