I work for SolarWinds, so i'll answer the more technical/functional side of your questions but I'm sure others may pop in to answer the 'how do you feel about' and 'how easy is it' aspects.
Is it fairly easy to deploy other updates that are not part of the native Patch Manager?
[KT] You can build your own packages for any .MSI, .EXE, or .MSP file that you have that you would like to deploy.
Patch Manager provides a package creation wizard to help, but there is a bit of a learning curve in building your own packages; that is primarily around crafting the rules that the packages have defined. The rules are used by the WUA on the client machines to determine whether the update is applicable or not and whether that particular update is already present on the machine. There are a couple of videos which can be useful in investigating how packages are made:
Can we easily deploy third party software (not just patches)?
For the packages SolarWinds provides, there will typically be both Full installs (which can install on machines that don't already have it) as well as "upgrade only" versions of the packages which have an extra rule to make sure that the application already exists on the machine (otherwise it will come back as Not Applicable for that machine). For packages you build yourself, you could create either of those types of packages for your .EXE, .MSI, or .MSP.
How easy is it to track what is being installed or available to install (reporting)?
If you are using a Patch Manager task to do the deployments, you can see the deployment results for a given task in the Task History. If you use WSUS' Approval method of deployment, you can run a "WSUS Inventory" task to collect update information into our database and run reports against that data. You can create your own reports or use the pre-canned reports that come with the product.
You can also get summary information on install status for all the client machines by browsing to and selecting a particular update or get information by on updates needed/installed/failed for a specific computer by browsing/selecting that computer directly as desired.
Of course, others may wish to comment on the ease of use aspect of this question.
We have multiple locations and during testing we noticed that the software inventory task seems to cause bandwidth issues so we may need to install a server at each facility.
It is possible to install additional Automation Server roles at remote sites (or even additional ones at your 'primary' site. That can help distribute the load for tasks if there are network bandwidth concerns. Additional Automation Server roles do not incur extra cost; the product is just licensed on the number of total nodes being managed.
Really get the demo and try it out.
There is definitely a learning curve to creating packages that arent in a catalog already and its not easy or intuitive. Also solarwinds will not help you with any packages made yourself. That said, the ones that are in the catalogs are quite easy to manage.
Reporting is awesome and if you cant get what you want from a premade template or on the content exchange here this forum is pretty good for helping out with that
Multiple locations is an issue only for update bandwith. The inventorys and detections arent that super intensive but after a detection when the packages start to download the bandwith gets creamed. Downstream WSUS servers are really the only answer there as the automation servers only kick off scheduled tasks and dont actually distribute anything.
So should you get it? That you are going to have to see yourself and see if it works for you. It took me a good 3 months before I had a solid understanding of what was going on and the little intricacies and nuances that come with it and even now after 2 years of using it I still find things out I didnt know about so if you are still confused after 30 days dont feel bad.
I would have to agree with Frgpugs, the learning curve of this product is pretty big.
We purchased this product 3 days after testing it, solely because they cut us a huge deal for a "End of Quarter Sale."
In those 3 days I was able to get it to do what we wanted, automatically install MS updates across our network. (We did get 3rd party updates to work as well but that wasn't our main focus)
We have had the product for about 4 months now and I am still learning about how it works and some tweaks that I can do to make it "better."
I actually had to start over because some of the stuff I was testing broke Patch Manager, nother worse than starting from scratch with this product.
I have made a few custom packages but nothing too crazy. Installing SEP was definitely the hardest one.
I am not a fan of their documentation that they supply you when you purchase.
In short, if you have a lot of time to devote to this product then I think you will eventually love it. But if you need help from support plan on getting a PDF from an older version where everything looks different.