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Windows 7 Rolling Review: Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager R2

Windows 7 Deployment Tools
The goal of this Rolling Review is simple: Simulate how easy, or painful, it will be to upgrade client systems to Windows 7 in a distributed environment.
Acronis Deploys Windows 7 With Ease
Acronis' Snap Deploy 3.0 client imaging system focuses only on client imaging and deployment. If you're shopping for a full enterprise desktop management suite, look elsewhere.
Zinstall Runs Windows 7 and XP
Organizations have an option from an upstart called Zinstall, which lets users run both XP and Windows 7 on the same computer.
Kace KBOX 2000
The KBOX 1000 series focuses on client management, including client inventory, software distribution, app virtualization, remote control, rudimentary NAC and a Web-enabled help desk, among other things.
Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager R2
Of the products tested, Configuration Manager is most efficient at OS deployment and user state migration.
Avocent LANDesk Management Suite 9
LANDesk's range of OS support makes it the most diverse client management solution we tested.
Mainstream support for Windows XP Pro is over, and mainstream support for Vista Business runs out in 2012. The upshot? Windows 7 is coming to your organization. The right deployment tool can make an upgrade less painful.

In the next edition of our rolling review of Windows 7 deployment solutions, we test a product that has the inside track on Windows 7: Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager (SSCM). The product was relatively easy to deploy because Microsoft delivered Configuration Manager to us inside a pre-built virtual machine (Hyper-V, of course). Normally, the product is delivered as a traditional software package. Smaller and medium-sized IT shops can run Configuration Manager 2007 SP2 on single server. Large organizations with thousands or tens of thousands of clients should run a separate management server and a database server (SQL Server, of course). While Microsoft recommends Windows Server 2008 for SCCM, Windows Server 2003 supports all of the various CM server roles.

If you haven't used Configuration Manager before, prepare yourself for a significant learning curve. This product has lots of functionality, and you could probably make a career out of learning the ins and outs of this application. But if you can stay the course, you'll be impressed with what you can do with Configuration Manager.

Similar to the Kace KBOX, SCCM gives you the option of building either a scripted, unattended upgrade job or an image-based deployment. SCCM uses the Windows Imaging Format (WIM) to create system images. These images can be manipulated with ImageX, a tool made available in the Windows Automated Installation Toolkit. ImageX is a command-line tool for imaging drives, but Configuration Manager does a good job at wrapping a user interface around it to automate the heavy lifting.

A client OS deployment is difficult to automate because it involves many discrete steps. That's why you need a well-designed, automated task manager to handle the job. Configuration Manager has a robust task manager--perhaps the best we've seen in this rolling review. While the Kace KBOX Task Manager is slightly more user friendly with its Web-enabled, drag-and-drop interface, Configuration Manager's error reporting helped us diagnose issues much more effectively as we started structuring the individual tasks necessary to upgrade our test clients from XP to Win7.

Our Take

Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager

Configuration Manager newbies are in for a steep learning curve, but it's worth it.
Of the products tested, Configuration Manager is most efficient at OS deployment and user state migration.
The product's task scheduler, error reporting, and debugging tools rise above the pack.

Migrating user data and preferences from XP/Vista to Win7 is perhaps the most challenging task related to the OS upgrade because of the innumerable ways users can customize a computer's features and settings. Configuration Manager SP2 offers an efficient solution to this problem: user-state hard linking. Unlike other products, Configuration Manager never has to pull a user profile off the endpoint client machine. Instead, the Windows 7 deployment actually wraps around the sectors on the disk where the user profile is stored. As a result, Windows 7 is actually overlaid on top of the existing user profiles and automatically inherits whatever settings users put in place in XP or Vista. This means your desktop administrators don't have to pull user profiles from the old OS, store them, and then replace them onto the new OS after the installation. Skipping this step saves a significant amount of time in the upgrade process. On the downside, user-state hard linking can be a little scary because if something goes wrong during the migration, you may lose all of the user's data. However, we didn't experience any problems with our test clients.

Configuration Manager is geared toward very large enterprises, and as a result, you'll find some modules and hidden gems in the box that other products don't have. Seamless integration with Microsoft's Application Compatibility Toolkit is one such example; organizations concerned with application compatibility can run their application portfolios through the ACT to find out how seamless (or not) the Windows 7 transition will be. SCCM really shines in post deployment, thanks to modules like asset management, software distribution and metering, mobile device management, and NAP integration. All these components make Configuration Manager a more feature-rich client management solution than products we tested from Acronis and Kace KBOX.

Configuration Manager has excellent policy management and reporting capabilities. Policies can be tied to "collections" within a SCCM site, and collections can be married to various Active Directory or WMI attributes or objects, such as a user object, a group organizational unit, or a CPU type. As a result, you can target software upgrades and patch updates intelligently, with full visibility into any hardware dependencies that might exist for a given software update to succeed.

According to Microsoft, SCCM R3 will include a new power management module, which will let admins enforce and report on power usage policy. You'll be able to do things like measure how much it costs your organization when users leave PCs on overnight. You'll be able to see how much money could save by enforcing a hibernation policy after 60 minutes of system inactivity, and so on.

Configuration Manager's wide range of options is ideal for large organizations that have thousands of clients to upgrade and manage. On the downside, it's not as easy to use as other products for deployments, but if you want both deployment and ongoing client management, System Center Configuration Manager belongs on your shortlist. The base price for Configuration Manager R2 is $579, or $1,321 for Configuration Manager with SQL Server. Client licenses for each managed PC range from $41 to $430 depending on features.