When you need to install software on multiple computers, the perspective of doing it manually can easily make the endeavour appear like a trying challenge. This is why many administrators turn to automated software deployment tools. These tools have a wide range of features that vary from basic scripted installation to complete management package that will not only handle the actual installation but pretty much all the phases of the software life cycle from the initial planning phase to maintaining the installed software up to date. And today, we’re having a look at a few of the best software deployment tools.
We’ll start off by introducing software deployment, what it is and the various activities typically associated with it. We’ll then discuss the importance of using the proper tools to handle software deployment. As you’re about to discover, there are plenty of reasons why one would use a software deployment tool from the simple automation of the deployment process to the monitoring of the installed software. And finally, we’ll get to reviewing the very best software deployment tools. We’ve tried to include a variety of products to give you an idea of what can be found on the market.
About Software Deployment
Software deployment is easy to define. In its simplest form, it is the process of remotely installing software on any number of computers within a network simultaneously, from a central location. The main difference between software installation and software deployment is not, contrary to what we may be led to believe, the number of target computers but instead, the size of the network. One could, for instance, deploy software packages to a single computer in a large network and we’d still be referring to that activity as software deployment. Furthermore, software deployment is often associated with automated tools while installation typically refers to a largely manual process. Software Deployment Tools vary a lot in their feature set but most cover at least some of the following activities:
- Creating and maintaining up-to-date and ready-to-install software packages
- Specifying which subset of computers to target for package installation
- Configuring target computers before the installation of the created packages
- Installing the software packages on the target computers
- Configuring and customizing the target computers after installation
- Upgrading existing software
The Importance Of Software Deployment Tools
For an individual user, installing software is, most of the time, a no-brainer. You fire up the installer, answer a few prompts and repeatedly click “next” until the installation is complete. And when you need to install another piece of software, you just go through a similar process once more. It is no so easy in the corporate world. When an organization decides to install a given software on all its computers, going to each one to run the installer is not the best option.
Nowadays, software deployment entails far more than simply installing a program. Between configuring, testing, and optimizing the performance of an application, there’s a lot going on. And you’ll most likely be performing regular updates and periodically evaluating how the software is functioning over the course of its lifetime. All this combined ends up requiring lots of time and attention to ensure everything is running smoothly. Fortunately, software deployment tools were created to reduce the stress and long hours that IT staff spends deploying software. While some of these tools have more features than others, they all share some common traits.
Automating The Process
Years ago, when I started as a system administrator, software deployment was a manual process. In fact, it was pretty much identical to the individual user installation we just described but done repeatedly for days if not weeks on. Today’s deployment tools rely heavily on automation and scripting to complete several software deployment tasks in one overnight session. They basically do the job for you. And you know what? They often do it better than you. Another important thing you get from this automation is uniformity. Each and every installation will be identical, something that can be hard to achieve when doing everything manually.
Keeping Things Secure
I won’t surprise any of you when I tell you that security should always be your main concern. And this is as true when deploying software than it is when doing anything else. Installing software often entails setting permissions and assigning access rights to files and to databases. Deployment tools will ensure that all of that is done while maintaining a secure environment.
Not only that, installing software often requires administrator-level access to the systems where the process takes place. By having automated systems doing the installations, you don’t have to give administrator privileges to as many people as when doing it manually. And as you know, the fewer people with administrator rights, the lower the risk is to security.
Making Sure Things Are Kept Up-To-Date
It’s one thing to deploy software but to stay on top of things, you also need to ensure that the packages you deploy are kept up to date. Considering today’s threat scene, ill-intentioned individuals or groups are constantly on the lookout for software vulnerabilities that could be exploited to gain access to your precious data. Consequently, software publishers are regularly releasing software patches or updates that are meant to fix any discovered vulnerability.
Some software publishers—Microsoft easily comes to mind—are better than others at releasing patches and even installing them for you. However, some other vendors might no do such a great job. Furthermore, installing patches or updates often require user intervention which might be beyond the capabilities of some of your users. And even when they can do it, there is no guarantee that they will. Studies show that forty percent of users don’t update their software when prompted.
