In-Depth

Microsoft Looks for Management Dominance with System Center 2012

Microsoft is opening its management suite, already hugely popular in Microsoft shops, to handle third-party applications. The company hopes its huge customer base and the newfound flexibility of System Center will put the hurt on a raft of smaller competitors in the application-management market.

The Microsoft System Center 2012 suite could someday dominate the market for management platforms, but it still needs to make the transition from paper to production. In March, Microsoft unveiled enhancements designed to help System Center function in the cloud as well as work with other vendors' equipment.

"Microsoft hit some key points that should make the product more appealing to customers," says Mary Johnston Turner, research VP, enterprise system management software, at IDC.

However, there's no assurance that the new features will deliver on their promises once they arrive. Also, to date, System Center has been a solid performer but not a showstopper in the complex, competitive market for network- and systems-management applications. While Redmond has done well marketing its solution to Windows IT shops, it has lacked the depth and breadth evident in competing systems.

Microsoft hopes to catch and lap its adversaries with the new release, which is scheduled to arrive by the end of the year. In addition to hitting hot-button management areas, the company has taken a page from its Office line.

"Microsoft priced System Center aggressively; customers receive the whole suite for about the cost of a couple of modules," says Don Retallack, research vice president, systems and security, at research firm Directions on Microsoft. But until Microsoft delivers the suite -- and its charms as well as its warts become evident -- the new release's impact remains more of an open question than a definitive statement.

The Changing Management Paradigm
One of the challenges in evaluating System Center is the nebulous nature of network- and systems-management products. At one time, autonomous tools emerged to oversee specific types of products, such as network switches, storage arrays and databases. As a result, companies controlled their IT infrastructures in an ad hoc manner. Gradually, vendors melded their products into suites, a series of interconnected modules designed to provide customers with a more cohesive view of their infrastructures. Consequently, System Center has become a product that includes more than half a dozen modules, some of which companies may be using and others that they may never install.

Given Microsoft's heritage, it's not surprising that the solution has fared well in one area in particular. "Microsoft has always been strong in providing companies with tools so they can manage desktop applications," notes Brian Mason, an MCSA, MCSE and Microsoft MVP who oversees more than 350,000 desktop systems at Wells Fargo & Co.

While those features continue to be strong, the vendor is trying to differentiate itself by taking on the management of virtualized and cloud applications, especially Windows Azure deployments. As a result, a key element in the suite is System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) 2012. Microsoft is focusing on such deployments because they're becoming more popular: In 2012, the company expects to ship 7.5 million Windows Server units, and close to 1.5 million will find their way into "highly virtualized" environments.

Surface-Level Features Only
While virtual systems have become more popular, they haven't been easy to manage. In some cases, vendors have created tools that automate the creation of a virtual machine (VM) and called the tools "cloud management" applications. Such approaches have fallen short of customer desires. With virtualization gaining popularity, it has become essential for corporations to have management tools that provide intelligence about their whole interconnected infrastructure, not just the underlying hardware.

"Companies want tools to help them deploy and manage cloud applications in a quick and easy fashion," says Andrew Conway, director of product management for the Management and Security Product Management Group at Microsoft.

In addition, corporations need to address VM sprawl. Virtual systems have popped up like dandelions in an open field, so businesses often don't have a clear understanding of how the devices have been configured, what's running on them or how well they're performing. VMM 2012 includes the long-discussed Microsoft Server App-V technology, which isolates applications from the underlying infrastructure and enables consistent provisioning, patching and operation of applications across multiple resource pools in various environments.

This module also underscores Microsoft's newfound willingness to try to open its management systems up to other vendors' equipment. "Historically, System Center has worked only with Microsoft software," Retallack says. "The company left connecting it to other vendors' systems up to third parties." VMM 2012 features the ability to pool and allocate virtual resources from Microsoft Hyper-V -- but also from other hypervisors, such as VMware vSphere and Citrix XenServer.

Building a More Fluid Operation
A second element, code-named "Concero," provides fluidity in assigning IT resources. After an enterprise registers its Windows Azure resources, different groups can allocate them to public cloud, private cloud or hybrid applications. Integration between VMM 2012 and Concero provides the application owner with access to pre-selected resource pools based on cost, security, performance and other policies. Consequently, departmental business managers can now deploy and move their own applications across datacenter infrastructures while IT professionals remain responsible for overall management and control.

However, this is an area where Microsoft's newfound product-agnostic outlook falls short of its goal. While the vendor stressed its commitment to treating VMware vSphere resources as first-class citizens in the Concero environment, IDC's Johnston Turner says that, initially, Concero's public cloud visibility will be limited to Windows Azure solutions, and integration with additional public cloud solutions has been relegated to being a future enhancement.

