App Center 2000 ready to ship

Microsoft Corp. last week added to the foundation of its enterprise software array with the release to manufacturing of Application Center, the last of the 2000 generation of its .Net server family.

Application Center 2000, available next month, aims to help users configure, manage, monitor and load-balance Web applications built on the Windows 2000 operating system.

"Now [Microsoft is] tackling these tough technical problems" in terms of what enterprise systems require, said John Mann, an analyst at Patricia Seybold Group Inc. in Boston.

Companies face many choices when they build Web sites. Among the options, they can opt for large, scalable Unix boxes, or they can "scale out," using more of the less expensive Microsoft servers. With the latter approach, companies are sometimes left with a management challenge, because systems administrators typically have to tend to each server in a cluster separately unless they have created or bought special tools.

Application Center was designed to address that problem, enabling a company to manage a cluster of up to 12 servers as a single entity, said Microsoft technical product manager Bob Pulliam. Firms with more servers can use a staging server to deploy applications to each of the clusters, he said.

"It is a limitation today," said John Enck, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "But I expect to see this product grow up in subsequent releases. I can't share the road map, but it's pretty impressive. Microsoft is investing in this product."

Yi Liu, an IT manager at San Francisco-based Embark.com Inc., a network infrastructure company catering to online higher-education admissions, said his company is already seeing benefits, operating with less staff because of Application Center. Liu said Embark had problems keeping its servers in sync from a content and configuration standpoint using Windows NT 4.0 - particularly as site traffic spiked during December and January.

"We would take one of the servers off-line and essentially clone it," Liu said. "But we would have to do it when the machines were in a stable state, when we weren't making any configuration or content changes. Since we're constantly making changes, we would have to scale up in a very short time."

Now changes need to be made only in one place, since servers in a cluster are treated as a single entity. That also eases monitoring of the Web environment. In the past, Embark used a third-party product and defined monitors for each machine individually. Now staffers can set up monitoring at the clustering level, which has helped them expand the scope of the monitoring they do and automate tasks to correct problem conditions.

With help from Application Center, Rosemont, Ill.-based Galileo International Inc., which provides electronic distribution services for the travel industry, can now test applications on staging servers before launching them into production, according to consulting engineer Justin Mette.

Beltsville, Md.-based Digex Inc., a managed-hosting provider for large enterprises, said Application Center will help customers design systems without single points of failure. "When one box goes down, we can put a new one in place and make this one look like the others in the cluster, and it will automatically be configured," said senior managing engineer Scott Turner.

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