This is where the convenience of patch management tools—a specific sub-category of software deployment software tools can come in handy. Just like regular deployment tools, they will automate the process of keeping software up-to-date and ensure that you always get the most secure software there is.
Monitoring The Software
While not a part of software deployment per se, software monitoring is a common component of software deployment tools. The idea here is to analyze the users’ interaction with the software, It can be of assistance to know which user is experiencing issues and when. It can, for instance, help you optimize application performance or solve issues before they have a chance to spread to a wider group of users. Software monitoring can also help with your license compliance needs as well as potentially reduce the number of licenses you require.
The Best Tools for Software Deployment
Now that you know more about software deployment and software deployment tools, the time has come to have a look at what products are available, Rather than simply list the best software deployment tools, we’ve elected to give you an overview of the different tools that are available. For instance, our list features some patch management tools in addition to traditional deployment tools.
One type of tool that we left out of our list on purpose is those that are meant to deploy software your development team has produced in-house. That, however, does not mean that none of the tools on our list can handle it but just that there are no tools on our list that specialize in that type of deployment task. However, if the software you develop is installed through a standard installer, there should be no reason why any of the software deployment tools listed herein couldn’t do the job.
Perhaps you are familiar with SolarWinds and its many excellent products. The company has been making some of the best network and system management tools for about 20 years. Its flagship product, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is recognized as one of the best SNMP network monitoring tools. The company is also known for its free tools addressing specific needs of network administrators. Some of these tools include a free TFTP server or a free subnet calculator. Our first entry is not a deployment tool but rather a patch management tool called the SolarWinds Patch Manager. We felt it deserved to be on this list for a few reasons. First, patch management, as we’ve explained, is just a specific type of software deployment and second, this is really one of the best tools of its kind.
Featuring an intuitive web interface, the SolarWinds Patch Manager will let you view the latest available patches, the top 10 missing patches in your environment, and the general health overview of your environment based on which required patches have been deployed. The tool’s reporting engine is another one of its strengths. It offers easy-to-use and powerful reporting that can provide truly useful information on the status of patches. Reports can also be used to demonstrate to auditors that systems are patched and compliant and help find those that are not.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Patch Manager
- Official Download Link: https://www.solarwinds.com/patch-manager/registration
The SolarWinds Patch Manager allows the centralized patching of Microsoft servers and third-party applications. As such, you can use it to deploy and manage both third-party applications and Microsoft patches, thereby simplifying your patch management process while also making it more reliable. It will handle patch research, scheduling, deployment, and reporting. Using this tool can save you a lot of time, effort and grief. In fact, the more servers and computers you have, the more time you’ll save. All that while being assured that all needed patches are applied.
The SolarWinds Patch Manager also integrates with your Microsoft SCCM and WSUS installations, providing extra features to these tools. For instance, its Custom Package Wizard will let you easily build custom packages for any application. All that without having to resort to the use of SCUP or any complicated scripting. These custom packages can be used to deploy any MSI, MSP or EXE file via Microsoft WSUS or SCCM. And these are only some of the tool’s best features. It has much more to offer.
Prices for the SolarWinds Patch Manager start at $3 690 and goes up according to the number of nodes you need to manage, from 250 to 60 000. If you prefer to try the tool before committing to its purchase, a free 30-day fully-functional evaluation version is available for download.
2. ManageEngine Desktop Central
ManageEngine is another familiar name in the field of network management. From monitoring to integrated management tools, when it comes to application deployment, ManageEngine’s tool is called Desktop Central. You can use the tool to distribute software packages to all the computers in your network running Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems from a central console, without user intervention. The product‘s feature-set is packed with advanced options to offer greater flexibility and control over the software deployment process.
ManageEngine Desktop Central has over 4 500 predefined application templates which can be used to create packages instantly, saving time and making the process faster and more accurate. Using the tool’s self-service portal, you can empower users to install applications on their own. All you need to do is publish whatever applications you want to make available to the self-service portal.
