Microsoft faces challenges in expanding management strategy

Software giant looks to lineup against CA, HP, IBM, BMC

Microsoft last week set it sites on becoming a dominant enterprise management vendor, but experts and users say first it will have to define the scope of its goals, improve the platform, and prove it can be the caretaker of non-Windows systems.

LAS VEGAS – Microsoft this week set its sites on becoming a dominant enterprise management vendor, but experts and users say first it will have to define the scope of its goals, improve the platform, and prove it can be the caretaker of non-Windows systems.

The company laid out its plans this week at its annual Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) for a cross-platform enterprise data-center management infrastructure that includes hooks into Linux and Unix systems.

It’s a major shift from five years ago when Microsoft announced at MMS that management was no longer going to be an afterthought and a comprehensive platform to manage Windows was at the center of a 10-year plan called the Dynamic Systems Initiative.

Just five years later, Microsoft plans to climb the ladder and attempt to compete with the major vendors – CA, HP, IBM and BMC – to manage desktops, datacenter automation and distributed systems regardless of the logo on the software.

Evolution of management

In 2003, Microsoft finally committed to building a management platform for Windows. Five years later, Microsoft wants to be a provider of cross-platform enterprise management systems to rival CA, HP and IBM.

Then

Now

Initiative to finally create a management platform for Windows.Build a cross-platform enterprise management system. 
Systems Management Server (SMS), Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) will be combined into one product to form hub of platform.Re-branded SMS and MOM under System Center banner; tools kept separate and MOM given major facelift; added virtual machine management. 
Virtualization not even on far horizon of road map.Virtualization driving expansion of platform. 
Cross-platform support left to integration via third-party tools, platforms.Linux, Unix support destined to be part of MicrosoftÕs tool set.
Marketing buzz word: Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI).tMarketing buzz word: Dynamic IT. 
System Definition Model (SDM) is proprietary modeling language and key to DSI.SDM out and Service Modeling Language (SML) in. Microsoft helped create SML (with CA, IBM and others) and standardize the SDM derivative; still missing other pieces such as Common Model Library. 

"The shift they made was to support heterogeneous environments, and the question becomes how well will they support them," said Steve Brasen, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "Initially [Microsoft's offering] is not as comprehensive as the big four, but over time I would expect their heterogeneous support to improve but the question then will be to what degree."

Brasen said Microsoft, which has been relying on third parties to build bridges to non-Microsoft platforms, had to take up the charge on its own in order to compete with the big four.

"We weren't surprised by their announcement,” said Roger Pilc, senior vice president and general manager of CA's infrastructure management & data-center automation business unit. "It validates our view that systems management is an important space and companies increasingly need help to manage growing complexity." Pilc said CA also sees demand to integrate management across physical and virtual platforms and users are looking for integration not only within CA's offerings but with "adjacent systems, so integration with System Center is something we bring to our customers."

Microsoft is taking the sort of integration attitude, clearly recognizing that corporate IT now has many management systems in place that keep operations alive.

At MMS this week, in addition to unveiling System Center Operations Manager 2007 Cross Platform Extensions, which bring Linux and Unix under the Microsoft management umbrella, the company unveiled Operations Manager 2007 Connectors.

The Connectors, acquired when the company bought Engyro last year, integrate Microsoft's System Center family of management tools with HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli management platforms. Other platforms will follow, according to Microsoft.

The two-sided approach is sensible, according to experts and users.

Observers say Microsoft is likely to win over Windows-centric shops that have a few Linux servers to manage and want to use Microsoft management tools that are familiar. But in larger companies with complex infrastructures the most likely path will be integration, and those users will evaluate Microsoft on the elegance of those integrations.

"I don't think we will ever be at one management system," said an IT architect with a major manufacturer who asked not to be named. "We will look at Microsoft where it makes the most sense and how well it plays together with other systems."

The proof will be in Microsoft showing what it can do.

"Microsoft needs to prove to its customers that they really know and understand the management space," says Nelson Ruest, a noted speaker and co-author of Microsoft Windows Server 2008: The Complete Reference. "What has happened in the past five years [since the introduction of DSI] that has made them knowledgeable enough to do this? I have not seen anything happen."

Ruest concedes that the management message from Microsoft is better, especially around virtualization and the data center.  But if the company wants to convince users it can integrate platforms it will need to show it can integrate its own tool set.

A case in point came in February when Microsoft delayed until 2010 a critical workflow and service automation tool called System Center Service Manager.

The tool helps administrators work through trouble tickets and anchors automated, pro-active service requests initiated via other system management tools. The tool also can aid in compliance auditing. Its workflow engine is based on the Windows Workflow Foundation, and it incorporates IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of best practices for IT services management, and the Microsoft Operations Framework.

It also provides a configuration management database (CMDB), which will host data from System Center Configuration Manager and from Operations Manager, and a workflow engine to move trouble tickets through the entire range of Microsoft management tools.

Microsoft says once the CMDB is re-built integration of System Center tools will become easier.

Experts say Microsoft can’t catch the major management vendors without the Service Manager capabilities because users can’t automate infrastructure management without it.

The Service Manager delay was caused by performance and scalability issues and the fact that it all needed to more closely align with Operations Manager 2007.

Analysts, users and partners praise the work Microsoft has done on Operations Manager, even though a re-architecting of the software gave users a painful migration from the 2005 version to the 2007 edition.

"Operations Manager is a very powerful platform," says a partner who requested anonymity, but he said as far as becoming a major management vendor that "Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up."

Author Ruest says Operations Manager is the best management product Microsoft has and is smart to build around it, as evidenced by the two announcements around cross-platform extensions and platform connectors made at MMS.

"It has a good programming model, a good design and a good ISV model, so lots of vendors can add functionality by creating management packs."

Unfortunately, Configuration Manager does not share the same programming model qualities, says Ruest, and does a poor job integrating with Active Directory, an important cog in Microsoft's management infrastructure.

Microsoft also is putting its faith in the open source realm in order to align its products with other platforms.

It is tapping the OpenPegasus project to build a bridge to Unix and Linux systems.

The project is an open source implementation of the Distributed Management Task Force's Common Information Model (CIM) and Web-based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standards.

The project is run by the OpenGroup, and Microsoft said it has joined the OpenPegasus steering committee.Novell and Red Hat have incorporated WBEM or its derivatives into their Linux operating systems, and Sun and HP have done the same with their Unix-based operating systems. Microsoft has its own implementation of WBEM called Windows Management Instrumentation.

Linux vendors

But some management vendors, such as CA, do not support OpenPegasus in their management agents, which could eventually cause some integration issues.

It all adds up to a number of challenges Microsoft will face in terms of products and perceptions over the next few years.

"I think there will be lots of skepticism in the market that Microsoft can do better Linux and Unix management than Linux and Unix vendors," says Darren Mar-Elia, president of SDMSoftware, which develops tools for Microsoft group policy.

"I don't see Microsoft competing in the traditional sense [with the major vendors]. I don't think they will take a big bite away from HP, CA and others in the near future."

Learn more about this topic

Microsoft says DSI rollout underway
Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)