Reviews > NetSupport TCO 4.5

Update: Netsupport TCO is currently known as NetSupport DNA

TCO = "Total Cost of Ownership" 

TCO is something greatly reduced through implementation of desktop administration tools. But what tools?

Software inventory and metering allow you to track where software is installed and where it is being used. When a new software request comes in, removing an unused copy to free a license can result in substantial savings as opposed to simply purchasing a new copy. When it comes time to purchase upgrades or renew software maintenance contracts, a tool for providing usage statistics can easily pay for itself in a single use!

Remote Software Deployment allows for the automated installation of software during off hours, keeping deployment times down and user productivity up. With more than a dozen or so systems, the time it takes to walk from machine to machine begins to take its toll. Take into consideration that consistency also gets more difficult to maintain with larger networks (multiple administrators performing installations) and the need for such a capability becomes quickly apparent.

Remote Control allows support personnel to avoid running around the office, building, or site. However, the more obvious value comes in when taking about distant sites either down the street or across the country. A visit to such a system can get very expensive, and routine visits become out of the question. 

NetSupport aims to provide these solutions in their NetSupport Manager and NetSupport TCO products. We will cover NetSupport TCO here, covering each of its core features to provide an overview of what you can expect. As is customary in AppDeploy.com reviews, I will attempt to expose both the good and the bad points of the software as appropriate…

For a remote management system such as NetSupport TCO, installation and setup is a major consideration. Implementation of some management software suites can turn into weeks or months of planning, setup and configuration. NetSupport TCO came off pretty good, particularly in the setup of its server-side components.

Setup requires a serial number, a 30-day evaluation copy for the support of up to 50 clients is available here. As you would expect, NetSupport TCO uses a SQL database to store its data. The setup offers to create a new SQL server or you may utilize an existing one. In my testing, an existing SQL server was specified. Next the management console installs and reboot of the server is required upon completion. The entire process took just a few minutes and was quite painless.

The client can be manually installed from a shared folder on the NetSupport TCO server or via an emailed link. As you would hope, the client installation for Windows NT and later systems can also be handled through the management console. When launched, an IP address range is requested and a record for each address is created in the console. By selecting all IP addresses in the list and pressing the Client "Check" button, each address was checked for a NetSupport TCO client agent. As none were yet installed, the domain, computer name, network MAC address and power status were collected. The agent was listed as "off" for each entry.

I first deployed the client to a Windows NT 4 SP6a system using the remote setup "silent" option. It installed successfully but did not start the client agent. The installation of the client is automated, but not quite silent. An InstallShield progress bar is displayed during the installation of the client, but thankfully there are no cancel or close buttons. The console reported success just before the installation began, signifying that it had successfully copied and initiated the command to install, and that it was not reporting the success of the installation process itself. After installation, the client must be rebooted in order to start the client agent. Unfortunately the silent installation does not automatically reboot, nor provide notice that a reboot is required. The client cannot be restarted from the console without the client agent running, so it is necessary to restart the client by some other means. Once restarted, the client agent started right up and there was no problems managing the client (including rebooting it.) Although using the Windows shutdown command line tool or any number of other solutions is likely available to you, it was disappointing that the required reboot cannot be handled by the console or as an option of silent installation.

NetSupport Management Console Welcome Screen

The Management Console
The management console provides the sole interface to the tools made available by NetSupport TCO. It is installed on a TCO server automatically, and may also be installed separately where you want to manage (but not host) TCO operations.

The management console is not web based, which is normally the preferred implementation for a tool such as this so that it may be available from any system. It is possible a web implementation of the console may suffer somewhat due to certain limitations inherent with web applications. However, we have seen some pretty rich web-based consoles out there. If there is a technical limitation preventing the availability of a web based console, it would be nice to see it as an optional implementation, perhaps even with reduced functionality (namely, report access.)

Software and Hardware Inventory
Software and hardware inventory are reported by the client agents at specified intervals. Hardware inventory contains everything you would expect to see. For software inventory, you can easily exclude application from the list, a very helpful feature to clean up your reports. The list views are very nice, and the option to view the data different ways is an excellent asset when dealing with this kind of data. Unfortunately the colors presented by the charts (through customizable) are displayed in only two colors. As you can see with the hardware view below, this makes charts such as pie graphs rather confusing and hard to read (click the image for an expanded view).

NetSupport TCO Hardware Statistics Chart and List View (click for full size view)

Software inventory is very nicely displayed by organization, domain, group or individual system by selecting the desired location in the tree view on the left. The number of licenses available and the number of locations where the software has been installed are shown in the list as well. Double-clicking on a software package brings up a list of computers in the display. These computers list entries also respond to a right-click where management operations may be accessed for the desired system. See an example of an Installed Software view below:

NetSupport TCO Installed Software Details (click for full size view)

Application and URL Metering
NetSupport TCO allows you to collect and report usage statistics on web sites as well as applications. As with other data collected by NetSupport TCO, you may view it in many ways. For applications, you may:

  • Allow limited usage to maintain effective license control
  • Display a custom warning message, but still allow launch
  • Temporarily change filename of the application so that its execution is hindered from further use (by appending to the end of the current filename). 

For restricted URLs you may optionally block user access and force a redirection to a specified alternate URL, or you may display a customized warning message that still allows access to the URL. Like application usage statistics, you may see the total access time and number of access for any individual or group of systems reported. Much like the software inventory report (above) double-clicking on the URL in the connection status report results in a list of the computers that have accessed the location.

Software Distribution
Software distribution allows for the remote execution of software installations. NetSupport TCO contains an EXE Creator for package development, however it does not do what you might expect. Rather than providing a repackaging capability to generate silent installation packages, it instead provides a means of deploying the installation files and triggering an automated installation through recorded responses to the choices made during installation. When the EXE is pushed to a target system, the installation source files are extracted to a folder and the setup program is executed. The installation dialogs are then addressed to automate the responses to the installation choices.

NetSupport TCO EXE Creator Welcome Screen (click for full size view)

This method of application installation is less prone to error than repackaging because the vendors own setup program is used to perform the installation as it was designed to. On the down side, dialogs cannot be addressed if there is no desktop on which they may exist. This means that the system must be logged on in order for the silent installation to take place in this way. The software distribution capabilities of TCO are geared toward automated or interactive software installation for systems with users logged on. This may work better in smaller environments, but could be an obstacle for many larger networks.

Remote Control
NetSupport does not come with its own Remote Control application, but does support any remote control product that provides command line support. You may specify the path to the executable, as well as any command line parameters. NetSupport does have a remote control solution included in their NetSupport Manager product. Naturally, NetSupport provides command line access in their Remote Control application, making it fully compatible for use with NetSupport TCO.

Other Capabilities
The options to send a message to a client and to initiate a chat session with a client worked well and looked nice. There is also a query tool that provides a spreadsheet view of the NetSupport TCO database and a wizard style method for pulling the data you want for your report. A graphical trace route tool is included that provides a list and node view of the communication path a network packet takes from your system to a specified destination. On the client side there is the option to view the activity log for the client, initiate a "Pull" operation from the server and even to scan for and display local hardware inventory data (click here for an example.)

NetSupport has provided a comprehensive set of tools for network administration in NetSupport TCO. The inventory, metering and inventory aspects of the products are its strong suits. The inability to automate the reboot of newly installed clients will be an obstacle for larger networks, as will its limitation of requiring a logged on user for most software deployment tasks. The interface is easy to master in a short amount of time and the added tools available around every corner make this a valuable tool.

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