The tool also supports pre-deployment activities that let you perform condition checks and apply configurations before installation, thereby ensuring that the target computers meet all the requirements and have all the right configurations beforehand. Likewise, its post-deployment activities allow you to apply follow-up configurations, run custom scripts, change registry settings, create shortcuts, create/append path, and much more once the installation completes.
All the software packages which are created using Desktop Central are stored in the tool’s central Software Repository, allowing them to be reused multiple times. Talking about packages, another nice feature of the product is how the same packages can be used for either installing and uninstalling software.
Since downloading software packages and running the installation scripts can take up a lot of system resources, ManageEngine Desktop Central features an integrated scheduler. This lets you deploy software packages within a more suitable time frame when user impact will be minimal. Applications can be installed on the desired day/date/time, within a preset time window. The software also allows you to copy the necessary installation files to the client computers before installing or uninstalling applications, potentially speeding up the installation or uninstallation process.
ManageEngine Desktop Central is available in several editions. The free edition is limited to 25 computers and as such, it is only suitable for small businesses. For larger installations, the Professional Edition starts at $795. For multi-site installations with several deployment servers, the Enterprise Edition is the way to go. Pricing starts at $945. A detailed quote can be obtained directly from ManageEngine and, if you want to give the product a try, a free 30-day trial is available
3. PDQ Deploy
As you’d most likely guess from int name, the next product on our list is a software deployment tool called PDQ Deploy. It specifically targets Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). The tool can also be used to manage and deploy patches but software deployment is its primary purpose. Using it, system administrators can silently and efficiently install almost any application or patch to multiple Windows computers simultaneously.
PDQ Deploy comes with over 200 ready to deploy, pre-built packages for some of the most common applications. You can also create custom, multi-step deployments that can include running local commands or scripts using PowerShell, Visual Basic or batch language. This tool can integrate with Active Directory, Spiceworks, and PDQ Inventory, a hardware and software inventory solution from the same vendor. As for patch management, the system will automatically download, schedule, and deploy patches.
PDQ Deploy is available in two versions. There are a Free version and an Enterprise version. The two products mostly differ in their respective feature sets with many of the more advanced features only available with the Enterprise version. For instance, patch management is one of those advanced features that is part of the Enterprise version. This software differs from its competitors in that it’s not priced based on the number of managed nodes but rather on the number of administrators using it. And at $500 per admin, it is more than reasonably priced. Like many of its competitors, a free trial version is available should you want to give the product a try.
4. Ninite Pro
Our next tool is a very different beast called Ninite. This is an open-source tool that can be used to build custom installations of several free and/or open-source software packages. This specialization makes it quite a popular tool in free software circles. Ninite Pro goes a step further by allowing IT pros to remotely manage the installation and update of software packages on Windows computers.
Ninite Pro’s user interface is quite different from that of most other products. It presents the managed computers in a table format one row for each computer one column for each application. It kind of looks like a spreadsheet where each cell shows which version of the software is currently installed. From that easy to use interface, you can choose to install, uninstall or update the corresponding software on any computer.
Ninite Pro also has an auto-update feature that can automatically update any software it finds on its managed computers to the latest version. Another feature we like about this product is that all you need to do to add a computer to the tool is to install the Ninite agent on it. It will then automatically appear on the tool’s web interface. You are free to organize computers to your liking by assigning them one or more tags. The software will also automatically tag computer with an online/offline status or with the type of Windows—server or workstation—they are running. This makes it easy to select just the machines you’re interested in.
Ninite Pro also includes Ninite Classic which offers the same basic functionality but has a different user interface, the one from the previous version. The only reason you’d want to use it is if you’re already familiar with it and don’t care for the new look. However, Ninite Classic also has a command-line interface so you can create complex tasks using your choice of scripting language.
Ninite Pro is subscription-based and its price varies according to the number of machines you manage. The first 20 machines will cost you $1.00/month, the next 400 machines will cost you $0.50/month and any additional machine beyond 500 will cost you $0.25/month. A free trial is available like it is with most products on our list.