Microsoft System Center Essentials review

11 Mar 2008

System Center Essentials sets out to gather the strands of network system management into one place, and succeeds.

Price when reviewed 
1,417
4

Keeping all the various Windows systems software patches up to date can be a tedious and time-consuming task. Deploying application packages can be a problem, and tracking and resolving errors can be a full-time job. There are software solutions to ease the burden, but an all-in-one solution is preferable.

Enter Microsoft's System Center Essentials (SCE). SCE gathers the strands of network system management into one place with a single console interface.

Installation is no problem, although you'll need Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) installed beforehand, as well as .NET 2 and 3. If you have SQL Server installed SCE will use it, but if not the installer will set up a copy of SQL Server Express. It will also upgrade your copy of WSUS. The console application can be installed on a workstation with 2GB of RAM and either Windows XP or Vista, as well as on the server.

Once installed, the system can discover all the systems on the network, and can then accumulate information about them. Once it's done that it's possible to find out exactly what the situation is with any system, since the inventory module collects data on more than 30 separate items. You can then arrange for software updates to occur at regular intervals, which is where WSUS comes in. Even third-party and in-house updates can be managed and deployed.

Monitoring and reporting facilities are extensive. Each system's performance can be monitored, even down to the Windows service level. When problems are discovered, SCE flags up alerts on the management console; these can also be sent to users via email or SMS. The software can provide useful info about the problem, and fix it using built-in troubleshooting wizards.

Reporting is comprehensive and very detailed, with more than 50 report types. Apart from the information displayed on the management console, the report-generating module can produce performance statistics and histograms for a wide range of factors and time intervals. Factors range from overall reporting information down to specific disk drives and network adapters. Each report can be tailored to individual requirements and stored or printed.

SCE's abilities can detect and monitor networked printers, routers and switches, and can even provide a network diagram.

There are a few things to watch out for. It only works with Active Directory, and it will only support Windows 2000 Professional and Server, Server 2003, XP and Vista, although it will support both 32- and 64-bit versions of the last three.

Cost could be a problem, as Jon Honeyball pointed out, but this is likely to be less of a factor in the SME field, where technical expertise tends to be at a premium. And SCE's limitation of 30 servers and 500 PCs shouldn't be of much concern. Allowing for the licensing costs, SCE could save money by allowing technical support staff to make better use of their time.