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Microsoft aims management bundle at midsized users

System Center Essentials 2007 is a Windows manageability package ready for public beta this fall. The features are targeted at midsized companies, but how about the price?

Microsoft is readying a security software and management package aimed directly at IT managers in midsized companies who are constantly stretched thin on time and staff. But whether these busy managers can take advantage of Microsoft's targeted offering will largely depend on its price.

The Microsoft package, called System Center Essentials 2007, will go into public beta this fall and is expected to be available in mid-2007. Introduced last November, the software includes in one package the capabilities of System Center Operations Manager, Reporting Server and Windows Server Update Services -- or WSUS -- with a single console for viewing and unified reporting that checks the status of the IT environment.

The company designed the package to complement the previously announced Centro that offers technology built on Windows Longhorn Server, Exchange Server 2007 and security technologies. Centro ships sometime after Windows Longhorn becomes available in late 2007.

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Both of these packages target IT departments of midsized companies where managers often need to be jacks-of-all-trade, handling security, applications, email and more. In midsized companies, which have between 50 and 500 networked computers, computing resources scattered throughout headquarters and branch offices raise a number of management challenges. Those include troubleshooting throughout the network and keeping everything secure -- from servers to desktops. Staying within budget is also a challenge.

Rick Vadgama, director of IT at software company eCopy Inc., in Nashua, N.H., knows those challenges all too well. He arrived at the document-management software company a year ago when there were five IT employees. "It was a company of $50 million to $60 million in revenues, but it had the IT staff of a company that was doing $5 million or $6 million," Vadgama said.

After successfully pitching a plan for more people and better infrastructure based on estimated downtime and outages, Vadgama now has 10 employees and several contractors, freeing two of his workers to concentrate mostly on the network. He shifted other work like the phones and help desk work to some of the newer members of his IT staff.

Instead of paring down an existing enterprise tool to suit a company like eCopy, Microsoft combined existing products in a bundle aimed specifically at midsized companies. Microsoft studied midmarket sized companies for up to two years before developing System Center Essentials, said Eric Berg, director of product management in the company's Windows Enterprise division. He said the ability to monitor everything from one console was an attractive feature to IT managers in companies of this size.

The IT department at eCopy is a subscriber to MSDN, a service provided by Microsoft in which its products can be tested out temporarily before purchasing them, so Vadgama said he will likely check out the package once the public beta is available.

But within small IT departments, sometimes there is no leader to advocate for better tools and make the necessary financial pitch to senior executives, who would approve such purchases, said Jon Collins, a principal IT analyst with Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a Cambridge, U.K.-based consulting firm. The idea behind System Center Essentials is good, but its price will ultimately determine whether it will sell well to this audience, he said.

IT managers agree it boils down to economics.

"[Windows manageability] isn't as much of an issue for us today because we are so small, but it's potentially something we can look at depending on the cost [of the bundle]," said Jason Bordun, an IT manager at Cape Cod Cooperative Bank in Yarmouthport, Mass.

For many midsized companies, the complexity of running a Windows Server and Active Directory environment is too much. Another IT administrator added that it's not possible anymore simply to deploy servers and then forget about them.

"It makes sense from a management standpoint, so as it rolls out maybe we should consider embracing the bundled product," said Greg August, director of management information systems at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Bethesda, Md., which has 78 offices nationwide and 650 employees. The foundation runs Microsoft's System Management Server. "It will be interesting to see how they price it."

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