In-Depth

Microsoft Swings for the Big Leagues

Redmond's System Center line may offer some answers about the software giant's move into the enterprise-management tools market.

"Promises, Promises" would be an appropriate theme song for Microsoft's strategy in enterprise-systems and network management. Since the turn of the millennium, the company has laid out a series of initiatives designed to transform its management tools from competent, Windows-based tools into ones capable of overseeing any system or network device. So far there has remained a large delta between what was promised and what has been delivered.

The company's latest foray, lumped under the System Center banner, has potential. However, the future is linked to how much Redmond really cares about non-Windows devices. Company executives have clearly stated their intentions: "Microsoft has worked closely with customers to deliver a comprehensive enterprise strategy for an integrated management solution." For some, such words ring hollow.

Microsoft has always moved slowly but effectively when entering new markets. And "slow" is certainly an apt description for the evolution of its network- and systems-management solutions.

Integrated systems- and network-management tools were hot well before the dot-com boom. In the mid-1990s, BMC Software Inc. went on an acquisition binge to round out its management line, CA Inc. pumped millions into its Unicenter product, Hewlett-Packard Co. embellished its OpenView line and IBM Corp. paid $750 million for Tivoli. Such moves established these vendors as market leaders.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been relegated to second-tier status, promoting a variety of products with ever-changing names -- usually the sign of a wayward strategy (see "Making Sense of Microsoft's Management Tools").

In April, the company unveiled System Center Operations Manager 2007 Cross Platform Extensions, designed to bring Linux systems under the control of Microsoft's tools. It also released System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2008, which lets users centrally manage virtual machines. As the company embarks on its latest major push, the question arises: Is it too little too late for Microsoft to become a top-tier systems- and network-management supplier?

Strong in Windows Shops
While questions remain about Microsoft's ability to provide a strong, multivendor management platform, its management tools have been widely adopted among Windows users. Total Wine & More, based in Potomac, Md., operates more than 50 stores in 11 states. Catering to fine-wine connoisseurs, the retailer has about 800 employees and sells 24 million bottles of wine each year. "We are about as Windows a shop as anyone can be," explains Todd Slan, the company's director of technology. Total Wine has 124 Windows servers and one Linux system in two data centers.

The System Center Dugout
Product Function
System Center Configuration Manager Tracks health of server and client systems on an enterprise network
System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 Helps customers manage virtual servers
System Center Operations Manager Manages configuration information
System Center Operations Manager 2007 Expands Microsoft control to non-Windows Cross Platform Extensions systems
System Center Data Protection Manager Backup and recovery solution
System Center Essentials Tool designed for midsize businesses (up to 500 client computers and 30 servers)
System Center Capacity Planner Pre-deployment capacity planner and post-deployment system-configuration analyzer
System Center Mobile Device Manager Designed to manage information on Windows Mobile 6.1 devices
System Center Service Manager Help desk system

The company had used Microsoft management tools for several years and upgraded to the System Center line in the fall of 2007. SCVMM 2008, which works with Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 and VMware ESX Server, was one of the reasons for the change. Using SCVMM, Total Wine & More reduced the number of management software images running on its systems from 30 to two, which has greatly reduced the time its technicians have to spend troubleshooting its systems.

Microsoft could have simply continued enhancing its Windows management products, which have fared well at the low end of the marketplace. "Microsoft's management tools have been quite popular in small and medium businesses," says Steve Brasen, an analyst with consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates. His company sells System Center Essentials for midsize businesses.

To be a top-tier player, though, Redmond must establish itself in Fortune 500 data centers that invest a significant amount of money in management systems, and where the Big Four (BMC, CA, HP and IBM) dominate. "We don't have any interest in the mainframe sector of the management market," says Robert Reynolds, Microsoft's director of product planning for System Center.

This means the company needs to open its management tools to Linux and Unix devices. "Large enterprises need management tools capable of working with a variety of different devices, and this hasn't been a strength of Microsoft's," says David Williams, research vice president at Gartner Inc.

Redmond is banking on System Center Operations Manager 2007 Cross Platform Extensions to beef itself up. The company plans to add management support for the HP-UX, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Sun Solaris and SuSE Linux Enterprise Server operating systems to its System Center line.

Microsoft has also turned to third parties for help in extending its management tools. Quest Software Inc., Novell and Xandros Inc. plan to use Microsoft's Cross Platform Extensions to help customers monitor open source applications, such as Apache and MySQL, as well as proprietary applications from companies like Oracle Corp.

