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Microsoft's next big product push: Systems management

From help desk to data protection, Microsoft began taking on systems management in a big way in 2006. The next wave begins in early 2007 with the release of the newest SMS.

IT managers are looking at a lot of choices in the next wave of Microsoft's System Center product family.

In December, the software company gave elite beta users a glimpse of its help desk software, code-named Service Desk, which is part of the systems management software suite. In October, it released System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) 2006 SP1 with backup for more types of files servers and support for 64-bit protection.

In early spring, Microsoft is expected to release System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2007, which is the new rebranded version of Systems Management Server. It should be followed by Systems Center Operations Manager, formerly known as Microsoft Operations Manager.

More systems management stories:
SMS Service Pack 3 will add asset tracking

Microsoft issues dual SMS betas

For years, third-party software companies have been the main purveyors of system management tools for the Windows platform. Up until now, there has been no clear leader in this market, said Peter Pawlak, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based consulting firm.

"I think [Microsoft] would have loved it if someone like [BMC Software Inc.] or [Altiris Inc.] became the dominant player, but no one's been able to capture greater than 50% of the market," Pawlak said. "I think it got to the point where Microsoft said systems management is either going to remain an unfulfilled promise, which it did with SMS, or that they had to go into it in a big way -- and they are."

The new Data Protection Manager poses a threat to back-up providers and the upcoming Service Desk steps into trouble ticketing providers' territory and System Center Essentials will put pressure on desktop management vendors, Pawlak said.

"Any systems management vendor should be worried because Microsoft saw that this market was big enough now for them to get into, just as they did in the security space," he said.

In the area of patch management, for example, Microsoft may make some significant headway in IT shops.

"When it comes to patches or with zero-day exploits for example, Microsoft may have an edge because they can say the fix is ready to go and you can get it versus having to wait for a third party to get it from Microsoft, look at it, attach bundles and put up headers for it," said Joseph P. Fleming, IT manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Montana. Fleming's company uses Altiris products for server, patch and incident management.

Microsoft's System Center suite is meant for Microsoft shops and not heterogeneous environments, yet SCCM 2007 will incorporate many capabilities in areas where third-party software companies have made their mark. Two examples are Wake On LAN for remote management and Desired Configuration Management for patch and configuration management.

The new Microsoft Management Console (MMC) in SCCM will give IT managers such capabilities as snap-ins for Active Directory and the ability to drag and drop objects in packages and reports. But the real eye candy for IT managers are the improvements being made to the software update capabilities in SCCM 2007, said Brian Tucker, service line architect with systems integrator Intrinsic Technologies in Lisle, Ill.

"The way software updates work in 2003 … the way you see it on the screen lacks quite a bit in SMS 2003," Tucker said. "In the new [SCCM] version, you can find a lot more information without any digging and it's much easier to see whether your software is compliant on each machine across the entire organization."

As a beta tester of SCCM, currently referred to as SMS v4, Tucker said he has yet to see many of the pending features such as Desired Configuration Management and Wake On LAN. Certain features will also require upgrades to other Microsoft technologies. Longhorn Server, which is not expected out until late 2007, is required for network access protection in SCCM. IT managers will have to upgrade SQL Server 2000 to SQL Server 2005 to run SCCM 2007, Tucker said.

Despite all the new functionality planned for future iterations of System Center, Tucker said he doesn't believe third-party management software will be pushed out of Microsoft shops.

"With System Center, Microsoft is creating an entire suite of add-ons to allow people to manage software licensing, for example, and I don't see Microsoft getting rid of the little guys in that area," he said. "Even if [Microsoft] does come up with a replacement for Wake On LAN, third-party vendors will come up with another void to fill."

Although third-party vendors should be mindful of the direction Microsoft is taking with SCCM and make modifications to their own applications, "the new version of MMC will not be compatible with third-party applications so they will need to rewrite their code. But that product is not out yet either," Tucker said.

Vista, the next-generation Windows OS, also has a collection of management capabilities built in, leading some analysts to question how third-party systems management vendors will keep their ground against Microsoft's burgeoning systems management software line.

"SMS is being positioned as the delivery vehicle for Vista," said Duncan McAlynn, an independent consultant and MVP out of Austin, Texas. "In the enterprise, this puts the nail in the coffin for some players in the desktop management space."

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