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Microsoft Talks 'Private Cloud' as System Center 2012 Hits RC Status

Microsoft on Tuesday announced the availability of all eight System Center 2012 solutions as release candidates available for testing.

In addition, Microsoft officials announced simplified licensing for System Center 2012 products, which now are sold as one suite. The 2012 products will not be sold individually as had been the previous practice with Microsoft's earlier System Center 2007 product line. The news was announced as part of a private cloud discussion led by Satya Nadella, president of Microsoft Server and Tools Business, and Brad Anderson, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Management and Security Division. The two executives talked as part of a Tuesday Microsoft Webinar on System Center 2012. The Webinar is available on demand here.

Prior to this announcement, about half of the System Center 2012 solutions were available at the beta release stage. Now the whole suite can be downloaded, component by component, and used on a timed-trial basis in a test environment. The release candidates can be found at Microsoft's trial evaluation page here.

System Center 2012 solutions work with Windows Server 2008 R2. Although Microsoft announced Windows Server 8 in September at its Build developer conference, this release of System Center 2012 test products is not designed to work with that server yet.

Streamlined Licensing
Microsoft plans to simplify System Center 2012 licensing when the final product is released. Rumor has it that System Center 2012 products may appear at the release-to-manufacturing stage in April of this year in time for the Microsoft Management Summit event, but Microsoft hasn't announced a date yet.

Under the new simplified licensing plan for System Center 2012, the software will be sold as two products, or SKUs. Customers can select Standard or Datacenter licensing. Microsoft also eliminated a "with SQL Tech" storage cost that had been part of some Server Management Licenses associated with earlier System Center releases.

Standard licensing is designed for "lightly virtualized environments" and includes licensing covering two "operating system environments" (host and OS) on two processors, according to Garth Fort, general manager of the System Center and virtualization marketing team under Server and Tools Business. This arrangement reflects how server hardware is sold. Fort said during a Microsoft Private Cloud Reviewer's Workshop held late last week that about "ninety-nine percent of [server] hardware today is sold as a two-proc box." Those using the Standard license will be able to buy more licenses to meet expanded needs, Fort suggested, although this detail wasn't elaborated.

In contrast, those buying the Datacenter license of System Center 2012 will have rights to unlimited operating system environments, which means that virtual machines can be created without limits. This arrangement will aid organizations building private clouds and needing to scale their operations.

Fort claimed that by simplifying the licensing in this way, Microsoft will address what used to be covered by 2400 unique licensing positions. Microsoft will sell System Center 2012 via Enterprise Agreements, but the suite will also be available via Open and Select licensing, according to Fort. In any case, System Center 2012 users will get the suite with Software Assurance coverage, which provides upgrade rights to new Microsoft product releases if a product is released within the Software Assurance contract period.

Both the Standard and Datacenter licensing SKUs come with Software Assurance when you buy System Center 2012. Those customers who purchased licensing for the earlier System Center products and have up-to-date Software Assurance coverage, including standalone product licensing, will have the rights to upgrade to the full System Center 2012 suite.

In general, Microsoft is moving to a per-processor license with System Center 2012, which reflects a similar move on the Windows Server licensing side. The licensing for System Center 2012 will have a 25-processor limit, Fort said. He added that Microsoft decided that it would not follow in the footsteps of its competition, such as IBM, CA, HP, BMC and VMware, in revising its System Center 2012 management suite licensing.

Fort described pricing as follows for the two System Center 2012 licensing SKUs:

"An SC 2012 Standard will cost $1,323 for a 2-year license (2 Physical Processors and 2 Managed OSEs [operating system environments]) and SC 2012 Datacenter will cost $3,607 for a 2-year license (2 Physical Processors and Unlimited OSEs)," Fort stated via e-mail. "For more information on licensing, you can reference this System Center 2012 licensing datasheet [PDF download]."

System Center and the Private Cloud
In addition to making the RC versions of the products available, Microsoft executives on Tuesday talked a lot about the company's private cloud vision, which is about enabling applications in organizations. Per Microsoft's concept, the solution to handling private clouds, public clouds and hybrid architectures turns out to be System Center 2012.

