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Microsoft explores self-managing software

The company takes on competitors with a new initiative for developing "autonomic" business applications.

Microsoft will next week take on its key competitors with a new initiative for building self-managing computing systems.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company plans to unveil the initiative, called Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), at a Las Vegas conference next week when it debuts its new systems management tools.

Read more about Microsoft's initiatives.

The initiative seeks to create business software that automatically responds to, and compensates for, fluctuations in computing demand. Such software would, for example, let a Web site automatically bring more servers online to respond to an unusually high number of visitors. Similar "autonomic" computing initiatives have also been launched by Microsoft's closest rivals, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

DSI also will include hardware manufacturers in a coordinated effort Microsoft hopes will deliver management tools and systems that will trump competitors. By including hardware and software development in the initiative, Microsoft hopes to create standards that wring the most productivity and efficiency out of Windows systems. That in turn could make Windows servers more appealing to larger businesses running Unix systems or mainframes.

Under DSI, "The systems and applications working together in concert would be able to allocate and reallocate resources based on mode, demand and business need," said Bob O'Brien, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows Server.

With the plan, Microsoft is following competitors onto well-trodden ground. "This is Microsoft's answer to IBM's autonomic computing, Sun's N1 and Hewlett-Packard's adaptive infrastructure," said Gartner analyst Tom Bittman.

The problems are serious for many businesses, said Mark Linesch, director of infrastructure solutions for HP's industry standard server group.

"You can see very specifically when you talk to very large customers...that they want to find a way to fundamentally get more utilization out of those resources," Linesch said. "More importantly, companies want their technology resources to work more in concert with their business processes.

The four competitors are at various stages of development. IBM disclosed some of its autonomic software plans during this week's CeBit 2003 trade show in Hannover, Germany. HP this month plans to further lay out its adaptive infrastructure strategy.

Until now, Microsoft has treated the task of managing resources and applications on a network or data center as more of an operating system function, or they has deferred them to third-party application providers. But as the company eyes the enterprise, greater emphasis is being placed on providing more management tools and including third-party software applications and hardware.

Laying a good foundation
"Microsoft is approaching this from a different direction," than the other companies, Bittman said. Its three competitors are working to build big self-repairing, self-managing software packages they believe will appeal to enterprises. Their home-grown efforts are largely independent of each other and third-party software developers. Microsoft, instead, is attempting to define how software developers go about building applications from scratch that are easier to manage.

"Instead of just building this architecture and hoping they will come, Microsoft is saying you can be a lot smarter about this if, when you design the application, you think about how you are going to manage it," Bittman said.

O'Brien said that big companies spend too much time and effort trying to improve applications after they are in place. "Operations are more of an afterthought when it comes to things like application design," he said. "We kind of joke about it as the technological equivalent of duct tape. In order to put an ax to the root of the problem, you really have to go back to the application phase of this."

To jump-start DSI, Microsoft plans to work with hardware developers ahead of the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in May, and the Professional Developers Conference in October. Development tools supporting DSI would appear in Visual Studio .Net sometime after the October conference, O'Brien said.

Bittman found much merit in the approach, but warned that it could take years before enough applications were developed to fully achieve the goals Microsoft has set for DSI. O'Brien acknowledged that Microsoft expected the process of fully realizing DSI to take three to five years.

In the meantime, Microsoft next week will discuss what the company calls the Systems Definition Model (SDM) and Automated Deployment Service (ADS). SDM is software infrastructure technology that Microsoft plans to incorporate into its development tools, operating systems and applications. ADS is Windows Server 2003 technology for implementing software that will ship later this year.

Microsoft is positioning Windows Server 2003, which is slated for April 24, as the first deliverable on DSI. Three technologies associated with the server software deliver more management features than earlier versions, Bittman said.

He particularly praised ADS, which would let technology managers generate software images for installing a multiple servers.

Another tool is Windows Systems Resource Manager (WSRM). "That solves half of the problem of mixed workloads on Windows," Bittman said. "In fact, it solves the easy half." The first iteration only fine-tunes processors and memory, not network bandwidth or other important resources.

"The other half is that applications have to play well together, and that's not there," Bittman said. This feature, particularly, is dependent on software developers building support into their applications. Without Microsoft's products, this process would probably take years.

The third important piece will come from Microsoft's recent acquisition of virtual machine and server technology from Connectix. But the virtual server, which is in the early stages of testing, is not expected to be released before the end of the year.

Bittman described Windows Server 2003 and DSI as important changes for Microsoft."

"Microsoft has pretty much gone from the box mentality to producing a number of things to deploy multiple boxes and multiple images, and to allow mixed workloads," he said.