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Take charge of your LAN

A network administration program for beginners.

I well remember the first small business owner I met who maintained the company network. She wasn’t a computer professional–much less a network specialist–but she’d hired someone to put together a server-based solution and someone else to wire the building for Ethernet. And the results were great. Even the volunteers at her nonprofit organization were able to add new computers and share files, printers, and Internet access in minutes. She needed zero dollars out of her training budget for networking.

But she was absolutely miserable. Managing the systems on the network soon turned from a part-time job function to a full-time headache. Every day–several times a day–another call would come through complaining about system freeze-ups, data loss, and mysterious error messages.

The network had opened a Pandora’s box, allowing illicit downloads to mess up systems that previously had been tightly locked down. And because the two dozen computers in this low-budget operation spread over three floors of the building, even getting in front of the right monitor was a hassle.

Keeping a site in your sights

Keeping up with the vagaries of this network used to be futile. That’s why this ersatz network administrator turned to Executive Software’s SiteKeeper 2. And when I evaluated the program, I could see why. Executive Software attacks the problem of site administration from a large-scale enterprise perspective, but it keeps the flailing small business user squarely in sight.

SiteKeeper tackles several issues with great style. It scans all the systems on your network and performs an inventory of all the software and hardware on them. These features are extremely handy for planning upgrades–it’s easy to see where you can get most bang out of your hardware budget if some of your PCs are struggling by with only 32MB of RAM.

More important, you get to see all the software installed on each computer. Executive Software touts this feature heavily for license compliance–to make sure you don’t have more installations of a particular program than you’re paying for. But for companies that are loosely administered, it’s a great tool to ensure that everyone is up to date with security patches and nobody has stuff you didn’t authorize–such as chat software and MP3-swapping ware.

Another great feature of the program is a two-click tool called PushInstaller that can rapidly install software, updates, upgrades, and patches to selected machines from a central location. It can also remove programs you didn’t authorize.

Several setups

It’s easy to install SiteKeeper 2 on the machine you’ll be using as your base of operations–but not quite so easy to configure it if your network’s running older versions of Windows. The easy part is installing the software and setting up the database engine you’ll be using to create your inventory database. This isn’t nearly as painful as it sounds. If you’re not using SQL Server 7 or SQL Server 2000, you can install the free Microsoft Desktop Engine (MSDE) that comes with the SiteKeeper package. This went painlessly in our tests.

Once the database engine is in place, you see an empty table when you open the program, and you have to run a network scan to see what you have. This is where we found a few wrinkles to the process. It took quite a while to scan our mixed-platform test network–it contained machines running Windows 95, 95B, 98, Me, and XP–but the scan identified every computer on our network, even though it’s divided into three domains.

So far, so good. But on the older operating systems, we were informed that the system scan had failed and that we needed to install the SiteKeeper Agent before we could scan them. The program provided us with a wizard to install the agent software on a shared network drive, and let us e-mail instructions to each user on how to install the software. While this went smoothly, we found that some Windows 98 machines needed to download an updated Windows Installer from Microsoft in order to attempt to push software to them across the network.

Inventory reporting

Once all the systems that needed it were configured with the SiteKeeper Agent, the inventory scan went without a hitch. The automatic reports covering the software and hardware were thorough and informative–exactly the information you need if you’re in charge of a business’s technology. Even to a database novice, it was easy to view the contents of each system on the network.

The hardware report was thorough, showing the RAM, processor, BIOS revision, disk drive types, display hardware, monitor type, modem, and USB controller on each system. It can be sorted by your choice of computer name or hardware type, depending on whether you’re planning for upgrades across the business, or troubleshooting problems on a given PC.

The software reports focus heavily on software license issues. The default reports scream that nothing on your systems is licensed–because you need to enter the number of licenses for each software product manually before SiteKeeper will let you off the hook. This is a bit of a nuisance at first–the last thing you want to do when you’re just learning a program is to pump in a lot of data entry up front. But once that’s all in place, you have a great deal of flexibility in viewing information in SiteKeeper. If you want to make sure you have all the updates and Service Packs for your Windows XP machines, for example, you can hide the other programs–or tidy them off the screen using the Hide the Service Pack information–and use the Show Hidden Programs report to view them.

Some useful elements, though, were missing. On the default hardware report, for example, we saw only hard-drive types (such as generic IDE disk Type 47), not their capacity. And the less database-savvy won’t like the comparatively inflexible report templates built into the program–the reports didn’t print properly on our test network’s printer. The limited export capabilities don’t help much–at press time, there was no delimited or Excel export filter, for example. The more database-savvy could use SQL Data Transformation Services (DTS), or extract the data from the databases using features in Access or Excel. But for the database-phobic, the best workaround we could find was to export reports to HTML, then cut-and-paste the resulting Web pages into Excel. Clumsy stuff, but it works out all right in the end.

PushInstall

For real site administration purposes, though, SiteKeeper’s PushInstall module was the most attractive feature. It enables you to sit at a central location and install, upgrade, add patches, or bug fixes–and of course uninstall–software on any of the managed machines on your network. Sure, real network geeks will prefer the flexibility of SMS or Active Directory group policies–but to the average business Joe who doesn’t even know these terms, PushInstaller does a great job. In fact, it has an advantage over Active Directory in that it’ll work if you’re running an older NT 4 network.

It doesn’t take much to run PushInstaller. You have to put the new installation’s setup files on a shared network drive. You must have administrative access to the installation’s target computer. And the files must either be logo-compliant with Windows 2000 or XP, or run with Microsoft Installer (.msi). That’s about it. Our Windows 9x computers that couldn’t be scanned without SiteKeeper Agent worked fine as PushInstall targets.

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