Managing the software and computer assets in a company can be a very daunting task. Even in smaller IT shops, trying to keep track of the computers in an environment and the software on them seems next to impossible. Then throw in managing licenses and remembering to document those three additional copies of Office 2010 and Adobe something-or-other that were purchased last month and you will quickly lose track if you don't have a good process in place. Dell KACE thinks the M300 asset management appliance is the answer to all of these things.
Recently, a reseller of the device sent me one to play around with. It does make some of the management of these things easier, but there are still areas where the device could help more.
This review looks at the core features of this appliance and points out some areas where the M300 is great and where it might need some work.
The appliance itself is very small, not much larger than, say, an Apple TV, and the configuration is similar to a router. You plug it directly into your laptop and change your Ethernet adapter's IP address to its default subnet (192.168.2.x) and browse to its IP address 192.168.2.100. When you land there you will begin configuring the device by creating your administrative user account.
Adding the first user (click on images to enlarge them)
Note: The first two screens are a welcome screen and EULA.
On the admin setup page, you will enter a username and password (with confirmation) and then specify the questions and answers to three security questions, which are required. When all of that has been completed, click next to configure the time zone and the NTP server the device will use.
Following that, you will enter the data that will tie the M300 to your network — hostname, IP address, and DNS servers. Configuring the M300 to use your company's internal DNS servers is critical. These are needed to ensure it can find your computers. Once all of that is configured, click next to confirm, and save these settings. When you confirm the settings, the device will save them and power off.
Note: Make sure the device has powered off completely (watch the light on the back of the device), before you move the M300 to its permanent home.
Once the device has been plugged in again, the light on the back will turn solid white when it is ready to be used. Open a browser and enter the IP address you configured in an earlier step and you are off and running.
After logging into the device you will land on the dashboard screen which displays minimal charts about what has been happening as well as any alerts that have occurred. Since this is initial configuration, there will be no computers just yet.
Click the Settings tab at the top of the browser window and select Deploy Agent from the menu. To get the device running smoothly, you will need to install the first agent manually. Because it is very small and used only to check-in with the M300, you can put it anywhere. Once configured, the M300 will use that computer to push the agents around the network.
Click the Download Agent Installer link and run the setup on any computer you have handy (I ran it on a server). During the first agent setup, you will be asked for a server name. This is where you enter the host name of the M300, so the agent server can locate it. Click next a few times to install and start the service.
Once the first agent is all set, it will take a minimal amount of time for both items to begin communicating. You might check your DNS servers to ensure the agent server and the M300 have registered.
Once that is all done and the server shows up in the deploy agents' area of the M300, you can bounce over to the Inventory screen. Then you will need to wait a bit longer for the inventory to take place. When I walked through it, I got busy with another task and checked back about 20 minutes later and the entire inventory was complete.
Now the M300 knows about the Windows machines on your network and can begin to dig into the software and other things. Windows versions will be detected and — since we didn't configure licensing for them ahead of inventory — it will tell you that you are out of compliance.
This is where one of my gripes about the device pops up. There is no way to automatically verify licensing, however for manually entered licenses and counts you can upload proof of ownership, which is pretty cool. To improve this, a bit of integration with third parties would be ideal. For example, an area where you could put in your login for Microsoft's Licensing portal to allow the M300 to download your license information would be an awesome feature. That way as licensing was added to your volume agreement; it would appear in the M300 at the correct copy count.
For now though, you can enter licensing, as you understand it. So if your organization owns 25 copies of Office 2010 you can add a license for Microsoft Office 2010 with an owned count of 25. Then when the application is detected, the found installations will be compared with the owned count to determine compliance.
Licensing can have start and expire dates, just like the license agreements themselves. When you are adding licenses to the M300, you will be asked to select a version for the application, which is detected in the environment. This is good and bad. It is good because the M300 can find applications; it is bad because there is no way to distinguish between pay and freeware for an application. Sure the type can be specified, but the PowerPoint viewer at the 2010 version and Microsoft PowerPoint 2010 are found as the same thing. This will put you out of compliance.
Adding a software license is pretty straightforward. Click on Compliance at the top of the browser window and then click the New Software button.
After clicking Next on the welcome screen you will complete information about the software you are adding including:
- Software Name
- Cost per count
- License start
- License End
- PO Number
- Invoice Number
Adding licenses owned
Once the details are filled in, click next to proceed to the Add a License Proof page.
Proof of ownership
Once you've added proof of license information, the next screen of the wizard will offer you three choices for how you want to handle compliance.
- Authorization - This method allows organizations to evaluate licensing by comparing the total number owned/purchased vs. the number installed.
- Counting - Similar to the authorization method except the version of software to be monitored / counted is also selected to allow installed versions (as collected by installed agents) to be compared before deciding on the compliance type.
- License Keys - A PC is assigned a specific license key. This would work best for applications where box copies of software are purchased. In a volume licensing scenario, one key is typically made accessible to multiple hosts, and this model may not work well where a key is shared among hosts.
The recommended method, and the default, is Authorization. I did not modify this setting other than to read a bit about each choice.
Click next after choosing your compliance method. Then, you will choose the software versions that the M300 should be monitoring.
The last two steps in the Create New Software wizard include confirmation of the installed software versions and the computers you've designated as authorized for them. You'll see the list of detected applications such as they appear in Figure G. The M300 agents discovered these versions in your environment and they match a general description of the app that you are adding. In my case, the application was Microsoft Office 2010. Because there might be several versions of an application of Office 2010, you get to choose which one you want from the results found. Keep in mind that some freeware applications and their payware counter parts appear as the same version of the software; examples of this may be Adobe Acrobat and Acrobat Reader or Microsoft Word 2010 and the Microsoft Word 2010 Viewer. Next, you'll be asked to select each computer that is authorized to use the licenses.
There's no escaping the manual part of asset management and compliance, but once you've done the initial setup, it will be easier to track in future.
Once these have been configured, click Next and Finish to add the software. On the Compliance overview page you can click a title to see its details as the M300 knows them.
If you need help
Simply click the Help link at the top of the browser. You will be provided useful links and even videos, which might be useful in managing the device.
Go to Settings | Maintenance. This area is where firmware updates happen, either manually or automatically. For automatic updating, simply click Update Now under Automatic Firmware Update. If there is no update, the button will not appear.
Here, you can also test network connectivity by pinging other hosts from the device, perform a factory reset, shutdown, or reboot the M300, and view and restore backups that have been taken of the M300.
Overall this device does what it claims to do and is fairly simple to work with. There aren't any hidden things that complicate the M300 and make it unusable, but there are places where the license management features could be improves and/or automated — if the right agreements and partnerships were formed.
Derek Schauland has been tinkering with Windows systems since 1997. He has supported Windows NT 4, worked phone support for an ISP, and is currently the IT Manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin.