Microsoft looks to strengthen cloud story with System Center 2012

When the new systems management product finally arrives next month, it'll include new cloud-friendly capabilities. But does it go far enough?

At Microsoft’s Management Summit a couple of years ago, systems management professionals got a taste of how the company's cloud computing focus would affect them. This year, they figure to get a full meal’s worth.

At next month’s conference in Las Vegas, Microsoft will debut the finished version of its System Center 2012 management suite that will feature a two-pronged cloud strategy aimed at making IT more efficient and flexible, while also maintaining control over increasingly sprawled environments. But will it prove comprehensive enough, especially when it comes to managing user devices?

Some analysts believe the updated suite will lift Microsoft’s competitive chances in the cloud market, particularly with System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012. That component allows administrators to manage both on-premise and cloud-based virtual machines, and to move those virtual machines back and forth from a central console.

“VM Manager is a major change over what it was before, and it appears Microsoft has done a good job in designing it to manage not just virtual machines but cloud resources along with what they call the ‘fabric’ for virtualized service scenarios,” said Don Retallack, research vice president of analyst firm Directions on Microsoft.

Another analyst also gives the upcoming release positive reviews, saying the company has more tightly integrated its modules, added significantly more self-service and orchestration capabilities and incorporated greater application performance awareness. She believes these features, along with aggressive pricing based on the new licensing model announced a couple of months ago, should help Microsoft’s chances in the cloud.

“They will place strong emphasis on private cloud management that spans both the infrastructure and the applications. This is important because up to now Microsoft’s systems management has focused more on just infrastructure,” said Mary Johnston Turner, research vice president of enterprise system management software with IDC.

This setup applies to both private clouds (SCVMM 2012 now supports Citrix XenServer in addition to Hyper-V and VMware vSphere) and the public cloud through enhanced compatibility with Windows Azure. There is a lot of upside to this strategy based on cost alone, according to Retallack. "As you use the cloud resources, you only pay for what you use rather than paying for the capacity that is always there in case you need it," he said.

System Center 2012 also bolsters the company’s cloud story because in addition to actively managing the cloud, it serves to enable management through its cloud-based monitoring capabilities.

Also contributing to System Center’s cloud capabilities is System Center Advisor, responsible for gathering and analyzing historical data stored on servers as well as identifying potential performance issues before they spin out of control. This tool works in concert with Windows Intune, yet another cloud-based service which helps deploy updates and report on client machines.

These tools address some of the issues facing systems management, but not all. There is still the flood of new mobile devices sending many IT shops scrambling for management solutions. System Center’s proposed solution is Configuration Manager, which manages mobile devices through a connector with the Exchange ActiveSync protocol.

Many popular devices however, including iPads, iPhones, and Android devices, will not run an SCCM agent directly, and it's unclear whether Windows 8 devices (including Windows On ARM tablets) will either.  

"It’s going to be difficult for Microsoft to have a story with Configuration Manager native agents running on a wide variety of different platforms with different capabilities," said Retallack. "I am not sure they will even try."

Some industry observers aren’t expecting Microsoft to say much about their plans for building in management support for mobile devices next month. They believe Microsoft will address that issue when it delivers support for Windows 8-based PCs and mobile devices, although that support will not arrive until the finished version of Windows 8 does. In recent weeks, some observers said they aren’t expecting Windows 8 until late this year or early next.

“The priority with this release will be with things like virtualization and application management; this is primarily a datacenter-oriented release. But I’m expecting them to support the new capabilities of Windows 8 (in System Center 2012) with a service pack after it arrives,” said one industry observer familiar with the company’s plans.

Microsoft officials will likely contend that organizations should spend less time thinking about devices, and more about who is using them. Configuration Manager 2012's "user-centric" management model allows users to access their approved applications on multiple devices, such as laptops and tablets.

It's part of an overall self-service strategy that, again, aims to improve efficiency without sacrificing control. It remains to be seen whether IT shops will buy into this approach, and give Microsoft's device management another chance. With the all or nothing licensing of System Center, they may have no other choice.

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