Microsoft expands on plan to simplify datacenter

Microsoft Corp. will soon begin delivering software components for a new initiative aimed at reducing datacenter complexity, with the goal of making it easier for companies to deploy and manage applications across large groups of servers, the company said this week.

Dubbed the Dynamic Systems Initiative, the project aims to alleviate what Microsoft views as a "crisis in the datacenter," said Bob O'Brien, group product manager of Microsoft's Windows Server division. IT managers face a profusion of data, devices, applications and personnel, and need technology that will help them integrate and run their intricate environments, he said.

Microsoft's project centers on a software architecture specification for developers that aims to make applications more flexible and self-descriptive. The first deliverable based on the initiative, according to O'Brien, will be Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 software, due out April 24. Other components will roll out over the next several years, with at least one more piece scheduled to arrive before the end of 2003.

Microsoft spoke about the program briefly last month during a presentation at its Silicon Valley campus. Further details of the initiative are scheduled be discussed next week at the company's annual Microsoft Management Summit, in Las Vegas.

Microsoft has developed a specification it calls the System Definition Model, which is an XML (Extensible Markup Language)-based blueprint for building functionality into applications that will allow them to describe their own operational requirements. If an application can describe its own deployment, resource and security requirements, it can be more easily and flexibly managed, O'Brien said.

Microsoft has been working closely with a number of hardware, software and services partners on its Dynamic Systems Initiative, including Computer Associates International Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Computer Corp., O'Brien said.

Absent from that list are Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp., each of which is working on its own heavily hyped initiative for addressing computing complexity.

But Microsoft's approach to the problem is unique, and likely to pay off for customers more quickly than projects from other vendors, said Tom Bittman, an analyst with Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.

"(Microsoft is) a little late, but they're also coming at it from a different way. They're approaching this from an inside-out perspective, focusing on the applications first," he said. "Microsoft is trying to add value to Windows, IBM is trying to add value to the IBM software/hardware stack, and Sun is saying 'me too.'"

Windows Server 2003 will include several features developed as part of the Dynamic Systems Initiative, O'Brien said. Most of those features will be found in the Enterprise and Datacenter editions of the software, though some will appear in the Standard version, he said.

Later this year, Microsoft will deliver the second technology created under the initiative: Automated Deployment Services, an addition to Windows Server 2003 that will aim to drastically reduce the time needed for imaging and deployment of server systems.

The software, which Bittman described as "very simply, an image sprayer," will be particularly effective in blade-server environments, the analyst said.

"It's very good at getting a bare-metal system up and running bam (quickly)," he said.

But the Dynamic Systems Initiative technology that most intrigues Bittman is Windows System Resource Manager (WSRM), which will be part of Windows Server 2003.

The feature is Microsoft's second attempt at mixed workload technology, following the inclusion of several weak tools in Windows 2000, he said.

WSRM lets users manage CPU (central processing unit) and memory utilization on a per-processor basis, allowing multiple applications to run on a shared server.

WSRM fixes one problem plaguing users by allowing dynamic resource balancing, with software that automatically adjusts to handle varying demands from applications.

"This will be the tool that leads to mixed workloads on Windows," Bittman predicted.

But, he added, it still doesn't solve another key problem: "Applications still collide. Now I can tune (the resource balancing) effectively, but if applications are still banging into each other using the same DLLs (dynamic link libraries) or whatever, that problem still exists. Microsoft still needs to work with its partners to get developers to make sure their applications play well together."

Working with partners is the key to success for Dynamic Systems Initiative, he said.

"This whole thing is more about an architecture than just some enhancements in Windows. The approach really centers on application architecture. Microsoft is really focused on changing the development paradigm, on getting developers to focus on applications being operationally-aware, from design to deployment. It's a cool concept, and it's not something IBM or Sun and HP are talking about," he said. "But it's going to take three to five years."

Microsoft has identified the datacenter as a key area for its future growth, where its goal is to unseat more established players such as IBM, Sun and HP. Unix systems from those vendors are widely used in datacenters today, but Microsoft hopes to convince customers that its software is reliable and scalable enough to offer a viable alternative.

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