Review: GFI Cloud eliminates need to nursemaid Windows
Help for the hard-pressed sysadmin
How do you take care of a network's worth of PCs if you are short of time and resources?
Recently, I have been looking at the kinds of tools that systems administrators need and have come to the conclusion that for those who are time-poor and overworked, GFI Cloud ticks several of the important boxes.
The purpose of GFI Cloud is simply to manage and secure a Window-based network of desktops and servers. With GFI Cloud, the sysadmin can ensure that they are properly maintained and that nobody has done anything outrageously stupid to them.
GFI Cloud currently does not support any operating systems except Windows (although it does offer patching on third-party software). However, none of the others needs management nearly so desperately. Nor are any of them so widely distributed among small and mid-sized businesses.
There are two different ways to implement a cloud management service: single agent or per-system agent. Talk to various cloud management companies and you will get impassioned speeches about why one method is better than the other.
The first requires you to run a single agent on a network and poke holes in the firewall of every other system so that they can be managed by this agent.
In my opinion, the single-agent approach is a terrible plan for the kind of customer who would want the simplified management services provided by GFI Cloud. Fortunately, GFI seems to agree.
While it may seem onerous at first blush to install an agent on every system to be monitored, I believe this is significantly less problematic than managing firewall and security settings across one's entire estate. It is much easier to have the widget live on the system and call back to the cloud management server over HTTP.
In a nod to mid-sized environments, agents can be deployed through group policy as well as through the incredibly simple manual download. For me, the install process serves as a metaphor for the entire product.
GFI Cloud was designed to be simple and easy to use. It was targeted not to compete with the likes of Microsoft's System Center but with "nothing at all".
Additional features and more enterprise-class management capabilities are being slowly added as the product matures but GFI is clearly aware of the balance between feature richness and ease of use.
Many of these more advanced features are buried a few levels down, seemingly so that they can gather information and feedback on making them optimally easy to use before promoting them to first-class button-worthy features.
When something is more complicated than "push button, receive bacon", GFI sticks a warning label (advanced!) on it. Even then, it has made the process of deploying the agent via GPO the simplest that I have encountered to date.
Buttons and tiles
You start off with the dashboard which gives you an overall view of all the devices on your network. The dashboard is well constructed, offering a simple, timeline-like view that lists the issues you need to address, colour codes them and gives you a big fat button to fix the problem.
Everything is packaged up in an interface that uses the least possible space for controls, leaving the maximum amount of space for the information you actually care about.
Rather than use the popular flattened-tile interface, GFI takes the novel approach of shading its interface options so as to make it obvious which elements are intractable user-interface services.
It pains me that this has become a reviewable point in modern software; however, it is nice to encounter a user interface that is actually intuitive.
For those who prefer a tiled interface, fear not: the network button gives a summarised view of the health and state of your network. Individual tiles list the computer name, along with the number of action items for you to care about and the number of services monitored.
The antivirus button provides the equivalent of a primitive enterprise management console that is capable of managing anti-malware products from multiple companies.
This is especially useful for smaller observations making use of Microsoft's free Essentials antivirus, as management of that product tends to be on a system-by-system basis.
The concept of having your Windows event logs displayed in a single pane of glass interface is quite novel
The monitoring tab is more of an event viewer than anything else, listing things such as backup checks and errors in services like Windows Time.
It might seem simplistic, but the concept of having your Windows event logs parsed and curated across all systems and displayed in a single pane of glass interface is quite novel for many small and medium businesses – and there are a lot more of them than enterprises.
The patch management button is another item that does exactly what it says on the tin. GFI Cloud's patch management is simpler than Windows Server Update Services and is integrated into the single management interface with the other options available.
Buried in the interface (currently the best way to access is to click Network and then a computer name) is asset tracking. To my mind this is one of the most useful features for sysadmins.
Push the asset-tracking button, select hardware and suddenly you know everything there is to know about the bits that make up that system. Similarly, you can pull full software information for that device.
Also Teamviewer is integrated into the device view – just push the button labeled Teamviewer and GFI Cloud will send you a .tvc file with the information to log into that system.
Poking the monitoring button in Device view also gives you access to performance charts for CPU, memory, disk busy time and disk queue length.
Here is where I run into one of the more curious design choices for this service. Why is performance information not available from the main monitoring button, but available on a per-device basis?
I understand that performance information for multiple systems is unrealistic to display for large groups of devices. Still, given that GFI Cloud encourages you to separate your systems into different groups, I would love to see the monitoring button contain aggregated performance statistics.
Similarly, I don't understand why something as important as asset tracking doesn't have its own button on the main panel or the ability to be viewed in aggregate form. I would, for example, like to know how many computers in a given group have 4GB of RAM and how many have only 2GB.
If you nose around in reports you can pull the relevant information but I believe it needs to be promoted to first-class status within the interface. Asset management is simply too important to be buried.
The per-device view of GFI Cloud also gives you the interface for assigning individual systems to various groups. This is critical not only for being able to display information about different groups of systems, but also for applying antivirus policies, patch management policies and web protection policies.