SoftwareCentral Product Review

Bob KellyReviews0 Comments

At its core SoftwareCentral is all about making the power of SCCM simpler to use. SCCM is very powerful and it is often seen as “free” (or at least already paid for) by anyone with a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement (which is a good majority of businesses today). Powerful features and an attractive licensing strategy has made SCCM the most popular solution of its kind. However, it is notoriously complex to use (and troubleshoot). The smaller an organization is, the less likely it is to have a team capable of fully utilizing its valuable capabilities. The complexity of SCCM has spawned a market for solutions focused on non-enterprise customers (generally below 5,000 seats and often referred to as mid-market). Such products include those by KACE, Kaseya and Matrix42. SoftwareCentral aims to enhance rather than displace SCCM by making it easier to use.

While I see the clearest value of SoftwareCentral being a solution for mid-size organizations without the staff and expertise to get the most out of SCCM, they turn out to have several large customers up to 75.000 seats which seem to be pushing SoftwareCentral toward the goal of providing a better way for those that know SCCM to get more out of it (such as to help them to work faster and troubleshoot more easily).

That said, SoftwareCentral does have several larger customers who are happy to be able to work quicker and with less training. It’s natural that many benefits may gain due interest in the enterprise market, and SoftwareCentral is no exception. This does mean that their customer base is largely skilled in SCCM and such makes SoftwareCentral lean toward using terminology and exposing complexities that they might otherwise choose to hide in order to better accommodate those familiar with SCCM. I’ve focused this review more from the perspective of one that wants to simplify their use of SCCM versus someone who wants to improve upon SCCM because I think it is the larger opportunity. That said, I’ll take you through the whole product so that you can view it from your own, appropriate perspective.

The web-based console can be customized for various groups of users by setting role based access controls to limit which menu items appear and over which target devices any admin may have control. Taking a quick look at the console, you’ll see that the blue icons represent admin functions; the green icons represent end user functions and the red shopping icon is to access an enterprise app store where users can request applications for immediate installation or to trigger an approval workflow. SoftwareCentral is localized for English, German, French, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian and you can even localize your own custom, user-facing prompts and messages as desired.

For this product review, I have also created an accompanying walk-through video of the product.

Key Benefits

  • Simple navigation makes SCCM functionality easier to leverage
  • License harvesting can help reduce license spend
  • Role based access controls let you restrict capabilities and limit which systems may be controlled; allowing you to provide specific functionality to staff of varying skill levels
  • Templates reduce the need to repeat common settings
  • Enterprise App Store / Service Catalog with optional approval workflow lets users help themselves

A web API is also provided so you can deploy software, reinstall computers, etc. from external tools. A popular one being Service Now. ServiceNow can be used to approve or decline orders  in SoftwareCentral and you can add the SoftwareCentral self-service portal to ServiceNow. It is also possible for SoftwareCentral to create tickets in ServiceNow.

Functionality Walk-through

The best way to make sure we hit all the major functionality offered by SoftwareCentral is to walk through its interface, so starting from the left and moving to the right, let’s take close look at what you get with this solution…

Devices

Here we have several menu items primarily concerned with establishing new systems. You can pre-stage a computer by providing identifying information so that when it comes online it can be provisioned as desired. Similarly, you can import computers in much the same manner. You may choose to define an automated naming scheme, can group devices and can define computer templates. A computer template defines key information about how to set up a new system and is intended to save time answering the same questions for each time you provision a system such as target OS, keyboard, locale, time zone and computer name details. These computer templates are used when importing a computer and when a reinstallation is triggered.

SoftwareCentral does not have its own agent, but leverages the SCCM Client Agent, so there is nothing specific to “SoftwareCentral” you need to manage new systems.

Applications

The application menu is where most of the heavy lifting is done from an admin perspective. It is arguably easier to use than SCCM, but it does still demand a fair understanding of SCCM and how applications, packages, distribution groups, security groups, etc. all relate to one another. I was hoping to see SoftwareCentral hide some of this terminology and complexity and hope they can find a way to do so in a future release.

