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Network Services Management Console (NSMC) is an enterprise systems management system that features deployment, inventory, license and baseline management features with no client software required on managed systems. It even helps you manage your baseline by alerting you to new software that may appear on the network.

As usual, I will begin with product installation and then cover some of the major features (the console, asset management, software deployment) and will then wrap up with some other features and a closing summary.

Installation

The installation of NSMC provides a simple "Standard" and "Custom" option. While the "Custom" option is labeled as being for advanced users, I recommend choosing this option to get a better of idea of what it is you are installing. It would be helpful to see a "Console only", "w/Services", and "w/Services and Database" in a more user-friendly manner, but if you choose "Standard" you get it all.

For clarification- the installation consists of three key elements:

  • The NSMC Console – this is the management interface provided to perform all supported management tasks.

  • Services – There are services for each of the modules that make up NSMC (scheduler, distribution and monitoring). Each can be installed on multiple systems for scalability.

  • Database – The database is used to store information collected by NSMC and if you are installing the console or services on a separate system, you must configure specify the location and credentials for the central database.

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It is important to plan your rollout of NSMC- choosing "Standard" to select all the components on your initial installation, and then choosing to install consoles (and/or services) individually on other machines depending upon your environment. When installing on additional systems, choose "Custom" and you will see the NSMC console is the only item pre-selected (no services, or databases).

Client Installation

Client installation? None here; NSMC does not require a client service to be installed on managed systems. This is an excellent benefit to NSMC in that you have no client software to deploy, or manage.

NSMC uses WMI to remotely collect information and manage specified systems. While no client software is necessary, the dependency on WMI does require that you have it installed on those systems to be managed. For Windows 2000 and later systems, WMI is included as part of the Windows distribution and nothing more is required. The documentation provides details on the installation and configuration of WMI for Windows 95/98/NT SP6, including access control, DCOM and WMI permissions.

Click for full viewOne of the first steps following installation is to discover systems to be managed (see image at right). You may select any available domains to be scanned and using the Options menu can even specify IP ranges to enumerate. As you would expect, you may also create machine groups to more easily manage large numbers of systems.

Now what can we do with these managed systems? Naturally a system as robust as this cannot be covered from top to bottom in a simple review, but as usual I will attempt to highlight what I see as the key features of NSMC and those elements that may set it apart from the competition. Before we begin, it is worth noting that the non-evasive nature of NSMC helps enable inventorying, distributions, and monitoring functions to easily traverse corporate firewalls, VPNs, and WAN connections.

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The NSMC Console
 
Click for full viewNSMC is a framework in that there are optional solutions that may be included. The NSMC console provides the interface to all of these solutions. To begin with, the NSMC looks quite good. Its rich graphics and slide out windowed interface are a pleasant change from the routinely complex consoles that are commonplace when it comes to enterprise management systems (such as the limiting MMC interface).

The console provides a single common user interface for the administrator made possible by the INSYSTEK Object Broker (IOB). The IOB marshals communication between each of the installed modules passing events such as drag-and-drop between modules.

NSMC includes all of the available modules from INSYSTEK including: the NSMC Console, Asset Management, Software Distribution, and Performance and Availability Monitoring modules.
 

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Asset Management

NSMC automatically discovers devices on the network (in specified domains) and audits them for full hardware and software information. Taking full advantage of WMI via remote queries, it is easy to underestimate just how robust WMI data can be, until you view the NSMC data and see in many cases information such as software and hardware serial numbers and product keys are recorded.

For license compliance, you may select software to track and then specify the number of license you have in your organization. Compliance data is utilized in the provided Compliance and Tracking Reports. In keeping with the very nature of NSMC, this feature is a non-intrusive implementation (no enforcement of licensing is provided.)

Click for full viewYou may set a baseline for any data collected by NSMC- not just software installation. When viewing items that do not match the established baseline values, they appear in red when browsing the various inventory classes. These baseline values are set by choosing "Set Baseline" for a particular machine to specify its current configuration as the desired baseline. Or you may press "Set Baseline All" on a reference machine you wish to compare all systems against.

