Microsoft is just a few months from articulating a management vision that builds on ideas that senior executives laid out last spring at the company's management summit.
Bob Pulliam, a technical product manager in Microsoft's management group, declined to discuss specific dates or products, but he did say that the road map would include deliverables, as well as provide updates on the future of the company's three major management platforms: Systems Management Server (SMS); Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), a server manager; and Application Center, which is used to manage clusters in server farms.
Plenty of Windows administrators are anxious for news. At the management summit, which was in April, Brian Valentine, Microsoft's senior vice president of the Windows division, teased the crowd by offering a comprehensive vision for Microsoft and manageability -- a vision that was broad on ideas but short on specifics.
This year, Microsoft has released the long-awaited public trial of SMS 2003, its desktop management package, which has made great strides since its early releases, customers said. Microsoft also recently released two key feature packs for SMS.
Pulliam said the company will no longer take a product-centric view, but that it will build products that take entire customer scenarios into account. Sources said that a merger of MOM and Application Center is well underway, though Pulliam declined to comment. Experts said that all three products provide fundamental building blocks but that Microsoft needs to flesh out its line with analysis and planning tools.
Thus far, Microsoft has kept mum on the progress of its management strategy, leaving some customers to wonder just how much the company is flying by the seat of its pants on this topic.
Ed Aldrich, who is SMS antivirus manager at CVS Corp. in Woonsocket, R.I., as well as the facilitator for the New England Area SMS User Group said he's confident that Microsoft understands the nature of its customers' problems. "It's just that the devil will be in the details," he said.
Microsoft knows the guts of Windows better than anyone, so it would stand to reason that the job of building manageability tools for Windows is Microsoft's game to lose. Considering the many problems that users experienced with early versions of SMS, it seemed that Microsoft was poised to do just that.
SMS versions 1.0 through 2.0 were troublesome enough that loyal customers began shopping elsewhere for management software. One such customer was Ash Shehata, CIO at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, Calif. The hospital is often an early adopter for Microsoft and retains a large Windows 2000 installation. Shehata used SMS through version 2.0 but replaced the software with a management package from Novadigm Inc., Mahwah, N.J., after slogging through repeated problems.
Somewhere between SMS 2.0 and early beta versions of SMS 2003, the software started showing improvement. Now, many customers who once cursed SMS are singing its praises. SMS 2003 is due out next summer, and those who had the patience to tough out the bad times are looking forward to the release.
"With SMS 2.0, up to service pack 1.0, well, I think they released it too early," said Donnie Taylor, systems management administrator at Central Technology Services Inc., a data processing service company in Jefferson City, Mo. "But the other service packs and value packs have been outstanding."
Shehata said that in the early days, he was sure Microsoft didn't understand what its customers needed. The health care industry has complicated rules that govern computer programs so that medical records don't get corrupted. Shehata wanted, among other things, more control of the computer registry.
In Shehata's view, removing a program means removing it entirely from a computer. Microsoft's idea of removal is letting users click "uninstall" but leaving the files in the computer registry. His current management system gives him the control he wants. "I can do a better job making sure applications don't step on each other," he said.
Shehata said he understands that Microsoft has improved the product, but he isn't going back to SMS anytime soon. He does like the idea that Microsoft is considering integrating its products. "Integration is the holy grail," he said. "Will I listen to them if they have an integrated product? I'd be a fool not to."
Of course, when it comes to Windows manageability, Microsoft has a natural advantage. Cameron Haight, an analyst at Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm, cites the facts that Microsoft owns the architecture, and it has nearly $40 billion in the bank. Last July, the company also hired Kirill Tatarinov, former chief technology officer of another manageability powerhouse, BMC Software Corp. in Houston, to lead Microsoft's management business group.
"Nothing can stop Microsoft from being the biggest player in management, as it relates to Windows, if that's what it wants," Haight said.
One reason Microsoft's management strategy may be fuzzy to customers is because today the company is inconsistent in how it develops and promotes management products and tools. For example, the IntelliMirror management technologies are features built into Windows 2000 that offer desktop change and configuration management features.
"I can't tell you how many times I hear customers question whether SMS will be replaced by IntelliMirror," said Larry Duncan, a Nashville, Tenn.-based systems management consultant.
The Windows 2000 server platform also includes Remote Installation Services, Windows Installer and group policy objects for Active Directory environments. "All of this is free stuff included with the OS, so customers are saying, 'where's the added value with SMS?'" Duncan said.
Microsoft's Pulliam said that the company's objective is to make Windows the best managed platform. In doing so it has three priorities. First is the common infrastructure, which includes tools that go into Windows, such as WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation). Second is value-added tools, like SMS, MOM and Application Center. Third is to allow partners to build on top of Windows or on top of the management tools.
He said that the process of deciding whether manageability features end up in Windows or in one of the separate manageability platforms is a drawn-out process. Windows server should be manageable out of the box, but certain core technologies are necessary to manage an enterprise.
Some customer confusion may disappear if Microsoft decides to do a better job cataloging technologies and explaining what it is the company has. "The good news is, Microsoft has a lot of interesting management technology, but today it's hard to find," Gartner's Haight said.