In discussions with the company, it appears that enough of the SoftwareCentral customer base is knowledgeable about SCCM that they have decided to expose more than they would if their users were less familiar. I hope they can find and maintain a good balance to meet the needs of both their enterprise and mid-size customer personas.

Applications specify how packages are to be distributed. An application identifies source files for the setup. A setup does require its own target folder, so when using the interface’s upload feature you must know to first create a folder, then upload that source to the new folder. You might also choose to upload a zip file, which automatically creates a folder. Neither of these options are immediately evident, but is easy enough manage do once you understand the need. You also provide the installation command line and naming information for the application as well as how SCCM should identify when the application is installed. You can specify a wide range of criteria for this but SoftwareCentral will make suggestions (for example, it will recommend use of the MSI Product Code for Windows Installer based setups). It is also possible to specify a custom detection script. This option is not currently documented but to use it you can enter PowerShell, VBScript or Jscript right into the interface to run a custom check to confirm installation—you simply need to be sure the script returns an error level of zero to report success.

Creating an application results in creation of an install and uninstall device and user collections in SCCM (four in total). Under Applications we also have Packages. This is the type of thing it would be great to see SoftwareCentral hide from users, but remains because packages are still needed for things like drive r and script packages for task sequences when setting up new machines. Today there is less need for Packages which is optional—instead Applications is primarily used which, while there is overlap, adds things like detection methods and the ability to specify dependencies.

The package Wizard can be used to create a package simply by providing source and naming details. Packages are where applications are assigned a package category as well as distribution points and groups. You can define how and where the application may be installed here. So, both packages and applications are necessary which I’d love to see SoftwareCentral merge into a single concept.

You’ll also find a Distribution submenu here under Applications, but this is not for distributing software (that is the Packages menu). This is instead used to view and update distribution points in SCCM.

Finally, I want to point out the “Download Packages” feature. Software Central manages about 50 common applications you can easily download and use right away. There is an additional charge for this feature via an annual subscription. Naturally, you can add your own based on details you can obtain online at places like the AppDetails software tip library.

Patches

The main benefit of the patches feature in SoftwareCentral is to expose WSUS functionality in the same management interface where you may assign roles to expose it to admins as desired. No additional functionality is provided here but there is no denying the value of being able to manage patching from the same console.

SoftwareCentral shows status messages for each client, making it easier to find those clients that failed to install an update. It can also help provide an overview of your Windows 10 build versions in your organization and see compliance status for each Servicing Plan.

Licenses

License control and license harvesting features are provided here. This is an enhancement for SCCM. Metering, inventory and deployment capabilities of SCCM are all leveraged to deliver this value-added function. I like this a lot.

Licenses are based on simple installation counts and expiration dates, when the license count is exceeded or if the expiration date is reached you can automatically prevent further installations of the software. You can also get alerts when you reach a specified number of remaining licenses or if you are a specified number of days from expiration.

A feature to compare SoftwareCentral and SCCM installation counts is available because any software installed with SCCM directly (and not using SoftwareCentral) are unknown to SoftwareCentral. This tool lets one identify any such discrepancies.

A key enhancement over SCCM on its own, SoftwareCentral provides a license harvesting capability on an application-by-application basis. Specify how many days an application can stay inactive on a client computer and when that threshold is reached, the application is automatically removed to release the license for redeployment to another client.

Settings

This isn’t an area where I want to spend too much time, but it presents an opportunity to cover a couple of key capabilities of SoftwareCentral. I want to quickly highlight both Security Roles and HTA Administration.

This is where you may define Security Roles. These role-based access controls let you specify what functions appear for any desired groups and let you dictate which systems may be seen and managed for these groups. A common scenario would be to create a Help Desk group that can perform limited actions.

This is also where you may customize the GUI presented in the provisioning of new systems in Windows PE. It is referred to as “HTA Administration” which may not be the clearest name. In case you are not familiar, HTA is the extension used for VBScripts that leverage the browser as an interface. In SoftwareCentral, an HTA is used to provide such an interface within Windows PE to collect required details upon installing Windows on a device. Not only do you not need to write your own script for this purpose, but you can very easily customize it from here to collect any information you wish (or to display any information you wish) before starting the installation of Windows.

