Software roundup: Tools that manage PCs, Macs at the same time

As computing environments become larger, particularly those that are multisite and multiplatform, the need for a solid Macintosh/Windows remote deployment, management and troubleshooting package can start to seem like the Holy Grail. Much time can be spent by administrators having to go to a user's desk and then wait as any new or updated software is loading.

A number of packages offer remote troubleshooting and deployment options. Some are based on open standards, but many are commercial, Windows-specific or Mac-specific tools. In environments containing a mix of both Mac and Windows computers, having a single tool that supports all users and workstations, regardless of platform, is key. The packages discussed here all offer some level of cross-platform support and can help you efficiently manage the clients in your network.

One I decided against including was Apple Remote Desktop. Although it provides a great number of asset management, desktop monitoring, deployment, remote-control and configuration options, these features are Mac-only. Its only cross-platform functionality is through the use of an insecure and open standard called the Virtual Network Computing protocol, which allows for remote control of many computer systems. Given the general lack of security, it is difficult to suggest Apple Remote Desktop as a true cross-platform system.

FileWave

FileWave Inc. has been developing its flagship product for Mac networks for many years. FileWave operates in a client/server structure in which administrators define groups of individual clients and file sets that make up application packages, as they exist in the file system after an application has been installed. File sets are associated with groups to establish a list of applications that are available to those computers.

At regular intervals, each FileWave client queries the appropriate server or servers to determine whether its configuration has been updated. If the configuration has been changed, the client will begin downloading updated lists of files from the appropriate servers at that time. To maximize fault tolerance and performance, multiple FileWave Boosters can be installed in the network to distribute the load of file sets being transferred to clients.

FileWave supports Mac OS X and Windows NT, 2000 and XP clients, but the server components work only for the Mac.

One of the best features of FileWave is its seamless integration with client operating systems. Another excellent feature is its ability to generate reports about what software is installed on which machines at any given time -- this is particularly helpful for license compliance or when upgrading. FileWave also ships an asset management tool called Asset Trustee that expands on this capability. Finally, the ability to manage any installed tools as collections of file sets provides simplicity and ease of administration; this functionality is refreshing to see in such a complex and powerful tool.

NetOctopus

Netopia Inc.'s netOctopus Enterprise System Manager is another product that has been available for quite some time. Its remote-deployment feature can be used to roll out applications, updates and collections of files, and it has an asset management tool and configuration system. NetOctopus supports all common installer package formats for both Mac OS X and Windows. It also includes a copy of Installer Vise for those situations where you need to make your own install package to insert individual items into specific locations of the file system.

NetOctopus administrators can organize computers into groups that are then assigned software and file configurations. Unlike FileWave, any servers within your network can be used to host installers. The central distribution server simply responds to regular requests from clients and then directs them to the appropriate location to download the software they need. This allows you to build load balancing into your management plan while leveraging existing technology. Also, unlike FileWave, netOctopus is completely cross-platform; both its server and client elements can be run on Mac or Windows machines.

NetOctopus' asset management tool is designed to help you control inventory and licensing, and it can track computer usage patterns. It can be configured to detect when non-allowed files or other activity is present on a workstation, as well as when changes are made to a computer's hardware. These features make it helpful in alerting IT staffers to unauthorized activity, hardware modification and even theft. Although not as full-featured as the options offered by Apple Inc.'s Managed Preferences Architecture or Active Directory's Group Policy model, netOctopus also includes a client-configuration tool that allows you to remotely adjust one or more system settings across multiple computers.

LANrev

LANrev is a cross-platform deployment tool. Like netOctopus, both its server and client software can be installed on either Mac or Windows machines. Like other remote-deployment offerings, LANrev allows you to group computers by type, location or function and then assign items to be deployed and maintained based on those groups. However, LANrev also offers the ability to integrate administration with Active Directory, allowing you to use existing organization units to assign deployment roles. In addition, it allows you to use Active Directory accounts to delegate deployment-administration rights.

In addition to being a tool for deploying installer and package files over a network, LANrev offers other useful features. It includes a tool to easily create installer packages using snapshots of a system. LANrev is also enable administrators to create uninstaller packages and patch/software update tools so they can force clients to download updates only from their LANrev servers. LANrev also offers asset management capabilities, including an option to alert administrators when computer hardware changes are detected, and advanced license managing tools that are particularly helpful for managing Windows XP licenses.

Radmind

Radmind is an open-source deployment and management tool that has been ported to various Unix and Linux distributions, Mac OS X and Windows. Radmind is a client/server system that relies on load sets, which are snapshots of a workstation configuration. Changes made to a load set are then propagated out to any managed clients.

