Understanding System Center & the Private Cloud
System Center has morphed into a true private cloud platform. Here's a quick overview of what this means and how your IT infrastructure can take advantage of it.
If you take the new Microsoft MCSE: Private Cloud certification exams you'll see more than a little System Center. In fact, it'll cover nearly the whole System Center family, along with Windows Server. So what does System Center have to do with the private cloud?
Microsoft is pretty up front in its definition of a "private cloud." It's not revolutionary, but simply your old datacenter, managed in a way that includes many behaviors and capabilities associated with public cloud providers. In other words, Microsoft takes the best of how services providers let you outsource your datacenter.
The Pros of Private Clouds
Private clouds offer several benefits. First is self-service. I don't mean every end user in your organization should spin up his own VMs -- although certain authorized individuals can do so, within limits and quotas that you set. That means certain users can request software without necessarily involving IT. That still allows you to granularly report on resource utilization and create chargeback reports that, even if not used for actual chargebacks, will at least help management see how the company is producing demand for IT resources and how those resources are being consumed.
System Center Configuration Manager, for example, now gives users a self-service, Web-ish portal that lets them request software applications. You can configure applications to require approval, and that approval process can occur in System Center Service Manager. The workflow needn't necessarily involve IT -- perhaps the application requires approval from purchasing, which must buy a license, or from a manager who has to approve the expenditure. Once approved, the application is pushed out via the Configuration Manager client. IT sets it up and manages the infrastructure, but IT doesn't get involved in the nitty-gritty details.
System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) lets IT create templates for VMs and include a quota "cost" for each. Authorized users can submit requests -- again, Service Manager can become involved here -- for VMs, and provided they have enough quota left in their "account," the VM is created automatically. IT sets it up, defines the parameters and manages the infrastructure -- but IT doesn't have to play in the political game and other management loops. IT runs IT; the business runs the business.
Not every company will want every single one of the "cloud-ish" System Center features, because not every one of them fits every company's management style. But for the first time we're being given the option to implement these techniques. The business gets what the business wants, and IT focuses more on making it happen automatically and less on being part of the approvals loop.
Yeah, I know IT has always been the gateway, charged with implementing corporate policies and preventing unlimited expense and growth. That can still be the case, but some things can be pushed off to other decision makers in the company -- while IT still retains management controls, oversight and monitoring.
The trick to all this is that you pretty much need all of the System Center family: Configuration Manager, Operations Manager, Orchestrator, VMM and Service Manager. And Data Protection Manager if you want to back it up. Fortunately, the pricing on all that has gotten a lot easier: One license pack covers all the "managed node" stuff, meaning every machine where you install the Configuration Manager client, which will likely include server computers as well as client computers and quite possibly mobile devices. Another license pack covers managed servers, including monitoring and backups. A third provides endpoint protection, should you choose it, for about the same per-seat cost as most anti-malware offerings.
The biggest hurdle with private clouds isn't the technology. While the System Center suite isn't 100 percent there yet, it's close, and the first service pack brings it substantially closer. Right now, the hurdle is in companies being willing to rethink, just a bit, how they manage IT.
Forcing the business to think about IT costs is a change, but it's a good change that lets the business view IT more as an asset and not just as pure overhead.
Don Jones is a multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s MVP Award, and is an Author Evangelist for video training company Pluralsight. He’s the President of PowerShell.org, and specializes in the Microsoft business technology platform. Follow Don on Twitter at @ConcentratedDon.