Microsoft Takes the Midmarket to the Cloud
When Microsoft discontinued its ill-conceived Windows Essential Business Server, I spoke out against the need for more on-premise server products--especially for infrastructure services like email and collaboration--and wondered why Microsoft wasn't offering smaller businesses more cloud-based options. Yes, certain servers--especially storage--still need to be hosted on-site. But a lot of the traditional Microsoft servers would be more valuable as hosted online services, I think, giving customers all the power and benefits of these solutions but without the cost or complexity.
I realize this view is a bit idealistic. (I prefer the term "forward looking.") And I'm used to a little pushback, both from those who use Microsoft software and from the software giant itself which, let's face it, still has a full stable of traditional, on-premise offerings.
So imagine my surprise this past week when I was briefed about Microsoft InTune, an ingenious online service that provides midmarket customers--those with 25 to 500 PCs in their environments--with a comprehensive set of PC management capabilities. And this is PC management comes without the need for Active Directory, Microsoft's System Center tools, or any other complex infrastructure. Instead, it operates entirely in the cloud and provides real-world management functionality for the real world. Which, in the case of the midmarket, means environments with just one or two IT generalists running the show. Here, simplicity trumps complexity.
So what does InTune give you? Put simply, it provides a way to manage PCs, no matter where they are. So if you have users working from home, working remotely for long stretches, or traveling a lot, you can insure that their PCs are protected with proven security software, up to date with the latest software and security updates,
You determine loose standards for the PCs in your environment via policies, though don't be confused by this term: These aren't Group Policies, but are rather just specific to InTune. There's also a reporting, auditing and licensing component, and if you're a company on the way up, you can also utilize the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which is included.
Management requires only a Silverlight-capable web browser, and that means that you, too, as the person overseeing PC management, can get your job done from anywhere in the world. The console provides access to the overall health of your environment, no matter how distributed, with actionable, hyperlinked issues providing quick resolutions. It provides alerts to various problem types, which of course work regardless of where those PCs are in the world.
The Silverlight-based web console.
Are there limitations to InTune? Of course, it's a v1 product and it's lacking in some ways compared to Microsoft's more full-featured on premise solutions. There's no way to whitelist or blacklist specific applications or application versions, for example, so there's no real way to prevent your users from loading up unapproved software. Also up in the air in pricing: Microsoft is going to sell InTune through its Microsoft Online Services (MOS) offerings, so it will be a per-PC subscription cost of some kind. They're looking for feedback on this, so let them know you expect it to be inexpensive.
The InTune client software includes a remote assistance component as well.
Questions aside, InTune hits a sweet spot, I think, between functionality and complexity. And if your environment is typical--i.e. a mess--and you haven't yet grown to the size needed to truly take advantage of Microsoft's enterprise servers, InTune could be exactly what you're looking for.
But if you want to check out InTune soon, move fast: Microsoft is offering the beta only to a limited number of companies. So sign up now.
An edited version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul