Product: SolarWinds Patch Manager
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With software vendors releasing software patches at an alarming rate, manually patching systems is rarely practical. Unfortunately, achieving comprehensive, multivendor patch management has always been a tall order. Recently however, I had the opportunity to check out SolarWinds Patch Manager (formerly Eminent Ware WSUS Extension Pack), which is designed to centralize the entire patch management process.
I began the evaluation process by downloading the free 30 day trial of SolarWinds Patch Manager. The download consisted of a 440 MB ZIP file, which I decompressed and then ran the executable file within. Prior to my review, SolarWinds had provided me with a Quick Start Guide as a way of assisting me with the installation process. Even so, I found that the initial deployment was completely intuitive and that I did not need the Quick Start Guide.
One other thing that I want to quickly mention before I move on is that SolarWinds Patch Manager requires SQL Server (2005 or higher) and WSUS to be installed. I was especially pleased that the installer did not require me to manually download and install these components. They were deployed automatically as a part of the installation.
The Initial Configuration Process
When the installation completed, I launched Patch Manager and was taken to the screen shown in Figure A. You will notice in the figure that the lower right pane contains a to do list. I found the to do list proved to be immensely helpful because it told me exactly what needed to be done in order to configure the server.
Figure A: The initial console screen contains a to do list.
I found the “to do” list to work very well. Clicking on an item within the “to do” list took me to a wizard that helped me to accomplish the specified task. Once again, the process was completely intuitive and I did not need to refer to the product’s documentation to complete the various configuration tasks.
After I completed the initial configuration, I decided to see what patches the software would make available to me. When I clicked on the Administration and Reporting | Software Publishing container, the console displayed a message stating that the evaluation version contains a limited selection of third party updates, and that you must purchase a Patch Manager license for access to the full third party catalog. Even though I understand that SolarWinds is trying to prevent someone from relying on the trial version instead of purchasing the licensed version, I really wish that the trial version had included the full patch management catalog. Even so, the 3rd party list is available here.
Downloading third party patches proved to be easy. There is a wizard that can walk you through the process, but I chose to configure the synchronization settings manually because I wanted to get a feel for the product’s inner workings. The synchronization settings are available by right clicking on the Software Publishing container and selecting the Synchronization Settings command from the shortcut menu. Doing so brings up the Third Party Updates Options properties sheet. This dialog box contains a series of tabs that allow you to set a synchronization schedule and to choose the catalogs that you wish to import, as shown in Figure B.
Figure B: Patch Manager offers patches for a number of third party products.
Once the various packages have been selected and a synchronization cycle is complete, the patches are visible by selecting the All Packages container. The thing that really caught my attention about the packages is that Patch Manager did more than just download a bunch of vendor patches that you could have just as easily downloaded yourself. In addition to downloading the patches, Patch Manager packages them for deployment and installation. If you look at Figure C, you will notice that for every patch there is a series of tabs in the lower pane that dictate things like prerequisite rules and applicability rules.
Figure C: Patch Manager automatically packages patches for deployment.
Other Configuration Tasks
Patch Manager is designed to work in conjunction with either WSUS or System Center Configuration Manager. For the purposes of my review, I decided to use WSUS console when I deployed Patch Manager.
Regardless of which patch management solution you choose to use, you must link WSUS or Configuration Manager to the Patch Manager Console by right clicking on the Update Services container and selecting the Update Services Registration Management link from the shortcut menu. Doing so causes the console to display a dialog box that allows you to connect Patch Manager to either WSUS or Configuration Manager.
Although establishing the connection is normally a simple process, I struggled for several days trying to connect Patch Manager to WSUS. Every time I attempted a connection Patch Manager displayed a permissions error. After a lot of time spent diagnosing the problem, I discovered that the reason for the error was the result of installing Patch Manager and WSUS onto the same server (which I apparently should not have done). I was eventually able to work around the issue, and have been told that this issue will be eliminated completely in the next version.
The last step in getting Patch Manager up and running was to make it aware of my network. This process was quick, easy, and completely intuitive.
Using Patch Manager
Once it has been set up, Patch Manager is easy to use. When you initially open the management console (which SolarWinds calls the Extension Pack Console), you are presented with a dashboard view of your organization’s current patch management status. You can see what this looks like in Figure D.
Figure D: The management console provides a dashboard view of the patching status.
The console itself provides information about Microsoft patches and third party patches in two separate areas. Clicking on the Software Publishing container provides you with a list of the third party patches as well as their synchronization details, which you can see in Figure E. This list can be filtered based on a number of different criteria. The console also provides a series of vendor specific containers that you can use to examine patches on a per vendor basis.
Figure E: You can view third party patches through the Software Publishing container.
Another thing that I really liked about the management console was that it displays Active Directory objects in much the same way that the Active Directory Users and Computers console does. Active Directory objects such as computers are right clickable and you can perform a variety of tasks from the shortcut menu. These tasks go beyond patch management and include handy maintenance and diagnostic functions such as Ping, Remote Desktop, Reboot, and even the ability to repair WMI or the Windows Update Agent. Figure F shows the options that are available.
Figure F: Patch Manager offers many capabilities beyond patch management.
As you would probably expect, Patch Manager also includes a rich reporting engine. The software can produce a wide variety of reports related to WSUS, Configuration Management, and Task History. You can see some of the available Task History reports in Figure G.
Figure G: Patch Manager offers a variety of reporting options.
Overall I was pleased with Patch Manager. Granted, I did have some problems getting Patch Manager to work with WSUS, but once I resolved that issue I didn’t have any more problems. What I especially liked about Patch Manager was that it is a big time saver. The software didn’t have a steep learning curve and it didn’t require third party patches to be manually packaged like some competing solutions do., I would give SolarWinds Patch Manager Gold Award with rating 4.7.