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Microsoft RTMs System Center Essentials, Data Protection Manager

Microsoft on Monday released to manufacturing two new products in its System Center suite -- System Center Essentials 2010 and Data Protection Manager 2010.

Both System Center Essentials 2010 and System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 went into beta in September 2009. They hit the release candidate stage in January 2010. General availability should follow soon.

The customers Microsoft had in mind when designing System Center Essentials fit a general profile. First, they don't have a comprehensive and integrated IT management solution. The range of systems for the product set is generally between 25 and 400 PCs and between five and 50 servers. The IT department consists of one to five employees, and these are generalists, as opposed to workload specialists. While there is support in System Center Essentials for some other platforms, the product is designed primarily for Microsoft IT shops. Ideal customers for the suite also use the Active Directory service and Exchange for messaging. They may also use SharePoint for collaboration and SQL Server for line-of-business applications.

“For the most part, you get around 70 percent to 80 percent of the enterprise product, except for those features that really didn't make sense for midsize IT,” said Jason Buffington, a Microsoft senior technical product manager, during a webcast with Redmond Channel Partner magazine last week.

System Center Essentials 2010

System Center Essentials' single-console design is meant to allow IT administrators to discover devices in their networks, manage virtualization, monitor their systems, manage updates and deploy software. To help with all those tasks, the product includes predefined reports, which cover standardized management information, and management packs, which are preloaded and help monitor and manage common operating system components, services and applications.

Discovery allows administrators to determine what computers and groups of computers are on the network, as well as view other devices. Once systems are discovered, administrators can run tasks on those computers and create inventories of the hardware and software on the network. An important 2010 improvement to the discovery process allows automated discovery to cover only specific and relevant parts of the network. Users had said they were unable to use the automated discovery feature in the past because it created too much noisy alert activity, such as false reports that licensing limits were being exceeded. Aside from adding no value, the problem ran counter to the stated goals of SCE (pronounced “ski”), which was to make administrators' lives easier.

A major investment in the 2010 version reflects the industry movement toward virtualization. System Center Essentials 2010 allows administrators to designate virtual hosts from the consoles and create virtual machines and workloads on those hosts. Capabilities include configuring virtual machines, migrating virtual machines to new host servers, deleting virtual machines and removing a host server.

In the webcast, Buffington listed the virtualization enhancements as among the most hotly anticipated elements of the release, and a flash poll of partner participants in the webcast rated the virtualization features as the most interesting.

Buffington said that choosing which third-party virtualization technologies to support in the Essentials 2010 release fit into the usual feature dance among Essentials and its enterprise-focused sibling products.

“On almost every part of Essentials, if you compare it with the big brother from our enterprise portfolio, there are a few features that we've chosen to withhold -- either to provide additional value to the enterprise product or places where it didn't make sense for a midsize IT environment,” Buffington said. “We really focused this product squarely on mid-size IT. When we looked at what IT was doing with virtualization, we were not seeing that legacy approach [or a] broader penetration of virtualization.”

“You see a few early adopters using something like VMware, so we've made sure there was a migration utility available for that [in Essentials], as opposed to the full-fledged Virtual Machine Manager product, which assumes that you might have a long-installed base of the software, and which will help you manage the software. [In Essentials] we will just simply help you migrate off of [VMware],” he said.

“As far as the other platforms out there for virtualization, you saw even less of those in midsize IT than we did of VMware,” Buffington said. For that reason, Microsoft chose not to support Citrix Xen Server in SCE 2010, he said.

Once systems are discovered and virtualized, SCE provides numerous monitoring functions, which represent the heart of the day-to-day value of the product. Administrators can view alerts, create state views, set up diagram views of the network, manage monitoring data, put systems into maintenance mode when necessary and change Group Policy settings.

Another core set of ongoing management functionality in SCE is the ability to deploy software packages and update software. The record Microsoft Patch Tuesday event last week, along with the out-of-band update in March, triggered IT fire drills all over the world as administrators rushed to protect systems against nearly three dozen newly fixed vulnerabilities.

With SCE in place, administrators can configure the synchronization frequency with Microsoft Update or automatically select and apply updates. The combination also allows for manual synchronization -- but through the single-console of SCE -- and the ability to approve or decline updates. Should a patch cause a problem, administrators can also uninstall them from the SCE console. Of no small value when the boss reads headlines about a Microsoft Patch Tuesday is the ability to present him or her with a SCE status report on the rollout of Microsoft Critical and Security Updates.

While upgrading System Center Essentials for the 2010 release, Microsoft also worked to give the user interface a look and feel that is very similar to the ubiquitous and familiar Microsoft Outlook. “One of the big things that was important to Microsoft is, if we're going to help IT admins do something better than what they're doing today, let's not force them to do a lot of new things,” Buffington said.

System Center Data Protection Manager 2010

While System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 includes the enterprise in its target market, the product's tight focus on backup and recovery of Windows servers, clients and other Microsoft servers makes it a better fit for the midmarket, where Microsoft-only IT shops are far more common.

That said, the product has evolved a much more robust feature set from its original 2006 release. That version included disk-based replication of files, end-user restore capabilities without requiring Help Desk assistance and centralized backup of branch offices. Microsoft rapidly upgraded the product with another release in the 2007 wave of System Center products. The second version added tape protection to the disk-based capabilities from 2006. It also added support for Windows application servers and clusters, among other things. Microsoft continued its support for different backup media in the 2010 release by adding cloud backup and disaster recovery options to the previous disk and tape support. Other new features include more advanced Microsoft workloads that are more consistent with enterprise requirements, Windows client protection and better scalability.

On the client side, DPM 2010 supports Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, and Microsoft supports the backup of up to 1,000 clients per DPM server. That scale is allowed by an approach that backs up user data only, rather than backing up the whole machine, such as operating systems and common applications. The server also integrates with local shadow copies for Windows Vista and Windows 7. A selling point is that no end-user intervention is required by default -- allowing administrators to be ready for the inevitable calls from users that they need that local data that they never attempted to back up.

Microsoft servers and technologies that DPM can back up in intervals as short as every 15 minutes include Exchange Server, SQL Server, the SharePoint family, Active Directory system state, Dynamics, Virtual Server, Hyper-V Server, Windows Server Hyper-V and Windows Server file services. DPM is capable of maintaining up to 512 online snapshots for disk-based recovery and can back up to tape or the cloud. For disaster recovery, the system is designed for a direct one-click recovery from offsite and the servers can be chained for additional redundancy.

Looking forward to SCE 2010

SCE has been a key part of the management infrastructure at Tulsa, Okla.-based Explorer Pipeline since before the 2007 version came out, and the company is looking forward to several features in the 2010 release, according to Tim Vander Kooi.

One little-heralded feature that Explorer Pipeline's IT team finds very useful is SCE 2010's built-in knowledge base, with its option for companies to add their own specialized notes. “Anytime an alert is fired, there are tabs on that alert that take you right to a help page. And it allows you to keep your own company knowledge base on these issues that are happening on your network. There are only three of us in the IT department. We can see what's going on amongst ourselves without worrying about somebody being out sick or on vacation,” Vander Kooi, a systems administrator at Explorer Pipeline, said during the webcast.

At 250 desktops, 40 servers and three IT professionals, Explorer Pipeline is near the upper end of Microsoft's segmentation charts for customers.

From that perspective, one aspect of SCE 2010 that Vander Kooi appreciates is the improvements to automatic discovery. Now that he can set automated discovery to certain Organizational Units within the Active Directory, it's allowed him to use the feature. Junk alerts made the feature more trouble than it was worth in the SCE 2007 release, Vander Kooi said.

 

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