Microsoft's Windows Intune cloud service is officially available from today, offering smaller businesses the ability to centrally manage their Windows PCs for perhaps the first time, without the need for complex back-end management server infrastructure.
Windows Intune moves PC security and management to the cloud, enabling an IT manager or business owner to view detailed information about all their company computers and select software updates that will be applied to them as required.
Customers can subscribe to Windows Intune for £7.25 per PC per month, which also includes an upgrade licence giving them the rights to install Windows 7 Enterprise edition on all PCs. However, the service also supports Windows XP and Vista machines.
Because the service is cloud-based, customers need only install a management agent onto each computer, and this communicates directly with the Windows Intune cloud service via the internet.
Meanwhile, the customer's management console is web-based, and can be accessed from any browser which has Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in.
Windows Intune also includes malware protection, based on the technology used in Microsoft's Forefront Endpoint Protection for larger companies.
While the new service can scale up to manage as many as 20,000 systems, Microsoft said Windows Intune is chiefly aimed at smaller companies that may not have an IT department, and may struggle to keep track of laptops in the hands of mobile staff.
"Many SMEs have staff that don't work in the office all the time, but most management tools only work if you are on the office network or connected to a VPN," said Microsoft's Windows Client product manager for Intune, James Lockyer.
In contrast, any software updates or security policy changes made in Windows Intune will be implemented the next time each company computer connects to the internet.
As well as letting customers choose updates to apply, Intune tracks hardware and software assets and generates inventory reports, allows customers to set policies regarding security settings, and provides health check monitoring of PCs to identify potential problems before they develop.
IT service providers will also be able to deliver Windows Intune as a managed service, allowing customers to outsource PC management and support to them.
One such service provider in the UK is Cloud Business, which has had some customers on a beta version of the service since last year.
Director James Butler said that the monitoring capabilities of Intune allow his staff to spot problems and fix them before they became a business issue, or to contact the customer and alert them to it.
"Intune has allowed us to offer them a fixed cost for providing support, because it acts as a health check that identifies problems before they become a business down issue," he said.
For companies with more advanced needs, Microsoft is offering its Desktop Optimisation Pack (MDOP) as an add-on for Intune at minimal extra cost.
MDOP is a suite of tools that includes the Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset that can recover unbootable PCs, plus Microsoft's application virtualisation and desktop virtualisation products.
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