System Center Essentials: Microsoft monitoring and management for SMBs

Most of you know that Microsoft’s System Center family of products are the leading solutions for IT systems management.  They have come a long way in the past seven years, to the point where it is a rare company that does not have at least one System Center product installed in their organization.

Although there are several others, the most commonly referred to SC products are:

  • System Center Operations Manager (OpsMgr)
  • System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr)
  • System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM)

Of course there are others – Data Protection Manager, Orchestrator, and more – but these three are the ones that most people know.  The top two (OpsMgr and ConfigMgr) are strictly enterprise products, insofar as they require the most infrastructure and training to implement and manage.  They are also two hugely capable packages, with OpsMgr monitoring and reporting… everything, and ConfigMgr managing the lifecycle of the entire IT organization, including OS and application deployment, patch management, and so much more.

At TechEd a couple of years ago I heard a small business IT manager describe his environment – he had 10 servers for 300 client computers – and then ask one of the speakers how he could go about leveraging the power of OpsMgr and ConfigMgr for his organization, and the speaker replied ‘Start by budgeting $60,000 for infrastructure, licensing, and training, and you will be ready to take the first step.’  Of course that number is not much to larger organizations, but smaller companies may not have that kind of money to throw around… and would not benefit from many of the features of the System Center products that the Enterprise would consider necessities.

Enter System Center Essentials 2010, the SMB answer to the System Center family.  While viewed by many as the ‘red-headed step-child’ of the System Center family, SCE offers most of the features of the three System Center products listed above, priced and packaged for the small to mid-sized business.  It is limited in both scope (up to 50 servers and 500 client PCs) and features (no OS Deployment for one), but for smaller organizations it is a great compromise.

SCE was the main management component to the now defunct Microsoft Essential Business Server (EBS), which was designed as an out-of-the-box solution for organizations with up to 30 servers and 500 workstations that were beyond the scope of Small Business Server (SBS), but still too small to go to the full-fledged enterprise products.  That three-server solution (minimum) was managed and monitored by SCE.  In the early stages of the beta for SBS 2008 SCE was included as well, but it was quickly removed when beta testers complained that it increased the server resource requirements, and was really overkill for the SBS sweet-spot of two servers and 25 workstations.  Fortunately when Microsoft killed EBS it recognized that SCE was a viable product in its own right, and the ideal solution for the companies that did live between the SBS and Enterprise levels.


As you can see from the mail screen, the SCE dashboard gives a comprehensive overview of your network, and while it is a simple ‘single pane of glass’ for monitoring and managing your physical and virtual servers, as well as a myriad of other products (or server roles and features) for which either Microsoft or third parties have written Management Packs.

Microsoft did not start from scratch when creating SCE; they took their tried and true Enterprise products, and fit them into a smaller, easier to manage package.  So if you want to monitor Active Directory, DHCP Server, Windows 7, or Microsoft Exchange you start by downloading and installing the appropriate System Center OpsMgr Management Pack.  The OpsMgr engine within SCE does the rest.

By integrating System Center Virtual Machine Manager SCE can manage your entire virtual environment for you.  While most smaller organizations probably think they can get away without VMM by implementing a Hyper-V Failover Cluster using Windows Server, they are only part right.  Failover Cluster works great for Live Migration between cluster nodes, and does fail over virtual machines from hosts that crash, SCE offers Performance and Resource Optimization, or PRO Tips.  These tips, which VMM offers when implemented in conjunction with OpsMgr, monitor the virtual hosts and guests, and offer recommendations for ongoing intelligent placement of VMs to maximize host resource usage.  In other words, virtual machines will always be on the host that is most appropriate to its resource requirements.  For many it will be a case of offering suggestions, but in the case of critical rebalancing we can allow SCE to perform the rebalancing automatically.  If you are familiar with VMware’s vSphere, this is equivalent to Distributed Resource Scheduling (DRS).  While it is certainly a selling point of VMware’s vSphere Essentials licensing for smaller organizations, SCE does it as well for less money while offering more.

While Microsoft offers Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) for free to manage patching in the organization, it is clear that System Center ConfigMgr does a much more comprehensive and manageable job of patching both servers and clients, with features such as a targeted and scheduled patching, as well as success, pending, and failure reporting of clients and servers.  As you can see in the screenshot below, I can view quite clearly the patch level of my entire organization in the Updates Overview panel of SCE; additionally, I have along the right-hand side a hot-list of actions that can be taken, including such helpful links as Video Assistance and Community Links that will hold my hand through the learning process.  As I tell all of my audiences, it is a rare case indeed when any of us are the first to encounter an error or issue in production software, and being able to reach out to the community – Microsoft MVPs and others who use the product – for help is the first step to resolving an issue.


It should be recognized that although SCE is the System Center solution for SMBs, it does not actually have all of the features of its enterprise-level counterparts; there is no OS Deployment (Zero Touch Installation, or ZTI) which is a hugely popular feature of ConfigMgr.  With that being said, Microsoft does offer free deployment tools (Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, or MDT) which offer Light Touch Installation (LTI), which is a very reasonable compromise to the lacking ZTI, and which will in most cases not only be a satisfactory replacement for ZTI, but will cost the organization less to learn, build, implement, and use (see the plethora of articles and presentations I have given on deployment to learn how).  Additionally, SCE will not manage a mixed vSphere/Hyper-V virtualization environment like it’s big brother product… but most smaller organizations don’t have enough virtualization hosts to really make it worthwhile to manage both platforms; with only three to five hosts, it would not take long to migrate ESX boxes to Hyper-V, and with the new memory tax that is going to kill VMware’s credibility with its SMB clients, I can see that happening for a lot of organizations that are displeased with the new model.

All in all, System Center Essentials lives up to its name; while it may not have all of the System Center functionality, it does offer small to mid-sized businesses the essential components of OpsMgr, ConfigMgr, and VMM that will allow them the same level of control over their organization’s IT infrastructure that their larger counterparts would have had.  Although it is available from Microsoft, you are probably better off getting an OEM package from HP, which offers an HP-branded SCE with HP Insight – which offers the single-pane-of-glass for not only your Microsoft environment, but also for all of your HP hardware and tools (including Management Packs for your ProLiant servers, Blade chassis, StorageWorks, HP Updates for firmware and drivers, and HP-specific PRO Tips).  Most of the major distributors in North America are currently ramping up on HP-SCE with both sales and technical sessions, so be sure to contact them with all of your questions.

Stay Tuned for my next article, the heretofore undocumented gotchas of SCE installations!


One response to “System Center Essentials: Microsoft monitoring and management for SMBs”

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