Also new from Microsoft is System Center Orchestrator. The product was previously known as Opalis, which Redmond purchased in December 2009 and whose customers included Dow Chemical Co., Xerox Corp. and Kawasaki Motors Corp. The product is an IT process-automation platform that orchestrates workflows across systems and tasks. IDC's Turner notes that System Center Service Manager (SCSM) 2012 includes the Opalis Run Book Automation (RBA) capability, and Microsoft added a service catalog to the module in its latest release.

Helping IT Departments Configure Systems
IT professionals often spend a great deal of time and effort dealing with problems related to servers that are incorrectly configured. They are often not aware of the problems until performance and availability issues arise. System Center Advisor (formerly Microsoft Codename Atlanta) 2012 is a cloud service that enables IT professionals to assess their server configurations proactively. Support staff is able to access current and historical configuration data; the product is designed to reduce downtime by providing suggestions for improvements and notifying customers of key updates specific to their configurations.

Significant changes are in store for a popular Microsoft module, System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2012. "Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager is the most widely adopted client lifecycle-management platform on the market today," notes Steve Brasen, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, a market-research firm.

Its popularity seemingly meant little to Microsoft when the company set about retooling it. "Configuration Manager 2012 is almost a complete rewrite of the product," says Rod Trent, president of myITforum.com Inc., a social networking site for IT managers. "The product is moving to become a user-centric management system, being able to support the end user no matter where they reside and no matter what device or environment they're using."

The SCCM 2012 rewrite is designed to extend the product's reach to non-Windows devices, such as those running Linux and Unix environments. In addition, Microsoft acknowledged market realities with new accommodations for rivals' smartphones. With the next release of SCCM, IT technicians can not only manage Microsoft Windows Phone 7, but also Apple iOS, Google Android and Symbian devices. Additionally, in conjunction with Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, SCCM 2012 provides these users with access to corporate e-mail while maintaining company security policies.

Here again, the vendor's delivery schedule may lag behind customers' desires. While the bulk of the other new System Center enhancements will arrive this year, SCCM 2012 is not expected to arrive until sometime in 2012. Consequently, customers may be a bit skeptical of Microsoft's promises about extending support, which historically have involved more hype than deliverables. So while the vendor claims to be willing and ready to support competitors' products, questions remain about how robust that support will be and how similar it will be to the functionality available with Windows systems.

In addition, System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) 2012, another widely used module, has been enhanced to provide monitoring of Microsoft .NET Framework and J2EE apps. The tool -- the result of the Microsoft acquisition of AVIcode in October 2010 -- adds new application-performance management dashboards, featuring a SharePoint-style interface, to help companies track items such as network performance and Service Level Agreements, or SLAs.

Filling in a Product-Line Hole
Another new module, System Center Service Manager (SCSM), supports companies' IT help desks. "The lack of a help desk application has been a major hole in the System Center line," says Directions on Microsoft's Retallack. The product tracks incidents, problems, assets and changes to datacenter infrastructure. It also offers self-service functions to developers, IT managers, IT technicians and end users.

System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) offers companies a central way to back up information housed on servers and desktop systems. A new release features enhanced Hyper-V support, including support for SharePoint and de-duplication workloads.

The list of new modules, features and functions offers enterprises a number of potential benefits. The solutions provide greater insights into application performance. Companies don't want to know what's going on with pieces of the infrastructure; instead, they want to know how the application-delivery system is functioning.

In addition, the solution set offers customers a path to future deployments. IDC's Johnston Turner says, "Microsoft is stressing that System Center 2012 will allow IT organizations to implement and manage cloud solutions at their own pace." With the Microsoft approach, IT departments can manage systems in a consistent fashion as they transition from on-premises systems to cloud solutions.

What's Missing?
But the system is not a panacea. "Microsoft has done well in managing systems, but doesn't offer customers much functionality for overseeing their network devices," Retallack says.

Another criticism stems not from the management tools themselves, but from the Microsoft cloud-computing strategy. As companies move to cloud systems, vendors must support these services via gargantuan, fluid datacenters. Microsoft based its solutions on its experiences with Xbox Live and Bing. It's unclear whether its approach will be as effective as its competitors', such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc.

To date, Microsoft has had success in the network- and systems-management market. "In the past couple of years, Microsoft has made some serious inroads into enterprises that need to centrally manage their system endpoints," says myITforum.com's Trent.

At the very least, with the release of System Center 2012, "there's little doubt Microsoft will be able to hold its ground as one of the market's systems-management leaders," says EMA's Brasen. However, only time will tell if System Center 2012 offers sufficient functionality to enable Microsoft to gain ground on its competitors.

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