Log

A solution like SoftwareCentral obviously needs a log for troubleshooting and it does a good job of it by offering a “General” and “Personal” tab to focus in at a high level on either system events or events you’ve triggered. It also offers some very helpful search and filter options with an export capability.

Status

Check on your environment: client status and connectivity…

The Client Manager selection lets you see each known computer under management. You can see if each is connected, view basic information or trigger a remote task or resource explorer. You can also select one or more clients to perform specified actions like installing the SCCM client agent, clearing a PXE instruction or triggering WoL. Further, you can force the client agent to perform actions such as force an inventory update or shutdown actions like logoff, shutdown, reboot or power off.

The Software Status option lets you search for a specific system and see what actions have been taken and the status of each. Alternatively, you can search for a specific package and see what systems it has been installed or removed (as well as the status of each such action). You may export results to PDF reports if desired.

Reinstall

A reinstall feature is provided to help you easily rebuild one or more computers.

In a single action, you can have the OS re-deployed, and then all assigned applications reinstalled. You may choose a computer template or OS so this could also serve to change what version of Windows is installed and USMT can be leveraged to migrate user data and settings with a single selection. Optionally, you may schedule this action to occur in the future.

Clone

The Clone feature of SoftwareCentral allows you to copy the software and/or operating systems assignments of one machine and apply it to one or more other computers under management.

At a glance, you may think this is about cloning a system, but it is not an imaging feature. However, the result is the same. This can save you time establishing new systems as you can just copy a device that you’d like to repeat (duplicating its OS and application assignments).

Software

The Software menu is where packages may be assigned to one or more devices.

You can assign software to users or devices. Choosing one shows you previous deployments and their status along with links to access log entries and to reinstall or remove each item. Selecting from available software updates the pane on the right to reflect any additions or removals specified and you simply click “apply changes” to enforce those choices. Like other areas, you can perform such actions on one or on multiple systems through separate menu items and you can again schedule the activity for a future date/time if you wish. There is also an ability to “lease” the software where you can have it automatically removed in a specified number of months.

Also under the Software menu is a “Deployment Manager” which serves as an alternative interface for deploying software or operating systems. Here you can create a Deployment Plan in a wizard-style interface choosing a job type (software or OS), target computers, an optional pre-defined software group, and finally the choice to execute it immediately or schedule the job for a future date/time. This area also lets you view existing deployments.

AD

The “AD” menu provides a way to view and manipulate users, groups and computers in Microsoft Active Directory. You can also manipulate local groups (workgroups). Like the Patches menu, this does not add new capabilities, but serves to provide a single pane of glass interface for relevant capabilities (for which you can then choose to assign via roles).

The feature helps you to ensure that all users and computers on your domain have the proper configurations and security settings. It also allows you to reset multiple user accounts passwords; configure password settings and enable/disable users whose passwords expire.

SoftwareCentral takes things further to provide support for a user-initiated password reset capability. If your users have their email addresses properly entered in Active Directory, you can take advantage of this password reset feature. Users are only able to reset their own accounts where they have access to the email account specified in AD.

It works like this: The users sends an email to a reset-password address, the user gets link back to initiate the reset and finally, the user clicks on link to enter a new password for their account. This is simple and straight forward and a valuable capability.

Tools

Under the Tools menu in SoftwareCentral, you can access remote control and other right-click tools you may have available.

Remote control is built-in, but you can easily add other tools here to trigger any external scripts or utilities you think valuable. SoftwareCentral customers make use of this capability to integrate their own automated tasks such as triggering a PowerShell script to issue a BitLocker key, to refresh machine policy, and even to “clean” a computer by removing all software and user settings.

Reports

In the report area, SoftwareCentral displays existing SCCM reports. No new report creation or other such functionality is provided, it is simply exposing SCCM reports in one of two interfaces: The first (provided for backward compatibility) is called “All Reports” and show reports not bound to security roles in SoftwareCentral. A second called “SCCM Reports” shows those that do support Security Roles so you can choose which users can see certain reports.