The Microsoft product was designed to support open source technologies and industry standards. Linux vendors Novell and Red Hat have incorporated support for the Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standard in their Linux operating systems, and Sun Microsystems Inc. and HP have done the same with their Unix-based operating systems. WBEM is a set of system-management technologies-including the Common

Information Model (CIM)-that outlines how to store management information.

Microsoft has its own implementation of WBEM called Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI). Redmond is also endorsing open source technologies, including Web Services for Management (WS-Management) and OpenPegasus, a project that relies on a CIM approach to help enterprises manage their resources.

Supporting the various standards should help small and midsize enterprises discover both physical and virtual Linux and Unix systems on a network, and then monitor and manage them. Users will then be able to use the Microsoft product for multivendor environments, markets traditionally dominated by BMC, CA, HP and IBM.

Time for a Change
Microsoft's initiative is significant for a couple of reasons. Its market influence is great, and it's obvious the company has invested a significant amount of time, money and effort to improve its management tools. Plus, the market might be ready for a change. Products like OpenView and Tivoli have been around for more than a decade and companies may be ready to replace them -- these products tend to be complex and expensive, with implementations that cost $1 million or more.

Making Sense of Microsoft's Management Tools

A pinch of this and a dash of that is typically how vendors have fashioned their systems- and network-management product lines. This complex area has been constantly expanding as interest moves away from simply determining if a device is running to tracking all of its transactions.

Market requirements have been so dynamic that vendors sometimes have cobbled together tools that were not built to work together. Microsoft finds itself in that position and is trying to bring its various management products under the System Center banner. The company plans to integrate the various items and provide a common user interface. While those are its long-term goals, Redmond currently has a suite of products with different interfaces and levels of integration.

Its first product was Systems Management Server (SMS), designed to manage items such as operating system updates and remotely controlling client systems. It emerged in the mid-1990s, but never became as popular as competitive products.

In 2003, Redmond unveiled a 10-year initiative, dubbed Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI). The project was forged to help IT departments use technology to respond to business demands more quickly and reduce the complexity found in many management tools. To reach that end point, the company had to transform its management-tools products from their Windows-only orientation to one supporting mixed environments. As part of the DSI plan, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), which provides systems monitoring and alerting functions, was unveiled.

In 2005, the company decided to bring in its management tools under the System Center umbrella. SMS was retooled and renamed System Center Configuration Manager and MOM became System Center Operations Manager.

-P.V.

"One of the attractions with Microsoft's management tools has been their price points," says Chris O'Connor, senior Windows systems administrator at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

Another reason is that many companies have turned their back on the Big Four's management products because they're difficult to deploy. "Management tools like Tivoli are complex, so customers often have to complete a lot of customization and integration work," says Andreas Typaldos, Xandros' CEO.

Historically, Microsoft has been good at simplifying complex technologies. "We looked at options like OpenView, but found that they were built for very large enterprises, those that have more than 10,000 devices," explains Total Wines' Slan. "We needed something simpler, but still capable of growing with us as we expanded our business."

Every company operates differently, so it has been difficult for suppliers to deliver cookie cutter-like management tools. To solve this problem, they've turned their systems into software dev platforms and encouraged other companies to develop add-ons or products on top of them. Throughout its history, Microsoft has been adept at working with third parties, so it figures it may be more able to build a better systems- and network-management ecosystem than its competitors.

Though not in the top tier, Microsoft has had success with its management products. Sales have been increasing from 200 percent to 300 percent for the various products annually, according to Microsoft's Reynolds.

However, the software giant does face a number of challenges in changing its market position. Microsoft has been vying for a top spot in the network- and systems-management market for many years, but has lagged well behind the market leaders. There's no assurance that the company will fare better this time around. Critics contend that Microsoft's initiative is long on promises and short on deliverables, with some of its Cross Platform Extension components not scheduled to arrive until about 2010.

To some, Microsoft embracing Linux is as likely as George W. Bush and Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad becoming best buddies. "My sense is Steve Ballmer is focused on lowering the cost of Windows devices," says one observer. "Why would it be in Microsoft's best interest to promote the adoption of other operating systems?"

Perhaps the company has no choice. "Customers have made it clear to us that if we do not provide them with the ability to manage non-Windows systems, they will use other products that can," counters Microsoft's Reynolds.

The company's level of commitment to non-Windows platforms will become clearer as the different pieces in the System Center line move from concepts to deliverables. Only then will customers find out if Microsoft's latest promises are genuine or empty -- once again.

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