To that end, Microsoft has incorporated greater integration between its System Center 2012 components. Those components include App Controller (a new addition), Configuration Manager, Data Protection Manager, Endpoint Protection (formerly known as "Forefront EndPoint Protection 2012" but now rolled into the System Center 2012 suite), Operations Manager, Orchestrator (formally known as "Opalis Software" and bought by Microsoft in late 2009), Service Manager and Virtual Machine Manager.

Microsoft claims to have used its experience in running public clouds (Hotmail, Windows Azure, etc.) as a design point for how its System Center product line manages cloud infrastructure. While Microsoft sees public cloud use as a growing trend for the future, organizations may get there after first gaining experience running their private clouds. Organizations also may require a hybrid setup, and Microsoft claims to enable that approach too.

Some of the components in System Center 2012 -- such as Virtual Machine Manager and App Controller -- specifically have been improved toward making it easier for IT organizations to deploy and manage private clouds. Microsoft claims to define "private clouds" based on IT Service Management standards jargon. However, the following definition provided by Adam Hall, senior technical product manager in the System Center and datacenter product team, probably best describes what Microsoft means:

"In a cloud computing model, a service is a deployed instance of an application along with its associated configuration and virtual infrastructure," Hall wrote with regard to App Controller in a blog post. "So, in this context, you will see that we talk about 'applications' but we manage them as 'services'."

Microsoft, in working with its Technology Adoption Program participants, worked to enable private clouds through people, process and technology. That TAP experience was then instantiated in the System Center 2012 product line. So, when Microsoft talks about the private cloud, it sees a gap to be bridged between the "application owner" (frontend IT) and a "service provider" (backend IT).

The private cloud concept has been furthered in System Center 2012 with a new feature in Virtual Machine Manager that allows IT personnel to create private clouds. Typically, the broad resources hitting metal would be set up by service provider personnel. However, using App Controller, an application owner can request a private cloud and later provision it should business requirements change. Microsoft provided a scenario illustrating this concept during its Webinar presentation on Tuesday. This whole exchange between personnel is based on roles that are provisioned via Active Directory, which is now better integrated into System Center 2012 components.

This "self-service" provisioning concept in System Center 2012 is enabled through the use of "service application templates." Templates can be created and then stored for reuse via a "service catalog," which is a kind of library storage. Other repeatable procedures get stored in the Configuration Management Database (CMDB). The whole point is to make the application provisioning process repeatable.

Service templates support three technologies: Web Deploy, Server App-V and Data-tier Application Components (DAC), which is a Microsoft SQL Server feature, according to Vijay Tewari, group program manager for Virtual Machine Manager, at the Workshop event. Also new in System Center 2012 is the ability to create a cluster using Virtual Machine Manager, he noted. Automated host patching of Hyper-V clusters is also supported in Virtual Machine Manager, according to Kenon Owens, a technical product manager on System Center and virtualization team, speaking at the Workshop event.

On the backend side, Microsoft is touting the ability of System Center 2012 Operations Manager to work with three hypervisors: Microsoft's own Hyper-V, Citrix's Xen Server and VMware's VCenter. The support for Citrix's hypervisor is done "natively" because Citrix is a Microsoft partner.

Microsoft also claims cross-platform support (Java), cross-tools support (IBM, BMC and others) and cross-OS support (Unix and Linux) with System Center 2012, according to Ryan O'Hara, senior director of System Center program management, who described such support at Microsoft's Workshop event.

Other New Features
Microsoft has a number of other new capabilities in System Center 2012, as described at the Workshop event. Here's the short list.

System Center 2012 will support thin clients with the policies that IT builds for Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone smartphones. Anderson explained at Microsoft's Workshop event that any mobile platform compatible with Microsoft Active Sync can be managed by Configuration Manager, although he said that Android is sometimes a little "tricky."

Service Manager in System Center 2012 now has the ability to recognize Active Directory information and can bring requests into the datacenter system, helping to enable self-service processes.

Another new feature that works with System Center 2012 is the ability to analyze data using Excel, according to a Workshop presentation by Travis Wright, principal program manager on the System Center engineering team and Sean Christensen, senior technical product manager for System Center 2012 service delivery and automation. Users can publish an Excel workbook to a SharePoint site and get a dashboard. Users can now "cube up the data" and do ad hoc service reporting.

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