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Microsoft won't slam windows on Systems Management Server

When Microsoft launched Windows 2000, many saw an overlap with Systems Management Server--the company's server for systems administrators--and said good-bye SMS. They may have spoken too soon.

When Microsoft rolled out its Windows 2000 operating system, many speculated the product spelled the beginning of the end for another Microsoft offering, Systems Management Server.

Instead, Microsoft, like a number of its Linux competitors, has decided to plant its feet squarely in the systems management software market. On Tuesday, Caldera Systems, for one, announced its Linux-distribution-neutral Volution Linux management application.

In October, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates outlined Microsoft's overarching scheme for .Net management services as part of the company's announcement of a new product, called Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). And in the ensuing months, Microsoft built up its management-technologies team to its current staffing level of 500.

Now the company is starting to fill in the missing pieces of some of its management plans.

Systems Management Server (SMS) is one of Microsoft's BackOffice software servers aimed at systems administrators. SMS provides hardware inventory, software inventory and metering, software distribution and installation, and remote troubleshooting tools. Some of these same kinds of tools, such as software distribution and installation, are also provided by Windows itself.

Rather than killing off SMS--by incorporating most of its hardware/software inventory- and change-management features into Windows, as many had expected--Microsoft has decided to rev the product at least a few more times.

Topaz in the rough
Last year, Microsoft had hoped to ship commercially its next version of SMS by mid-2001. Instead, that version, once code-named Emerald but currently known as Topaz, will enter Beta 1 this summer. (Microsoft officials said they decided to change code names because "Emerald" already had been used as a code name for several previous Microsoft products.)

Microsoft is also planning to issue Service Pack 3 for its currently shipping SMS 2.0 product within the next few weeks, company officials confirmed. Service Pack 3 will be a collection of bug fixes made to SMS 2.0 since Service Pack 2. The only new feature included is the ability to deploy Whistler Professional from SMS 2.0. Whistler Professional is the code name for Windows 2000 Professional's successor, which is expected to ship before the end of this year.

Topaz is slated to be a fairly minor upgrade to SMS 2.0. It will include tighter integration with the Active Directory directory service at the heart of Windows 2000, improved remote-user support and enhanced cluster server capabilities, according to Microsoft. Topaz is slated to add "package delta replication functionality," meaning customers won't have to implement full refreshes of SMS-installed applications; instead they will be able to deploy only the features that are different between the SMS-installed versions.

Topaz also will include some new reporting capabilities aimed at helping administrators make more sense of the raw data generated by SMS, according to Microsoft Group Product Manager David Hamilton.

"We want SMS to be more about knowledge and less about data," Hamilton said. "We want to provide meaningful reports, not just pure inventory information."

Meta Group analyst Cory Ferengul said that while SMS is hardly the best systems management package, it has a large installed base because it is a Microsoft product. As a result, Microsoft can't just let the product disappear.

The long-term agenda for Microsoft remains to include as much management plumbing as possible inside Windows, Ferengul said.

"Microsoft wants people to get excited about the potential of the (.Net management services) plumbing," he said. "But it's still unclear what effect this plumbing will have on Topaz and MOM."

The bottom line, Ferengul said, is that "Microsoft is still not real savvy about understanding what management is."

MS: We're committed
Microsoft has plans for a release of SMS beyond Topaz, as well, Hamilton said. He said the follow-on release doesn't yet have a code name. But Microsoft is aiming to allow the post-Topaz release of SMS to manage other Microsoft back-end servers, including its MSMQ message queuing product and BizTalk XML server.

Going forward, one of Microsoft's goals will be to reduce overlap between SMS and Windows, Hamilton said. Microsoft intends for the two products to become increasingly complementary, especially as it drives forward with its software-as-a-service .Net initiative, he said.

For example, Microsoft is building into Whistler and Blackcomb (the Windows release slated to follow Whistler) interfaces that will allow .Net-ready versions of Windows to better share management information with SMS. Windows and SMS will share this data via the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and XML transport mechanisms, Hamilton said.

"Microsoft has refocused on management," said Hamilton. "We have 500 people working in this area now."

Included in that group are individuals working on SMS, MOM and Windows Terminal Services and Windows developers dedicated to management infrastructure components, such as group policy, Intellimirror and Windows Management Instrumentation interfaces.