Radmind actually goes a step further than other straight deployment systems. Each time a client is updated, any files that were not part of the specified configuration are deleted or returned to their prescribed state. To allow user documents to be retained, Radmind supports two types of load sets: a positive load set that defines the files that will be placed or retained on the client, and a negative load set that defines portions of the file system that will be left unmanaged.

Radmind is a powerful option for organizations that need a way to deploy applications and files and that want to ensure that no changes are made to the configurations of their workstations. This would include classroom and educational lab computers. As powerful as Radmind is, however, it doesn't offer some of the more advanced features of some commercial packages, and it can be more cumbersome to set up, particularly for novice users. However, as a system with a low-cost deployment, it can be quite effective.

ManageSoft

ManageSoft Deployment Manager is a multiplatform deployment and distribution system that supports Windows, Mac OS X and most Unix/Linux distributions, though its management tools are Windows-based. Like LANrev, ManageSoft Deployment Manager integrates closely with Active Directory, allowing you to use existing organizational units to set deployment and distribution policies.

ManageSoft relies on a distributed computing model. This allows any file share or server in a network to serve as a distribution node for files and applications that will be deployed to clients, similar to netOctopus. ManageSoft is unique, however, in that it also also supports peer-to-peer distribution of files throughout a network. This can be particularly helpful in smaller organizations that have only one or two servers at each work site and that can't afford to dedicate server resources to deployments and software updates. ManageSoft Deployment Manager also integrates well with the company's other products, which include tools, asset and license management systems, as well as security-update management and Windows deployment automation.

LANDesk

LANDesk Management Suite provides both deployment and remote troubleshooting -- in addition to asset and license management -- for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux computers. LANDesk provides detailed reporting capabilities about clients, including options for notifying administrators when changes are made to systems or when media files, in multiple common formats including MP3, are present on a computer.

LANDesk Software Inc.'s deployment tools provide for both traditional unicast and targeted multicast environments, and the latter is particularly helpful for rolling out large updates to a numerous clients. The package also provides a range of scheduling and automation options for deployments. Like ManageSoft Deployment Manager, LANDesk Management Suite supports the use of peer-to-peer distribution of files in addition to a more traditional server-based approach. Also like other tools, it supports a range of package formats and includes tools for creating custom packages. In addition, LANDesk supports a number of Mac OS X technologies as part of its software distribution model, including shell scripts and Automator workflows. Likewise, it supports disk image-based deployments and offers a unique remote-image feature that allows administrators to create disk images based on remote workstations. This is as opposed to most disk-imaging tools, which must be run locally

Although LANDesk's management console is not available as a Mac OS X application, the company does offer a Web-based console for Mac administrators. LANDesk Management Suite also integrates very well with a directory services infrastructure. This allows you to use Active Directory -- or an alternate Lightweight Directory Access Protcol technology, including Novell NDS/eDirectory -- to create deployment policies based around existing organizational units and to assign access rights for distribution and remote troubleshooting.

The remote-troubleshooting components of LANDesk Management Suite are cross-platform, unlike LANDesk's other remote troubleshooting systems. They integrate with the suite's inventory database and asset-control features as well as with directory services. One particularly attractive feature about LANDesk as a remote troubleshooting platform is its ability to log all remote-control activities. It's also designed to integrate with existing help desk ticket systems. The system also offers secure access; the ability to wake, sleep, shut down and reboot remote computers; and integrated chat and file-transfer capabilities.

Timbuktu

Netopia's Timbuktu Pro is among the oldest remote-troubleshooting tools. The software supports both Windows and Mac client and management software. It also integrates with Skype for voice-over-IP (VoIP) chat while providing remote support or collaboration. Timbuktu is available in a range of packages, including one that offers server-based installation and management of the Windows client to PCs in a network. Another one provides a Web-based turnkey solution, known as TimuktuToGo; this is an excellent option for service providers and consulting firms.

NTRsupport

NTRSupport is a Windows tool that can be used to remotely control Windows or Mac OS X computers. Users can access NTRSupport via a Web site or e-mail link. When a client initiates a request, the request is funneled through a server to available support staffer, who can then initiate a remote-control session of the client's computer.

This approach differs from many other products in that it doesn't require an agent to be preinstalled on the remote computer. It's helpful for software developers, service providers and consulting firms. Support staffers can communicate with users via text chat, VoIP and videoconference, and they can respond to up to five requests at a time. Like other remote-troubleshooting packages, file transfer with clients is also supported.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multi-platform network issues. In addition to writing for Computerworld, he is a frequent contributor to InformIT.com. Ryan was also the coauthor of O'Reilly's "Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration." You can find more information about Ryan, his consulting services and recently published work at www.ryanfaas.com, and can e-mail him at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

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