Shopping

A very valuable feature of SoftwareCentral is the inclusion of an enterprise App Store where end users can enjoy some self-service by requesting applications. Taking this further as a Service Catalog, you can also add “Custom Shop Items” to satisfy other needs such as to order hardware, local admin permissions, to run a pre-configured script or create a support ticket. Any such items may require an optional approval workflow or be immediately satisfied based on how it is configured.

You can customize the logo of the store to match your own brand, but no additional color or CSS manipulations are possible in the current release. It looks quite nice as it is and lets you browse, search, and even look at what is present on other systems. You can uninstall applications as well and all via a familiar checkout cart experience. Actions are performed by SCCM so the user need not have permission to install or uninstall applications with their own Windows account. Any items flagged as requiring approval, trigger an email alert to the approver who can approve or deny the request.

As an admin, specifying application icons require you to provide an icon file. You will need to obtain an icon file manually as it is not pulled from the setup or application executable. A quick Google Image search will likely find you what you seek for this.

Closing/Summary

I always aim to point out both positive and negative aspects of the solutions reviewed here at AppDetails. Overall, I really think SoftwareCentral is a good product that will be appreciated by many. The simplification and enhancements over SCCM tell a powerful story for the many organizations struggling to manage SCCM out of the box and may be considering alternative mid-market replacement systems. Could it do more? Of course, every product can do more and I’ll point out a couple of areas I see such room for improvement below.

What I Like

If you’ve read through this, you can clearly see that SoftwareCentral does a great job of its main objective of reducing complexity associated with managing systems using SCCM. Even better, it adds some nice features you don’t get with SCCM on its own. For example:

  • License management capabilities
    • You can track licenses and prevent installation of more than you’ve purchased.
    • You can identify software not being used and have it automatically removed.
    • You can “lease” applications, by deploying them only for a set number of months before they are automatically removed
  • Delegation of tasks
    • You can limit what different groups or users or administrator can see and do
    • You can limit what groups of users or devices an administrator may have control
  • Password reset
    • You can let users reset their own passwords via email
    • You can delegate the management of user passwords in the SoftwareCentral interface
  • Leveraging Templates
    • Reduce the need to keep making the same choices when deploying systems and applications
    • Help drives consistency
  • Self-Service Shop with workflow approval process
    • Let users help themselves to software
      • Great for software that may not be needed
      • Great for when you want to offer users a choice (such as for selection of a browser, viewer or other utility where several free options may exist)
    • Let users help themselves to trigger scripts and other defined workflows

Where things could be improved

A cloud based offering is a clear opportunity, and one that is being addressed—Mansoft plans to offer a cloud based version of Software Central in Q2 2018. This effort is making headway and a beta version is expected to deliver 80% of the full product’s functionality in Q4 of 2017.

  • If you make most any change, especially to settings, you must click the SoftwareCentral logo at the top left of the display to log back in so that any remembered details will be refreshed. The system should be able to know which changes require a referesh and do so automatically without this manual, repetitious action.
  • Some things still need to be done in SCCM such as the creation of task sequences to define the steps of deploying Windows (drivers, bitlocker, etc.).
  • Adjusting USMT templates must also be done manually and is another aspect where a front end would be welcome.
  • It would be great to see customer contributions supported in SoftwareCentral Plus to crowd source packages (and possibly third party application patches).
  • About the interface…
    • It uses a three-pane user interface, though often the right most pane is not utilized or needed.
    • There is an opportunity to reduce the number of menu items by combining action targeting both single and multiple devices. [MMP1] [BK2] The current logic behind their separation is to more easily support the ability to restrict the ability to perform actions on multiple targets with security roles.

Applications and packages are still distinct things and there are menus for both distribution and assigning packages to security groups. While the UI is easier, it would be great to see Software Central provide a distribution wizard which let you choose or create a package and assign it to a target while hiding the complexity of these various underlying components.  A deployment wizard exists, but requires that you first establish an application (or package).

To check out SoftwareCentral in action, please see my product walk-through video…

Please contact AppDetails with questions or for more information.

 

Bob Kelly
8/30/2017
AppDetails.com

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