MS customers looking to the summit for answers

Still wondering how Microsoft plans to manage its management product line -- from MOM to SMS? Join the club! A summit later this month may bring some clarity to the confusion.

Microsoft customers and analysts alike are expecting the vendor to shed some light on its little-discussed and fragmented management product line later this month at the Microsoft Management Summit.

At the summit, analysts said Microsoft will likely explain how its three management technologies will coexist with an upcoming release of its SQL Server database, code-named Yukon, due to ship in 2003. Yukon will form the data storage core of Microsoft's Exchange Server.

The long-awaited general beta of the next generation System Manager Server (SMS), code-named Topaz, was originally on top to be released at that time, but has been pushed off until sometime later this summer, according to Microsoft.

One customer, who declined to be identified, said his company has been using pieces of the software for about four or five months, but what he has today "is neither complete nor stable."

SMS is software with a reputation for instability. The previous version was riddled with bugs, but Microsoft has since stabilized the product.

Since it's a management product for client systems, SMS can be difficult to test. Customers must create a complex lab to recreate a multiple-client environment that mimics a real enterprise, according to Peter Pawlak, a senior analyst for server applications at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based newsletter and consulting firm.

"There was a lot of pain associated with earlier versions of this product, so I'm sure Microsoft wants to make sure they get it right before they put it out there," Pawlak said.

The SMS beta improves support for mobile users and integration with the Active Directory in Windows 2000. SMS is used to track Windows-based hardware and software assets, though it can also be used to conduct inventory on a server. It works in conjunction with Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), which monitors networked systems and applications, creating some overlap between products, according to analysts.

MOM is based on technology acquired by NetIQ Corp., a San Jose, Calif.-based management software vendor. Microsoft sells another management product, Application Center, which also duplicates some features of MOM and SMS. But Application Center is marketed toward customers managing server clusters, such as those found in Web farms. Analysts said they are hoping Microsoft pulls together a management strategy that includes a road map for each product.

Customers attending a presentation on SMS at TechEd, said Bill Anderson, a lead product manager for Windows Management Technologies at Microsoft, gave no update on the status of the beta, other than to acknowledge that the software would ship sometime in 2002.

Customers are looking forward to the release for variety of reasons. For one thing, the mobile client -- a misnomer since the mobile client is used for all clients and not just laptops -- is a complete overhaul of the previous version.

Some notable improvements are the reduction of chatter on the network that flows between the client and server. The software also supports a feature used in Windows XP called Background Intelligent Transfer Service, which senses client activity, so it doesn't make network requests that degrade the user experience. The software will also be able to restart interrupted distributions from the moment of the interruption, rather than from the beginning.

SMS also does NOT require the use of Active Directory. In the Topaz release, IT managers can use SMS to read information in a remote site to determine what machines and end users are there and configure SMS accordingly.

There was this assumption that everyone had to install Active Directory, which would mean customers using other directories would have to import all of their directory information, said Jeb Bolding, a research director at Enterprise Management Associates, a Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm. "What's important is that [Microsoft] is giving users the choice," he said.

Another key feature is the elimination of logon points, which makes it easier to distribute servers at remote locations.

Bolding said the value of using a Microsoft-made management software package is the continuity it provides between desktops and servers, which can ultimately help decrease IT support costs. "The more you can insure replication across your machines, the less your IT people will have to work," he said.

Microsoft certainly has an opportunity to sell point products for its Windows systems. And if the company can pull together a cohesive management strategy, it can also make a better case for "fat" clients, which it supports.

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