The beta period of Microsoft’s hosted PC-management service Windows Intune has hit its crescendo and the final product is available today for trial for purchase.
Microsoft conducted a beta period with 1,000 customers and partners for nearly a year. Now the company is ready to offer the computer management tool, which also comes with subscription-based licences to Windows 7 Enterprise, through the Microsoft Online Services platform.
Intune is meant to be used by any business that doesn’t have a centralized way to orchestrate PCs and security, says Alex Heaton, group product manager for Windows Intune based in Redmond. It’s also for the managed service providers (MSPs) that count small businesses among their clients.
“A lot of businesses have tools that can manage PCs in the office, but once that PC is on the road or the user is at home, they can no longer use those tools to manage that PC,” he says. “We aren’t managing the PCs, we’re just taking a tool and putting it in the cloud so it is easy to do.”
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That tool is Microsoft’s System Centre Configuation Manager, a piece of software that larger enterprises will often buy licences for and operate with an on-premise server, according to Paul DeGroot, a Seattle-based analyst that specializes in Microsoft licencing. Smaller organizations would never bother with this sort of IT set-up because it’s just too complicated, explains the principal consultant at Pica Communications.
Intune will be most valuable “in an organization that has a distributed workforce using portable computers,” he says. “It’s hard to centrally manage those things when you have people in the field, not close to any place they can get help.”
Each company using Intune receives a unique identifier to access a list of computers connected to the service in a management console with an interface similar to Windows Explorer. A small piece of client software is installed on each PC that reports information so long as it is connected to the Internet. The management tool allows the administrator to organize computers into hierarchies and groups, organized in a branch-style menu.
Administrators also can push updates to the PCs managed through Intune. Remote desktop allows for IT to take over a user’s mouse and keyboard in trouble-shooting situations.
Vancouver-based MSP Fully Managed Inc. decided using Intune was the best way to manage the PCs of client Angel Restoration. The Vancouver-based company employs project managers that spend a lot of time on the road evaluating damage at the sites of fires and floods.
Intune provided the client with a plug-and-play technology that is mostly self-managing and has cut down on the number of calls to the service desk, says Chris Day, CEO of Fully Managed.
“We have far fewer issues related to the issues that Windows InTune is responsible for,” he says. “For example, the malware aspect is totally manged in the cloud for us.”
Intune’s anti-malware engine has been updated from the beta version’s Microsoft Security Essentials engine, Heaton says. Now it runs on the same engine used in Forefront End-Point Protections 2010, which includes predictive heuristics to deal with new or unfamiliar pieces of malware.
The management console is packed with more tools to really make it sing for MSPs. A multi-account console presents MSPs to manage each of their customers individually. There is also documentation describing how to integrate the service with existing help desk ticketing systems such as ConnectWise and Autotask.
“It will work with any ticketing system that will take e-mail alerts,” Heaton says.
Pricing in Canada is at $14 per PC per month, while it is $11 per PC per month in the U.S. This comes despite the Canadian dollar’s recent parity with the greenback.
“We’re not at a point where we change our rates every day because the dollar goes up or down,” explains Elliot Katz, senior product manager, Windows client, with Microsoft Canada. “There’s a fixed cycle of evaluating exchange rates and setting the price.”
Microsoft hired analyst firm IDC to conduct research on user experiences of Intune during the beta period, Heaton says. It found than on average, a customer using Intune saved $700 per PC per year. Most beta participants didn’t have a centralized management system in place, and the savings resulted from less labour costs.
“The hours the IT department would not be spending on reactively fixing issues and deploying updates,” Heaton says.
That might be music to the ears of many small businesses, but DeGroot is sceptical that all users would reap such benefits. He says that a business running 10 computers would be paying Microsoft $110 per month for the service, and more than $1,320 per year. He wonders how often Intune would really solve a problem on one of those PCs.
“At the end of the year you might ask yourself if you got $1300 of assistance from Microsoft,” he says. “A lot of businesses might decide that no, they didn’t.”
Intune joins Office 365 in Microsoft’s new cloud-based focus for selling its software and services to smaller firms.