Microsoft tackles management of handheld devices

While personal digital assistants (PDA) and other wireless devices have been steadily making their way into corporations, the need to manage them still hasn't hit the radar screens of many IT managers.

          While personal digital assistants (PDA) and other wireless devices have been steadily making their way into corporations, the need to manage them still hasn't hit the radar screens of many IT managers.

          Microsoft made its pitch to try to change that last week at its Management Summit 2002 event in Las Vegas. It announced a new feature to an upcoming version of its Systems Management Server (SMS) that will enable IT managers to manage software inventory and delivery to non-PC Windows devices.

          "Hardly anybody has it under control," says Rick Sturm, president of analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates.

          Ben Silverstein, an IT manager at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, says users who own a Palm or Compaq iPaq devices want to be able to check their email with them.

          "We do have to support the little devices, which are in fact part of the network, whether we like it or not," he says, noting that mobile PC users now check their email through a virtual private network (VPN), but his vendors have yet to publish a VPN client for PDAs.

          One IT manager at an insurance firm, who asked not to be identified, says his company manually manages wireless devices, which are primarily PalmPilots, so it would help to have a product to assist with the effort.

          But even though the insurance company uses SMS, it might have to consider other options because the new feature in Microsoft's SMS software will only support devices that run Windows CE, Windows-powered Pocket PC software or Windows XP Embedded.

          David Hamilton, director of Microsoft's management business group, says the new feature is being added due to customer feedback from some of the 60 early adopters who have been testing a preview version of SMS 2003, formerly code-named Topaz. "The Pocket PC has connectivity into the network, and they want to make sure there isn't anything [that's not secure] in that environment," he says.

          Some other companies, such as Altiris, already support the management of wirelessly connected non-PC devices. But Sturm says Microsoft's announcement is significant because no major vendor has yet dominated that market.

          Other previously announced new features in the upcoming SMS 2003 include the ability to manage and distribute software to PCs used by remote workers who dial into the network and tighter integration with Microsoft's Active Directory, Hamilton says.

          Those remote capabilities will be a welcome addition for users who have struggled to use SMS for remote laptops. Sean Lewis, a senior systems administrator at a Florida retailer, says the current version of SMS can be used, but it expects a high-speed connection. "It's not portable-friendly," he says.

          A beta version of SMS 2003 is due midsummer, with the final version expected before the end of June 2003, Hamilton says.

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