Naturally when it comes to hardware and software inventory, reporting is a significant consideration. NSMC provides several built-in reports as well as a nice wizard interface for generating additional reports (the last page of which shows you the SQL query that you have built to drive the report).

NSMC also provide the ability to add devices manually such as printers, phones, and PDAs, that would not otherwise be picked up by environment scans. You may also create device templates with the Device Definition Wizard, including information on the Manufacturer, Make, Model, and Serial Number. There is also a Description field for any extra information. Once the template has been defined, a device of that type can be added to the Managed Device list.

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Software Distribution

For those that have embraced Group Policy for deployment and have taken the steps necessary to migrate all their deployment packages to MSI files- you’ll be well prepared to take advantage of NSMC’s deployment features. Yes, packages must be in Windows Installer format for deployment using NSMC. Need for an MSI formatted deployment package has always been a glaring shortcoming of Group Policy and it is largely considered as key driver to move toward a more robust system. INSYSTEK does soften the blow by providing documentation including helpful documentation such as their paper on how to go about wrapping a legacy setup.exe into an MSI package using InstallShield Express.

The "Add Package Wizard" lets you specify an MSI path, command line options, any dependency files, a name and description. From there, the package is copied to the package servers you have specified and the package is available for assignment to one or more managed devices.

For actual package distribution you must have a Package Server and a Distribution Server. A Package Server holds packages, while a Distribution Server holds the packages and is the point for distribution to systems. These two sites can be separate.

When scheduling the package for distribution, there are some great features for redistribution in the event of failure (see image at right).

Performance and Availability Monitoring

With NSMC’s performance and availability monitoring features, you can stay ahead of potential network issues, proactively monitor services and processes. By creating monitoring policies, you can choose what you want to watch, at what interval and what values dictate a harmless, warning, minor, critical, or fatal situation. You can then specify pager, email and audio alerts for each of these thresholds.



This can be a very handy feature, allowing administrators to be notified of low disk space, excessive paging, or anything else you might associate with performance monitoring.
 

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Scalability and Load Balancing – NSMC provides built-in load balancing and redundancy and boasts an unlimited scalable architecture. By installing multiple services of the same type in your environment, and pointing them at the same database using the service options, queued items specific to that service type will be shared among each installed service equally. At the same time, if one of the services were to face a failure of some kind, the queued tasks would continue to execute normally on the other services of the same type in the environment.

Remote Shutdowns – This is a feature often overlooked, leaving administrators to script there own solution to managing shutdowns and restarts. The NSMC implementation allows you to trigger a remote logoff, restart, shutdown, or power off a system and optionally force applications to close. (See image at right.)

RFID Support – The inventory solution includes the ability to store Radio Frequency Identification data from third party applications built to work with RFID technology. An Administrator can import data into the NSMC database and the information will be displayed with the device using the Device Viewer in the NSMC console.

System Profiles - Profiles allow administrators to configure users of the console that will have access to the functionality related to scanning, software distribution, and monitoring, but restricts access to configuring the console and services.


It should be noted that during testing some stability issues did come up where unhandled exceptions were presented. In most all cases, I was able to continue use of the application (save that feature) by pressing "Continue".  INSYSTEK did assure me that the issues I reported were currently being addressed.

NSMC provides an excellent set of features with no client installation required. Most of the value provided by NSMC comes in the form of valuable reports – not just simple inventory but as compliance and baseline reporting information.

It is a big deal, so I'll point it out one more time: these features come with no requirement for a client side agent or service installation- something most administrators will find as a considerable benefit. While the application deployment solution comes across as immature in its current release, the asset management and monitoring features are very well executed.

Installation is quick and will not affect your client systems at all, so I encourage you to install the trial version and see for yourself.

Update (12/8/05): This review was held back by request while the issues identified in this review were addressed. I am told that the issues identified have all been corrected since this review was performed.

Bob Kelly
8/15/2005