Dell KACE M300 Asset Management Appliance Review

Wednesday Nov 23rd 2011 by Joseph Moran
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This pint-sized appliance -- designed for small businesses -- does the heavy lifting for network computer and software inventory.

Do you know how many PCs are sitting on your small business network, what hardware is under the hood, which operating system and applications they're running, and perhaps most importantly, whether that software is properly licensed?

The answer is probably no, considering that compiling and maintaining such information typically requires a degree of time and effort that most small businesses can't afford to devote to the task.

Dell's new KACE M300 Asset Management Appliance, which is an an SMB-focused sibling of the company's KACE K1000/K2000 appliances targeted at large enterprises, aims to make PC and software inventory practical for small businesses by eliminating much of the grunt work involved.

Given its aluminum housing and petite square dimensions, you could easily mistake the $2,498 M300 for a Mac Mini at first blush. (At 1.5- x 5.8- x 5.8-inches, the M300 is actually slightly smaller than the Mini.) Dell says the M300 is designed for small business networks with up to 200 computers, and it's worth noting that the M300 only inventories computers -- not other network devices such as printers, switches, IP phones and the like.

The M300 also only works with Windows systems -- it supports desktop and server versions from Windows XP up through Windows Server 2008 R2, but any Mac or Linux systems on your network aren't invited to the party. 

Setting Up the M300 Asset Management Appliance

Getting the M300 up and running on the network is a straightforward affair. After plugging in to power and Ethernet, we used a laptop to perform the device's initial configuration, creating an administrative account, specifying network settings, etc., which took only a few minutes.

Dell Kace M300 Asset Management ApplianceThe next order of business was to use the M300's administrative control panel to install the software agent on the first PC. The agent collects and reports data to the M300, and it must ultimately be installed on every computer on the network.

The first computer that gets the agent becomes the M300's deployment server, which acts as the unit's eyes and ears by discovering additional computers on the network and delivering their info to the agent. The deployment server needn't be a dedicated system or even a particularly powerful computer, but it does need to remain constantly on and connected to the network to do its job.  (It's easy to change the deployment server later if you want, as any system with the agent installed can serve in the role.)

Viewing Information on the M300

Within about 15 minutes of us installing the first agent, the M300 reported 26 computers on the network -- a mix of Windows XP/7 clients as well as Windows 2003 and 2008 servers -- though it knew nothing other than the computer name of about 25 of them (surprisingly, not even the IP address). Once they'd been identified, we were able to remotely send the agent to each of the newly- discovered PCs; you can also use Group Policy or a third-party software deployment tool to deploy the agent to a group of systems en masse.

Once the agent's done its digging on a system, the M300 can give you a lot more information, ranging from the hardware specs such as model, manufacturer (or virtual machine platform, as the case may be) CPU type, RAM and storage capacity (including free space), OS version and updates present, as well as a comprehensive list of every piece of software installed on the system -- including the stuff that runs on startup.

If the system happens to be a Dell, the M300 will even use the Service Tag to pull up the warranty information (for non-Dell systems you can enter the info manually).

The M300 makes it easy to drill down through this plethora of information with three levels -- the basics, more detail and, finally, all the data that's been collected. You can also view a chronological history of a system's recent events, as well as low, medium and high-priority notices of events that might require your attention. For easy access, notices from all systems are always displayed on the M300's initial login screen, a.k.a. the Dashboard.

To easily find a particular system or group of systems in the M300's inventory, you can define custom color-coded labels, apply pre-defined filters, or use the M300's search feature to find computers using IP or MAC address, computer or user name, or other parameters.

We particularly like the fact that clicking on the name of a patch or application for a particular computer calls up a list of all the computers where the item is present.  You can receive notices without having to log into the unit by subscribing to the M300's RSS feed. On the other hand, the only feed link offered is for all notices -- not just high-priority ones -- which may result in a bit of information overload.

Software License Management

As mentioned earlier, the M300's agent software can ferret out all of the applications installed on your computers, and then use this information to ensure that all your software is licensed (and that you're using all the licenses you paid for). The M300 supports three methods of license management -- Authorization, Counting and Keys, each of which requires successively more legwork to set up.

Authorization is the most basic, and you can get it up and running in a few minutes to a few hours depending on the number of programs you want to track and the number of computers you have. With Authorization, you create an entry for a piece of software -- say, Outlook 2010 -- and the M300 tells you how many computers are actually running the software. You then select which ones are authorized to use it. Any computer not running the software without explicit authorization would be flagged by the M300.

The Counting model goes a step further by letting you compare how many licenses of a specific software version that you own and the number of systems actually running the software. If you bought three licenses of Adobe Acrobat X Pro but it's running on five computers, for example, the M300 generates a compliance notice.

Finally, the Keys model lets you allocating particular software license keys to specific computers, but since the M300 doesn't collect keys, you have to enter and assign keys manually, which can be a lot of work. With all the licensing methods, you can enter proof of software purchase information such as invoice/P.O. numbers and even upload scanned copies of supporting paperwork.

M300 Shortcoming

One area in which the M300 falls somewhat short is its lack of a built-in reporting tool. Although you download comprehensive inventory data (or a filtered subset of it) to a CSV file, you're left with the task of organizing, formatting and graphing the information in Excel.

In a world where the free Spiceworks software offers hardware and software inventory along with a host of additional features such as an integrated help desk system, support for non-PC network devices, and (ahem) a reporting engine, the M300's $2,500 price tag may seem like a tough sell. Still, we think many small businesses -- that are primarily concerned with system inventory and that want a product without ads (banishing the ads in Spiceworks costs almost $500 a year) and vendor-provided rather than community-provided support -- will find the M300 an attractive option.

A caveat emptor for tire-kickers, though: according to Dell's Web site, “…KACE appliances are nonreturnable and may not be transferred without express written consent from Dell, which may be withheld in Dell's sole discretion.” Fortunately, you can avail yourself of lots of background material prior to purchase, including screenshots, videos and live demos.

Price: $2,498

Pros: Quick and easy setup; extensive software compliance features

Cons: Doesn't inventory non-computer devices; no built-in reporting

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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