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Understanding System Center Configuration Manager

The first product covered in this chapter is the System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) product shown in Figure 1.1; the current rendition is System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2. SCCM is the start of the life cycle that deploys a system's operating system as well as installs the applications onto a server or client system, and then it keeps the system patched and updated all based on common templates the IT department creates to ensure standardization from system to system.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 The System Center Configuration Manager console.

Business Solutions Addressed by System Center Configuration Manager

System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2 helps maintain consistency in system configuration and management. Rather than having each and every workstation, laptop, and server built from scratch in an ad hoc manner with configuration settings based on the individual desires of the IT professional building the system, SCCM uses templates in the build process.

The templates are created by the IT personnel to meet specific business, security, and functional application needs of the organization. Once a template is created, all systems of similar function can have the exact same template used to build and configure the system with only the unique server name or other identifier being different from system to system. With the template-based installation, the organization can depend on consistency in build configuration for like servers, like desktops, and like laptops throughout the enterprise.

In fact, SCCM has additional components that ensure that the systems, once deployed, maintain the consistency by preventing users from updating systems using unsupported or unique update parameters. Rather, policies are established to update all systems of a similar functional role to be upgraded or updated the same. If a patch or update goes out to one system of a configuration type, then all systems of that configuration type are updated at the same (or relatively same) time. This concept, technically called Desired Configuration Management (DCM), can be audited and reports can be generated to show security officers and compliance auditors that standards are enforced throughout the data center and throughout workstation systems across an entire organization.

Major Features of System Center Configuration Manager

System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2 has hundreds of features and functions that an IT administrator can leverage as part of their system configuration and management practices; some of the major features in the product are as follows:

  • Operating system deployment—At the start of the system's life cycle is the installation of the core operating system. SCCM provides all the tools an organization needs to deploy an operating system, either as an imaged installation (formerly, organizations used Norton Ghost, but no longer need to because SCCM includes image creation and deployment tools) or as a scripted method of installation.
  • Patching and updating—Once the operating system has been deployed, SCCM includes the mechanism to patch and update systems. Although many organizations use the Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), a free tool for patching and updating systems, SCCM leverages everything WSUS does but also provides IT administrators a more active patching and updating addition to WSUS. The Software Updates portion of the SCCM console, shown in Figure 1.2, is an example of the detail of the update information. The active update system enforces updates, forcing systems to be patched, updated, and rebooted based on policies that the IT department publishes and ensuring consistency in the update cycle of systems.
    Figure 1.2

    Figure 1.2 Details in the SCCM console relative to patching and updating systems.

  • Asset tracking—As part of the operating system deployment and patching and updating process, the management tool needs to know what type of hardware, software, and applications make up the system so the system can be properly updated. SCCM includes the tools necessary to track the hardware and software assets of the systems it is managing.
  • Remote control—In the event that a user working on a system needs help, or that a system needs to be serviced, SCCM has a remote-control process that allows the IT administrator or a help desk individual to remotely control and support a user or manage a system whether the system is on the network or remote of the network.
  • Software deployment—Although the operating system deployment will install the base operating system on a server or client system, applications need to be installed and managed as well. SCCM provides the tools to push out software applications, whether it is something as simple as a plug-in or utility or as complex as a complete suite or server-based application, including unique application configuration and customization.
  • Desired Configuration Management—Beyond just having an operating system and applications installed on a system, keeping a system configured in a standard setup is crucial in consistency controls. SCCM provides a process called Desired Configuration Management, or DCM, that has policies established for system configurations so that a system cannot be changed or modified beyond the configuration standards set by policy for the system. This ensures all systems have the same software, drivers, updates, and configuration settings meeting stringent audit and controls standards consistent with regulatory compliance rules.
  • Internet Client—A very significant component in SCCM is the Internet Client. In the past, for a system to be managed, the system had to be connected to the network. For remote and mobile systems, that means the system has to be VPN'd into the network to have patches and updates applied or for the IT department to inventory or remotely control the system. With the Internet Client and the use of a PKI certificate installed on the system, a remote or mobile system merely needs to be connected to the Internet anywhere in the world, and the SCCM client will automatically connect back to the corporate SCCM server through a secured tunnel to allow SCCM to inventory, patch, apply policies, and update the system. The remote system does not need to VPN into the network or do anything other than simply establish connectivity to the Internet.
  • Reporting—SCCM integrates into the product a report generation tool, shown in Figure 1.3, that comes with a full set of out-of-the-box reports, including the ability for IT personnel to create customized reports on everything from asset inventory reports to standard configuration reports to reports on the patch and update level of each laptop and desktop in the entire enterprise. Reports can also be customized in the report tool querying any data sets of information collected by SCCM and producing reports specific to the needs of the organization.
    Figure 1.3

    Figure 1.3 Reports tool built in to SCCM.

Background on System Center Configuration Manager

System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2 is easily a half-dozen or more generations into the life cycle of the product. From its early roots as Systems Management Server, or SMS, that had a bad reputation for being a management product that took more to manage the management system than managing workstations and servers themselves, SCCM has come a long way.

