Microsoft delivering on its System Center promises

Software vendor begins to release revamped management tools

Last year at Microsoft's management tools conference, the software vendor talked up its new System Center product family while trying to reassure users that its ambitious Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI) was still on track. Now Microsoft is starting to deliver on the promises it made a year ago.

The company said at the Microsoft Management Summit 2007 in San Diego last week that System Center Operations Manager 2007 would become generally available starting Sunday. The event and performance management software has been rewritten from prior versions, known as Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), to move it from a server-centric view to a service-centric orientation.

That notion of managing processes and services end-to-end, rather than focusing on individual applications or hardware, is one of the overarching promises of the DSI. To enable that, the new release -- known in shorthand as SCOM 2007 -- includes various management packs, self-tuning thresholds and the ability to monitor client machines in three ways: without a software agent, with one or with a heavy-duty agent for business-critical monitoring.

Virgin Megastores USA, a 13-store music retail chain based in Los Angeles, has already deployed SCOM 2007, which it began installing last October and finished rolling early last month. Before doing so, the Virgin Group unit was using a free open-source tool based on Linux. That product, called Big Brother, only monitored a few servers in Virgin Megastores USA's data center and sported an extremely crude user interface, according to CIO Robert Fort.

Fort said SCOM 2007 is freeing up his 12-person IT team from mundane help desk issues and enabling staffers to more finely monitor any breaks in internal processes, so they can decide whether a problem is major (involving a server, for example) or minor (involving a point-of-sale device or kiosk). Installing the software was easy enough, he added, that he could avoid an estimated US$100,000 in consulting fees.

Microsoft said future updates to SCOM 2007 will add network discovery and health monitoring capabilities for the first time, via a license of EMC's Smarts technology that was announced at last week's conference.

Andi Mann, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, said he is generally impressed by what he has seen of SCOM 2007. But he does have one big concern. "I'm looking to see if there really is knowledge out of the box," Mann said. "Implementation is always the beast."

The other linchpin of the System Center family, Configuration Manager 2007, is on track to be released this summer, said Brad Anderson, a general manager in Microsoft's Windows Server division. Configuration Manager -- which also has been referred to as Version 4 of Systems Management Server (SMS), using Microsoft's old name for the software -- currently is in a Beta 2 release, with 65,000 machines under management.

Dell is using the beta release of Configuration Manager 2007 in production to update and deploy more than 20,000 PCs, said Takis Petropoulos, IT manager for enterprise tools engineering at the computer maker. New features such as Configuration Manager's task sequencer make it more flexible and powerful in deploying new operating system images or pushing out software updates than the existing SMS 2003 is, Petropoulos said. That saves his team a lot of time, he added.

At the conference, Microsoft also announced updates to a number of lesser-known System Center tools. Mann cautioned that although the prior versions of MOM and SMS had a reputation for being "less painful" to get up and running than full-fledged management infrastructure platforms such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView and CA Inc.'s Unicenter were, that may be changing now that System Center "is this whole family" of software.

In addition, Microsoft, EMC and Cisco Systems jointly touted the push by them and other vendors to have the Service Modeling Language (SML) specification approved as an industry standard by the World Wide Web Consortium. SML, which is based on XML, builds upon Microsoft's existing Service Definition Model. But the various vendors hope it will win the support of other management tools vendors for interoperability.

Mann said he is "bullish" about SML, which he thinks should help companies model their business services at a higher level than they can via standards such as SNMP and Web Services for Management, or WS-Management.

Kirill Tatarinov, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows enterprise management division, noted that Microsoft announced the DSI four years ago. Many more aspects of the DSI vision will "come to fruition in the next two to four years," he said.

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