Microsoft server group eyes branch offices

Microsoft is addressing specific needs affecting branch offices in upcoming upgrades to some of its Windows Server products.

Microsoft will address the specific needs of branch offices with new features in upcoming upgrades to Microsoft servers and via partnerships with hardware vendors and IT services providers, two Microsoft officials said Tuesday.

Microsoft defines branch offices as those with few or no IT staffers but which nonetheless have servers on site that are connected to a larger hub office or headquarters. These offices have special computing issues that larger offices with bigger IT teams on site do not face, said Radhesh Balakrishnan, lead product manager at Microsoft's Windows Server division.

About two years ago, Microsoft started looking at and identifying the particular needs of branch offices, which can be anything from retail outlets such as stores and restaurants to field sales offices, and the company has been ramping up efforts in this area, Balakrishnan said.

"Moving forward this will be a key criteria for Windows Server system products," Balakrishnan said at the company's TechEd 2005 conference for IT professionals and developers. However, Microsoft currently has no plans to add a branch-office specific product to its Windows Server family, because the needs of these remote offices are quite varied and best addressed with features within broader server products, he said.

One "pain point" that branch offices face is the replication of data with the central office, said Ravi Gopal, Microsoft's branch office product manager. In Windows Server 2003 Release 2, due this year, Microsoft is delivering fine-tuned replication capabilities that should make it easier for branch offices to synchronize their data with the central office, he said.

Due to their tiny or nonexistent IT staffs, branch offices also require IT products that need little maintenance, so to help with that Microsoft will update its Internet Security & Acceleration Server (ISA) 2004 to make the process of updating software faster through caching capabilities, Gopal said.

On the partner front, Microsoft is teaming up with hardware vendors IBM and Hewlett-Packard to provide rugged, blade-type hardware that requires minimal maintenance and can handle a variety of tasks, such as storage, caching and file/print activities, he said.

Also on the partner front, Microsoft plans to work with IT service providers such as Avanade, HP and Electronic Data Systems that will offer services tailored to branch offices, Gopal said.

The partners have pledged to base their offerings on Microsoft's Branch Office Infrastructure Solution (BOIS), which Gopal describes as "prescriptive architecture guidelines" that address best practices related to designing, deploying and maintaining Windows-based technology in remote offices.

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