Microsoft eyes Web farm management

Microsoft Corp. yesterday completed development on a key server designed to help enterprise customers manage distributed Web applications.

The company's Application Center 2000 server was released to manufacturing, which means the code is complete and CD-ROMs are being pressed for distribution. General availability is likely in four to six weeks. The server, first introduced in September 1999, was expected to ship before the end of last year.

AppCenter is important in that it supports Microsoft's notion of "scale out," the idea that enterprises would add more servers instead of deploying larger machines when they need to handle increased traffic on their Web sites.

"Without this product, [Microsoft] doesn't have much meat behind the 'scale-out' message," says John Enck, an analyst with the Gartner Group Inc. Enck says the server will be an important addition for large enterprises running Microsoft-based Web server farms.

AppCenter provides management tools so that a cluster of as many as 32 Web servers can be maintained as if it were a single machine. The server also is designed to insure fault-tolerance for key Web applications, most notably electronic commerce. It also works in conjunction with the load-balancing features built into Windows 2000.

"It consolidates our management, helps improve our processes and removes the inconsistencies of configuring these things by hand," says Yi Liu, IT manager for Embark, which provides online services for both schools and students in the higher education market. Liu said managing Embark's Web server farm, which consists of 30 Windows 2000 servers and about eight applications, was a constant challenge.

"Before, we had to manage each individual machine," says Liu. "Now we can rapidly deploy servers to scale up or scale down, depending on peak usage. From a central point we can push out our most current content and configurations [to additional servers]."

Application Center features a set of management, monitoring and replication tools, as well as a COM+ Component Load Balancing (CLB) service, which was originally a part of Windows 2000.

Users need to load AppCenter agents on each server in a cluster. Those agents report back to the central console or "cluster controller," the master machine in the cluster.

Microsoft hopes to use the server to battle the likes of IBM Corp., IPlanet and BEA Systems Inc. in the area of managing deployments of large, sophisticated Web applications.

From its console, AppCenter can manage distributed applications, replicate services for components and files, monitor performance health, and set self-healing mechanisms for hardware and software. It also has tools for threshold reporting and capacity planning, and application synchronization to ensure an application's content, configuration and components are identical across all servers.

"We providing a better model for Web services than big iron," says Bob Pulliam, Microsoft's technical product manager for AppCenter. "We're providing more manageability in the mid-tier." Pulliam says Microsoft is now able to add a server to Microsoft.com in about eight hours, as opposed to the two-and-a-half days without AppCenter.

The suggested retail price for Application Center 2000 is US$2,999 per processor. AppCenter is the last of seven .Net Enterprise Servers introduced in September 2000, including SQL, Exchange and BizTalk. The servers were previously called DNA 2000 Servers. An eighth .Net Server, the Mobile Information Server, is expected to ship this year.

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