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Microsoft to unify management tools

The software maker plans to untangle its management software lineup--and introduce its first such tools for Web services--in an effort to win corporate customers.

Microsoft next year plans to untangle its management software lineup--and introduce its first such tools for Web services--in an effort to win corporate customers.

The company plans to unify its growing--and disparate--management software line and in the process deliver the first pieces of its long-term management strategy, called the Dynamic Systems Initiative, David Hamilton, director of Microsoft's Enterprise Management division, said this week. The goal of the initiative is to make corporate data-center gear better able to self-manage and more cost effective, according to Microsoft.


What's new:
Microsoft is harmonizing its disparate management software products, an early stage in its Dynamic Systems Initiative to make corporate data center technology cheaper and easier to run.

Bottom line:
By strengthening its systems management software--an area in which Microsoft has been comparatively weak--the company hopes to convince enterprise customers to base their most important systems on Windows.

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The moves underscore Microsoft's growing commitment to systems management software, an area in which the company has been comparatively weak, according to analysts. Microsoft does not plan to take on systems management heavyweights such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Computers Associates. But management software has become a key element of the company's plan to convince corporate customers to base their most important systems on Windows, Hamilton said.

"Clearly if you want to own the enterprise, you have to provide management capability," said Rick Strum, president at research firm Enterprise Management Associates. "To date, management has not represented a huge revenue source for Microsoft. However, they are putting serious money and resources into management" software, Strum said.

Large companies rely on systems management software to automate administrative tasks such as monitoring networks, tracking desktop PCs and enforcing security policies. While Microsoft's management wares focus on Windows systems, the company relies on third parties to control non-Windows machines.

To kick off its plan, Microsoft expects to release its Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 to manufacturing on Oct. 22, which means that it will be generally available within several weeks, company executives said Monday. It also plans to start later this year a beta, or test, of its other main management software called Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) 2004.

The upcoming version of SMS is designed to be more scalable, allowing corporations to administer thousands of desktop PCs. The company also plans to release an add-on in six months that will help businesses keep tabs on Pocket PC devices, Hamilton said.

Monitoring .Net
On the Web services front, MOM will include a "management pack" that will allow it to monitor the status of Web services applications and help avert network failures. MOM, which will monitor components of Microsoft's .Net software, will be available in the middle of next year, Hamilton said.

Microsoft's two main management products--SMS and MOM--differ in capabilities. SMS is geared toward letting large companies distribute software updates and patches automatically to PCs over corporate networks. MOM, meanwhile, is for monitoring network events to head off problems, such as an overloaded server or dropped network connection.

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Microsoft intends to consolidate them both into a single console called Systems Center set for release next summer. The initial bundle will include SMS 2003 and MOM 2004.

Microsoft executives said that giving systems administrators a single tool will provide more accurate data on network operations and will lower management costs. The first version of Systems Center, set to debut in the middle of next year, will offer basic integration, such as common installation routines and reports on network status. By 2006, Microsoft expects to complete the consolidation and have a single management product.

Next stop: DSI
Next year, Microsoft will also take a significant step in its Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI). Microsoft executives contend that too much of IT budgets is devoted to performing relatively mundane tasks, such as applying software patches or monitoring a network's health, rather than creating strategic initiatives.

With DSI, Microsoft is seeking to automate many data-center operational jobs and reduce the labor involved. The idea is that management software can be clever enough to know when a given application will have a problem and take actions to avoid it. For example, the systems management software could fire up an extra Web server when the existing machines are being overloaded because of a spike in traffic.

"Depending on the need required to successfully operate an application, dynamic changes can be made to it at any given moment and yet done in an as automated way as possible, with as little intervention as possible on the operator's part," Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's enterprise storage and enterprise management divisions, told CNET News.com.

DSI mirrors the utility computing efforts that are under way at Sun Microsystems, IBM, HP and other companies. Those efforts focus on developing products that can pool server capacity and provision machines based on changes in computing demand. But Microsoft is taking a decidedly different tack, drawing on its popularity with software developers and the strength of its programming tools.

"Microsoft is coming at systems management from an application development standpoint. Everyone else that has ever done systems management has come at it from an operations stand point," said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk. "Microsoft has turned the problem on its head."

Central to DSI is an Extensible Markup Language (XML)-based data format, or schema, called Systems Definition Model (SDM). Microsoft calls a SDM a blueprint, or description, for how software and hardware components can be controlled.

The forthcoming version of Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net development tool, which is code-named Whidbey, will include an application modeling tool code-named Whitehorse. Using the modeling tool, application programmers can provide information that helps the administration of the application once it is deployed. The modeling tool will generate data based on the SDM format, which can be read and acted on by the company's management products. Whidbey is set for release in the latter half of 2004.

For example, a software programmer could indicate the optimal distribution of an application's components across application servers and database servers to operate effectively. In theory, Microsoft's management products would be able to read this embedded management information and automatically take actions, such as provisioning another server, according to the guidelines described by the application developer.

"The idea of DSI is to use XML-based schemas that start at the development process and go all the way through operations to create applications and systems that were designed to be managed," Muglia said. Developers "can start to specify what the conditions are, what the schema are required to manage and control your environment."

Potential hitch
One potential hitch with Microsoft's plan is that developers rarely, if ever, take steps to ease operational problems once an application is deployed. In practice, custom-written business applications are typically handed over to systems administrators who do not have detailed information on the inner workings of a system.

Microsoft has built features in the Windows Server 2003 operating system, such as load balancing, which its says comply with DSI and make servers better able to self-manage. The company also is trying to recruit hardware companies and other software companies to follow its management data format to improve the reach of DSI.

The company is also trying to make its tools work better with non-Windows systems, which analysts say is important to the company's long-term systems management strategy.

At the company's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles later this month, Microsoft will announce that it is partnering with Web services management companies AmberPoint, Actional and Adjoin--the latter was purchased this summer by Computer Associates. These Web services management specialists will build plug-ins for MOM. The connectivity between the different tools will let companies share management information between Java-based system and Windows applications, Microsoft said.