This month, Microsoft updated its Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), a suite of desktop management tools that are currently offered only to the company's Software Assurance (SA) customers. As with earlier versions of MDOP, this suite is a must-have collection of valuable utilities--many of which originated at startups since purchased by Microsoft--and an obvious and tangible benefit of Microsoft's subscription-based enterprise licensing program. If you're not taking advantage of MDOP, it's time to take a look.

MDOP is typically used with Windows Vista Enterprise- or XP-based clients, though certain features are available only in Vista. In its latest incarnation, it offers five essential capabilities. These capabilities are:

OS recovery. Although Vista does include a Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) for OS recovery, MDOP extends this capability with the Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset (DaRT), a comprehensive set of recovery tools that includes ERD Commander, Disk Wipe, Hotfix Uninstall, and many others. (On XP, a slightly more limited DaRT is available via a WinPE-type boot CD.) A new version, DaRT 6.0, shipped earlier this month with a new standalone system sweeper utility that lets you detect and remove malware (including rootkits) from a system while it's offline.

Application virtualization. Via Microsoft's SoftGrid Application Virtualization technologies, MDOP licensees can stream or install individual virtualized application packages, instead of requiring desktop users to access applications via a single virtualized environment. The primary advantage of this scheme is compatibility: You can do such things as install multiple versions of applications, each virtualized and packaged individually with its own specific set of DLLs and prerequisite files. In a recent demo, I was able to run three different versions of Microsoft Word simultaneously on a single PC, for example. I feel that this technology may be the key to the way future Windows versions handle backwards compatibility, incidentally.

Asset inventory. The Asset Inventory Service is delivered as a hosted service with client-installed agents that report to Microsoft servers in the Internet cloud. This has the advantage of not requiring environments to create their own asset management infrastructure, which can help you determine whether you're in compliance with your software licensing.

Centralized crash and error management. Using the Microsoft System Center Desktop Error Monitoring tool, you can redirect crash and error reporting to your own servers and utilize Microsoft's knowledge-resolution database: If Microsoft knows the cause of the problem, it will point you to the appropriate knowledge base (KB) article for resolution. You can also optionally choose to continue passing crash and error data along to Microsoft so that it can continue its public reliability improvement efforts. (The Desktop Error Monitoring tool supports in-place upgrading to System Center Operations Manager 2007 as well.)

Advanced policy-based management. Microsoft has added a change control system to Group Policy so that policy changes can be tested in an offline environment before being deployed and can be rolled back more easily. There is also a more granular level of delegation with different roles, such as admin, editor, reviewer, and so on.

Microsoft will be adding a sixth tool to MDOP in the coming months as well. The company recently purchased Kidaro, which makes desktop virtualization management software. I was told in a recent briefing that this software provides an infrastructure for deploying and managing virtualized applications, using Virtual PC-based technologies, on desktop PCs. We can expect to see this software in an MDOP update by the end of the third quarter of 2008.

What this all adds up to is a comprehensive set of utilities that no enterprise should be without. And that, really, is the only problem I see with MDOP: It's currently available only to SA customers. These tools, especially the amazing DaRT recovery tools, should be made available to all of Microsoft's business customers and, potentially, could ship with Windows as well. Microsoft tells me that it's looking into other distribution options. But for now, MDOP is the fastest-selling SA benefit released thus far. I can see why.

I'll be looking more closely at MDOP in the future. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack on the MDOP Web site.

This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.