Some of the major revisions and history of the product are as follows:

  • Systems Management Server v1.x—Systems Management Server (SMS) v1.x had a few versions, 1.0, 1.1, and 1.2, all available in the mid-1990s to support systems typically in a Windows NT environment. Because Windows NT domains were clusters of systems but not really a highly managed hierarchy of systems, SMS 1.x had its own site structure for identifying and managing systems. With most organizations at the time using Ghost to deploy system images, and patching and updating not really a common practice, SMS pretty much just provided the packaging of software programs and upgrades of software programs for systems. An expert who knew how to bundle up Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat into an MSI installation script had a full-time job as the process of packaging applications during these early days was neither easy nor intuitive. Smaller organizations found it was easier to just take a CD-ROM and walk from computer to computer to install software than try to create a "package" and hope that the package would deploy properly over the network.
  • Systems Management Server v2.0—SMS 2.0 came out in 1999 and provided similar software-deployment processes as before; however, instead of using ad hoc site configurations, SMS 2.0 started to leverage subnets as its method of identifying systems on a network. SMS 2.0 also transitioned into the Active Directory era, although not without its challenges as it was a non-AD product that was somewhat set up to support an Active Directory environment. Needless to say, SMS 2.0 was about as successful as SMS 1.x was in helping in systems management.
  • Systems Management Server 2003 (also known as SMS v3.0)—SMS 2003 came out to specifically support systems in an Active Directory environment, and although Microsoft now supported Active Directory sites, the product still required a packaging and scripting expert to be able to do anything with the product. Patching and updating became a requirement as viruses and worms spread across the Internet and a tool was needed to do the updates. So SMS 2003 was best known for its ability to provide patching and updating of systems; however, the setup and complexity of SMS 2003 to just control patching and updating allowed a number of other third-party companies like Alteris, Marimba, and LanDesk to challenge Microsoft in having an easier system for patching, updating, and deploying software.
  • System Center Configuration Manager 2007—By 2007, Microsoft rebranded their management products under the System Center designation and finally broke away from the old legacy "site" concept of the Windows NT-based SMS product and fully redesigned the product for Active Directory, calling it System Center Configuration Manager 2007. With significantly better packaging, patching, and inventory tools along with a much better server role structure, SCCM 2007 finally "worked." Organizations were now able to create software packages in minutes instead of days. Patching and updating leveraged the highly successful WSUS patching tool with enhancements added into the SCCM update for patching and updating to enforce updates, force system reboots, and better manage the mobile workforce.
  • System Center Configuration Manager 2007 SP1—SCCM 2007 SP1 added support for managing Windows Vista systems as well as support for remote-management components that Intel built in to their chipset called vPro technologies. With systems with vPro built in, an SCCM administrator can wake up a powered-off system, boot the system to a remote-management guest operating system, and perform management tasks, including flashing the system BIOS without ever touching the actual system.
  • System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2—The R2 release of SCCM 2007 added automatic computer provisioning and multicast support for operating system deployments into the R2 release of the product. R2 also added App-V support in addition to ForeFront integration into the R2 release of the product.
  • System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2—Most recently, the release of SCCM 2007 R2 SP2 has now added the support of dozens of features, functions, and tools that support the imaging, management, and support of Windows 7 client systems.

What to Expect in the System Center Configuration Manager Chapters

In this book, four chapters are dedicated to the System Center Configuration Manager product. These chapters are as follows:

  • Chapter 2, "System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 Design and Planning"—This chapter covers the architectural design, server placement, role placement, and planning of the deployment of System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2 in the enterprise. The chapter addresses where to place site servers, discusses how to distribute images and large update files, introduces the various server roles and how the server roles can be placed all on a single server in a small environment or distributed to multiple servers, and covers the best practices that have been found in combining certain roles and the logic behind combining roles even in the largest of enterprises.
  • Chapter 3, "System Center Configuration Manager Implementation and Administration"—Chapter 3 dives into the installation process of SCCM along with routine administrative tasks commonly used in managing an SCCM environment. This includes the familiarization of the SCCM management console features and how an administrator would use the management console to perform ongoing tasks.
  • Chapter 4, "Using Configuration Manager to Distribute Software, Updates, and Operating Systems"—Chapter 4 gets into the meat of SCCM, focusing on core capabilities like distributing software, patching and updating, and creating and deploying operating systems. Any organization with SCCM implemented tends to use these features and functions at a minimum. The whole value in SCCM is to deploy operating systems (either imaged or scripted), patch and update systems, and deploy new software programs. This chapter covers the process as well as digs into tips, tricks, and lessons learned in sharing best practices used when deploying these features in the enterprise.
  • Chapter 5, "Configuration Manager Asset Management and Reporting"—The final chapter on SCCM in this book covers other components, such as the asset management feature and the reporting capabilities built in to SCCM. Some organizations only use the asset feature in SCCM as the prerequisite to patch and update the system, whereas other organizations greatly utilize the asset management function for regulatory and compliance purposes. It's the same with reporting: Some organizations never generate a report out of SCCM, just using SCCM for operating system deployment, updates, and software pushes. However, other organizations heavily depend on the reporting capabilities in SCCM to generate reports for Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) auditors or security compliance officers to prove the operational status of the systems.

System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 SP2 is a very powerful tool that is the start of the life cycle of a networked environment, providing templates and standard configurations for systems all the way through updates, management, and reporting. Jump to Chapters 2 through 5 of this book for specific information and deployment and configuration guidance on how SCCM can be best leveraged in your enterprise.

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