Microsoft is trying to help midsize business keep their PCs in tune.
On Monday, the software maker is set to launch a beta for Windows Intune, a service that uses the cloud to offer management, patching, and antivirus capabilities for a company's PCs. When it launches in final form, the Intune service will also include upgrade rights for a company to move its PCs to the enterprise edition of Windows 7. It will also include the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack, a collection of asset management, virtualization, and other services that typically are only available for large businesses that have a Software Assurance contract with Microsoft.
Sandrine Skinner, a director in Microsoft's Windows unit, said that Windows Intune is aimed at companies that have up to 500 PCs that are looking to manage their machines with just a small IT staff.
"They aspire to have enterprise-class infrastructure, but don't necessarily have the means," she said.
One of the key features of the service is its ability to schedule and manage updates of Windows and other Microsoft software, a capability that in the past required Windows Server Update Services or another management tool.
"We're removing the need to have such a server," Skinner said. Although the Intune service can manage updates to Microsoft software, it can't update third-party software, nor can it handle the initial deployment and installation of programs.
On the anti-malware front, Intune uses the same engine that powers Microsoft's Forefront business software and its free Windows Security Essentials consumer product.
A single Silverlight-based Web console can show an overview of a company's entire fleet of PCs, showing which machines do and don't have the latest updates as well as any issues with malware.
The beta for the online services part of Intune will start this week, Skinner said, with Microsoft aiming to sign up about 1,000 businesses, all in North America. Customers will get a free trial of the online tools, but not the Windows 7 upgrade rights or the desktop optimization pack.
Intune can only manage PCs that are running one of the business versions of Windows XP or later. Windows XP machines must be running at least Service Pack 2, though Service Pack 3 is recommended.
Skinner said that Microsoft hopes to launch the final version of Intune within the next 12 months, although it is still working on a number of issues, including how to price the service.
"We're still working on it, honestly," Skinner said. The company hopes to sell it similar to the way it sells other Microsoft Online services, with businesses signing up for a one-year initial contract and then month to month after that.
In a March interview with CNET, Microsoft's head of small- and midsize business efforts said that the cloud has the potential to be a great equalizer for small and midsize businesses that are looking for enterprise-type capabilities but that have limited budgets and IT staff.
"Cloud computing, from a pure economics standpoint, is a more efficient way of servicing small business," Steen said. "It's not a one-time thing. It's pay as you need it," Birger Steen said in the interview.
The announcement of the Intune beta comes just days after Microsoft launched "Fix it Center"--a more basic automated troubleshooting service for consumers and small businesses.