Microsoft's evolving role in systems management

Microsoft aims to compete with big systems management vendors, but one analyst at Forrester Research says its role, though important, is complementary.

To experts accustomed to sophisticated management products sold by today's big systems management vendors, the features offered by Microsoft System Center are primitive by comparison.

Microsoft will play a larger role in systems management over time, however, as a result of evolutionary changes in computing, such as advancements in service and process management, coupled with the ongoing commoditization of the networking infrastructure, hardware and the OS.

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So says a recent report that studies the IT management software market in 2013, produced by Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consultancy.

Enterprise systems management has long been dominated by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, CA and BMC Software, which sell complex software systems that can manage the types of platforms found in the largest enterprises. Currently these vendors dominate data collection in the infrastructure because their systems are more intelligent than System Center and they are able to collect data from network agents, server agents and database agents.

They also have configuration management databases (CMDBs), communications and intelligence products that do correlations of data sets, process automation and that offer service desks.

But moving forward, many of the collection capabilities are expected to end up in the operating system, an area dominated by Microsoft, while the big vendors that understand the complexity of the large, diverse enterprise will focus on process management and the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

"They will excel in the service desk and in the management of older resources," said Jean-Pierre Garbani, a Forrester analyst.

Microsoft, Windows and customer concerns

Historically, Microsoft has either developed or acquired software to manage only its Windows platform, which has been a source of criticism from customers with diverse enterprises.

At its annual conference, the Microsoft Management Summit 2008 held recently, Microsoft addressed some of those customers' concerns. For instance, it will begin testing cross-platform extensions between its own server management product, System Center Operations Manager 2007, and HP-UX, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Sun Solaris and SUSE Linux Enterprise operating systems.

But even cross platform support won't put Microsoft on equal footing with the big four systems management vendors. Today, Microsoft is forecasting products they will have in two years – a CMDB, for example, which is something that its competitors have had for at least that long.

But Garbani said Microsoft will still become a force in systems management because changes in the data center and business pressures are causing changes in management technologies.

First, hardware is commoditizing and management functions from networking and storage vendors continue to be embedded in those systems. Data centers are focusing on fewer platforms, so servers come with the embedded data collection agents that will also be appearing in packaged applications.

Also, virtualization is having a normalizing effect on data centers because proprietary platforms can be virtualized on, say, a Microsoft hypervisor. Even the mainframe can eventually become a virtual "guest" on a large server, Garbani said.

"Technology is dominated by the fact that the platform -- hardware, software, middleware -- becomes commoditized," he said. "We have one type of OS, one type of network component and so on. Data collection becomes part of the platform and the platform is owned by Microsoft."

But system management is more than data collection. Companies like BMC, CA, HP and IBM will offer sophisticated tools in areas such as the service desk, service requests, management processes and workflows – areas that Microsoft has mostly ignored. Microsoft did announce a service desk product but it has since been postponed until 2010.

Service management will trump discrete products

"When I look at the future of IT management, I look at three components," Garbani said. "First is the technology we manage. How is technology evolving and what are the consequences? Second, how are the enterprise and the users of IT evolving? Third is the management software itself -- what innovations we bring and what technology we use."

Although today's management mostly focuses on the analysis of discrete events, tomorrow it will move toward a more global processing of correlated events, Garbani said in his report. And IT shops have over time become more akin to a utility. Enterprises are looking to align IT with business process management, which will drive application and service design. Companies want their IT organizations to streamline management costs and processes.

By 2013, Garbani sees three major categories in the management software market, which will envelope many of the discrete functions that we have today.

The first category is IT service delivery and performance management, which will incorporate many current discrete functions in the OS. These will be measurements of availability, performance, events, end-to-end management, analytics and decision support, among others.

The large systems management vendors will excel in the second and third categories where there is greater intelligence in terms of recognition of patterns of problems, as opposed to the ability to produce a lot of data.

The second category will include IT service management and process management, which includes the service desk, client management and workflow implementation. And the third category is IT support and resource management. This includes asset management, workload scheduling, capacity planning and other strategic functions.

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