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Apple Remote Desktop 3, Part 3: Gathering Information about Remote Computers

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Having accurate information about the computers in your company can be critical for any number of tasks. General inventory, purchasing decisions, software license compliance, tracking usage patterns, theft identification, upgrade planning, and update deploying rely on knowing as much as possible about the computer you manage. Constantly keeping track of that kind of information is typically a daunting challenge unless you make use of Apple Remote Desktop's vast reporting capabilities. In this third installment of Ryan Faas' Apple Remote Desktop 3 in-depth series, find out how easy it can be to have detailed and current reports on everything you need to know.
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By Ryan Faas

The first two parts of this series looked at how to configure Apple Remote Desktop within your network, and how to use it to observe and control remote Mac OS X computers and how to interact with users through a number of methods. This shows you how to use Remote Desktop to gather information about remote computers. You’ll also learn how to search remote computers using Apple’s Spotlight search technology, which has been built into Apple Remote Desktop 3.

Since its introduction five years ago, Apple has built incredible reporting capabilities into Remote Desktop. In Apple Remote Desktop 3, these features have been expanded and are even easier to manage. With little effort, you can generate reports that tell you about every piece of hardware attached to each Mac in your network, the software installed on them and how frequently they are used, which computers individuals use, and much more.

The reporting functions of Remote Desktop rely on a PostgreSQL database that is located on any computer acting as a task server in your network. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, any computer running the Remote Desktop application can be designated as a task server and host a reports database. When a computer is configured as a task server, it automatically acts to collect data for use in reports. This is true whether you rely on a remote task server or use your workstation as a task server. When you configure the Remote Desktop to use a remote task server, it will rely on that task server for data when you run a report.

Each task server can also support one or more data-collection policies (previously referred to as reporting policies). The data-collection policy determines what information managed workstations provide to the task server for inclusion in its reports database. It also determines how frequently workstations provide new data. This database is then queried when you run a report from the Remote Desktop application.

Reporting policies are one of the advantages of using a dedicated task server in your Remote Desktop configuration. The task server is always available to collect data from workstations—this is particularly true if you have portable Macs that are not always connected to your network or for computers that are used only sporadically. A dedicated task server also enables you to configure a single set of data-collection policies that can manage all the computers in your network. This ensures that you have recent data when running reports and also ensures that you can run a report that captures information from all your Macs, regardless of whether they are available at the time.

Configuring a Default Data-Collection Policy

You can configure a default reporting policy for each task server. When computers are added to a Remote Desktop configuration, they are assigned the default data-collection policy and will transmit information to the task server accordingly. You can also define specialized data-collection policies for individual computers.

To configure the default data-collection policy, open the Remote Desktop preferences dialog box on the computer acting as the task server for your network (select Preferences from the Remote Desktop menu). Select the Task Server pane. At the bottom of the pane, you’ll see three checkboxes: Collect Application Usage Data, Collection User Accounting Data, and Upload Report Data To The Task Server On A Schedule.

The first two checkboxes relate to two specific reports that were added to Apple Remote Desktop 3 (the application usage and user history reports). If you want to run these reports (which is described in more detail shortly), you need to select both these boxes. The third box, however, relates to the data used by all other reports and instructs managed computers to upload the remaining report data that you specify. To configure what remaining report data is collected and when it is collected, click the Change Schedule button below these checkboxes.

In the Change Schedule dialog box (shown in Figure 1), you can specify which days of the week report data is collected and the time of data collection. The more frequently you choose to have clients transmit data, the more accurate and up to date your reports will be. However, if you have a large number of computers transmitting a large amount of report data at the same time, this will cause a spike in network traffic. Likewise, computers might drop in performance while compiling data and transmitting it to a task server. As such, you might find it helpful to collect data less often or use multiple data-collection policies. You can also schedule data collection at times when your network and the computer on it are not likely to be used. One option is to use Remote Desktop to schedule computers to power on over the weekend or at night and then power off, leaving a window of time for them all to transmit report data.

Figure 1

Figure 1 The Change Schedule dialog box configures a default data-collection policy

In addition to specifying when data is collected, this dialog box enables you to determine what data is collected. You do this using the checkboxes under Upload. These checkboxes include System Data and File Search Data. You’ll also notice the Application Usage Data and User Accounting Data checkboxes that mirror the ones on the Task Server pane (but are grayed-out). It’s unclear why Apple included these checkboxes in two different locations and why you must specify them on the Task Server pane instead of the collection policy dialog box.

Checking the System Data checkbox instructs computers to transmit the data needed for all the hardware-related reports, along with the computer information used for the System Overview report. The File Search Data checkbox instructs computers to transmit the data needed for File Search, Software Version, and Software Difference reports. Note that the File Search report is a method for locating files on remote computers and that it includes a large amount of data. It is also different from using Spotlight to search remote computers, which performs live searches much like searching your local hard drive.

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