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Microsoft IT Winds of Change Part 1: Admin Nostalgia Blindness

Things are changing in the Microsoft IT world. It's happening slowly, but it's happening. We've reached an inflection point, or are reaching it soon -- and whether or not today's IT administrators continue to have a job (or at least, the same job) is very much in question.

Getting Nostalgic for Microsoft IT Administration
Do you remember Windows 3.1? Not a bad OS for a home user, and a pretty decent OS for a lot of smaller business people. Well, technically not an OS, I suppose -- it was really an operating environment layered over MS-DOS. But it was easy to use, and a lot of people got pretty good at using it. Ah, Program Manager. I miss ya.

What about Windows NT 3.1 and Windows NT 3.51? Those were Microsoft's first credible attempt at a full-scale, business-class operating system. And with them, Microsoft did something pretty clever: unlike the main network operating systems of the day -- think NetWare, VINES, and Unix -- Windows NT was easy to operate and administer. Heck, it looked just like Windows 3.1! You didn't have to memorize obscure commands. You could just click your way to a happy network. Every tool you needed came right in the box: a user manager, a server manager, DNS tools, even a rudimentary Web server. All graphical, and all easy to use. Ah, Program Manager. I miss ya.

That ease-of-use eventually got Microsoft in the door of corporations large and small. As a departmental file server, it was easy to set up and deploy without having to go to the IT department and their big, bad Unix boxes or hardworking Novell servers. And Microsoft built on its success: Exchange Server 4.0 offered a point-and-click, easy-to-administer alternative to cc:Mail and even the old Microsoft Mail. SQL Server came with every tool you needed to run an RDBMS, right in the box. That was Microsoft's pattern: make it easy, and include everything you might need right in the box.

This was an inflection point in the IT world. Suddenly, you didn't need to be an "IT monk." Normal, ordinary people could be IT admins, and hordes or normal, ordinary people took the jump. The release of NT 4.0 with it's Win95-a-like "Chicago" GUI, along with the heavily-promoted MCSE and MCSA certifications of the day, saw all kinds of people changing careers into IT. After all... it was easy!

In the IT Universe, Nostalgia Is BS
If Microsoft got its "foot in the door" by making its products easy to set up, easy to administer, and easy to use -- and by including every tool you needed right in the box -- then that's also where Microsoft set itself up for eventual failure.

First of all, not every tool you needed was right in the box. Plenty of organizations ran up against limitations and inefficiencies, and either ponied up for supplemental tools or just decided to scrape by with the native administration tools.

Second of all, "easy" also means "one size fits all." That is, a product can only lack complexity if it isn't very flexible. Organizations quickly started realizing that, and Microsoft responded by building in more flexibility. The problem is, flexibility always comes with complexity. If you can do something only one way, there's no need to make a decision, consider criteria, or anything – you just do the one thing the one way. As soon as you start having options, you have to decide what to do. You have to weigh pros and cons, decide what option is right for you, and then actually implement that option.

And of course Microsoft still had to actually ship products. Think about that: the OS and their various server products (Exchange, SQL, etc) are now more complex, and offer more options, so they obviously take longer to physically code. That leaves less time for coding tools. And so while the products became more flexible and capable, the tools didn't often keep up. Microsoft started focusing less and less on providing great tools, and instead focused on providing a great platform, upon which other people could build the specific tools a given organization might need. Ever try to pass a SOX audit using the built-in auditing and reporting tools? Exactly.

And this paved the way for the new inflection point, which would be almost the opposite of the last...

Look for Don Jones' assessment of what will make up a future Microsoft IT administrator in the next blog post.

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Posted by Don Jones on 03/22/2013 at 1:14 PM


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