Services & Software

Microsoft retools enterprise management

The tech titan announces new software called System Center that's intended to make it easier for corporations to oversee their PCs and servers.

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Microsoft on Tuesday announced new software intended to ease the management of business PCs and servers.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company announced details of the new product, called System Center, during a company-sponsored conference in Las Vegas.

Much of the conference is focusing on a new management technology that Microsoft plans to deliver over the next three years to five years. As previously reported, Microsoft will unveil its Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), a new self-managing software architecture that competes with similar products from Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems.

The new management tools are part of Microsoft's expansion beyond desktop software into larger, more lucrative, enterprise computing sales, where IBM and other competitors have an advantage.

System Center, which is slated to debut next year, initially will be a software bundle made up of two other Microsoft products: Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) 2004. The company said it plans to expand the tool in subsequent releases to manage other aspects of enterprise computing.

Microsoft on Tuesday also released details of MOM 2004, a tool for monitoring, managing and evaluating the performance of Windows. The company issued an update to existing version MOM 2000 in January.

System Center "can't be available until MOM 2004 is available in summer of next year," said David Hamilton, director of Microsoft's Enterprise Management division.

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System Center was just one of many topics at the management conference, which unexpectedly sold out. About 1,500 technology executives were expected to attend.

"We thought we would have issues with constrained travel budgets and people worried about the war," Hamilton said.

The integration game
The system management tools MOM 2004, SMS 2003 and System Center all will support DSI, through Systems Definition Model (SDM), a new infrastructure technology Microsoft will incorporate into its development tools, operating systems and applications.

System Center will start out "as a suite with some basic integration between the two products and it will evolve across time" to support DSI, Hamilton said. "As we build that Systems Definition Model into applications, we want our management tools to leverage it."

DSI differs from competitors' technology in one crucial area, said Gartner analyst Tom Bittman. "Microsoft wants applications that support management operations," he said.

Microsoft's 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.

Using SDM as a framework, Microsoft and other software developers will build support for System Center and its management tool siblings into their applications. In theory, this approach would create self-optimizing software that responds to spikes and dives in computing demand and corrals troublesome applications that can drag down network resources.

Microsoft plans to launch DSI during the next three years to five years.

"I really see two big attachment points to the Dynamic Systems Initiative, and they're the 'Longhorn' and 'Blackcomb' releases of the operating system," Hamilton said. "There will be pieces of DSI that come with Longhorn and Blackcomb."

Longhorn is the successor to Windows XP and is a major OS overhaul that will include a new data store for finding and accessing files. About two weeks ago, a very early test, or alpha, version of Longhorn leaked out onto the Web. Blackcomb is the successor to Windows Server 2003, which launches on April 24.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with market researcher Directions on Microsoft, expects the first beta of Longhorn around the time of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in October. He predicted a February 2005 launch for Longhorn.

Hamilton clarified tentative release dates for both operating systems, which also would be important for System Center. Microsoft executive said to expect "System Center revisions" around the time each operating system ships.

"You're likely to see Longhorn in 2004 or 2005, (depending) on feedback from customers, and you're likely to see Blackcomb in 2006 or 2007," Hamilton said. "They're just a little too far away to be specific at this point."

System Center and the other new software management tools could also turn into key defenses as Microsoft seeks to stave off the competitive threat Linux poses in server environments, say analysts.

"In many of the Linux comparisons I've seen, manageability is the biggest single knock against large-scale purchases of Linux," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with market researcher Directions on Microsoft. "If you're an enterprise, you want a single console where you can see what's happening on all these machines."

While acknowledging that some companies are "working to fill that gap," DeGroot described the management options for Linux as poor. "If Microsoft can get its management act together, this is an area that could be a very significant checkbox for the enterprise," he said.

MOM and pop
Delivering the parents of System Center, MOM 2004 and SMS 2003, so to speak, will be the more immediate goal, while Microsoft educates partners and customers about DSI and SDM and prepares to broadly distribute the technologies.

Microsoft plans to release SMS 2003 final, or gold, code in September. The product currently is near the final stages of beta testing. SMS is used to configure and maintain Windows systems, as well as helping to manage security and bug fix patches.

Microsoft plans to extend SMS capabilities through the release of add-on components, or feature packs that would start becoming available within about six months after the final is issued. The software titan is expected to release details about the first two feature packs on Tuesday. The first will add management support features for Pocket PC-based devices, such as handhelds and cell phones.

"There also is a brand new feature on OS provisioning," Hamilton said. The add-on component would add provisioning management features and support for imaging tools, such as those from PowerQuest or Symantec.

To more efficiently manage their systems, many companies erase the copy of Windows installed on their PCs and replace the OS with an identical version that also includes the appropriate hardware drivers and software applications for their work environment and corporate network. The practice is known as provisioning, or reimaging.

Microsoft's decision to provide a provisioning management tool might surprise some customers. In 2000, the company told businesses that provisioning PCs would have to pay twice for Windows, once for the copy they erased from the hard drive and again for the one they imaged onto the computer.

More than a year later, Microsoft partly backed down from the provisioning position. Windows XP users have full reimaging rights. Businesses subscribing to one of Microsoft's volume licensing plans also can reimage Windows 2000 systems, according to Microsoft.

"At this point, Microsoft has gotten more comfortable with the whole concept of imaging because it's becoming the mechanism by which they deploy operating systems using their own provisioning tools," said IDC analyst Al Gillen.

But Microsoft also is responding to customer demand, Hamilton said.

"A lot of (customers) roll out brand new images on their desktops--either they have OEMs do it or they reimage themselves," he explained. In another scenario, a help desk might choose to reimage a PC, returning the computer's software build to its original state, to resolve ongoing problems.

Feature packs won't be the only extras Microsoft has on tap. The company also plans to discuss its next generation of management packs. The add-ons available for MOM, BizTalk Server and other products enhance management capabilities by providing preconfigured modules and other tools.

"We'll be (demonstrating) those for the first time and talking about that being available December of next year," Hamilton said.

Some of those new management packs would be for MOM 204, which is getting a major overhaul. In preparing the next version of MOM, Microsoft will attempt to address ease of deployment and usability changes many businesses had asked for.

Customers want "to get this product deployed in days rather than weeks or days rather than hours," Hamilton said. He also touted new analysis tools, a new reporting engine, a data warehouse component and changes to the user interface.