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Downloads hint of PowerShell's powerhouse potential

Although the PowerShell scripting language might be tricky for IT managers at first, early adopters say learning it is well worth the effort.

For IT managers, this summer's big blockbuster could come in the form of a command line scripting tool called PowerShell that promises to cut or at least greatly reduce the job's many mundane tasks.

So far, Microsoft has said that since it released the free tool in November, it has tallied about 800,000 successful downloads of PowerShell. At the Microsoft Management Summit 2007 in March, however, Microsoft said the number of downloads was closer to 400,000. Now, the company calls that figure conservative.

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Microsoft doesn't know exactly who is doing the downloading but, presumably, interest is coming from IT professionals, developers and hobbyists, for which the tool is intended, according to Jeffrey Snover, who is a Windows Management Partner Architect at Microsoft as well as the inventor of PowerShell.

Some early adopters are saying that Microsoft's PowerShell scripting language is a hit for its potential to automate and whittle down -- from months to hours or less -- the time it takes to do a job such as adding new users or updating mailboxes, This flexibility to write scripts in applications is something Unix and Linux programmers have been able to do for a long time.

'IT guys are not monkeys'

One IT expert who has already taught himself how to use PowerShell is Scott Hanselman, chief architect at Corillian Corp., a Hillsboro, Ore.-based company that makes software for banks. "IT guys are not monkeys but are treated as such because the job is repetitive," he said.

Hanselman pointed to the recent Dell Inc. battery recall in August, when IT managers had to go to each desktop or email all the end users to check individual serial numbers.

Instead, said Hanselman, managers could have written a script that requested the information from each laptop and PC. "Let the computer do the work," he said. "People aren't going to work with [PowerShell] because it's sexy. They will use it because it makes their job easier."

It's crucial that Windows shops get on board with PowerShell because by 2009, all of the Microsoft platforms must support PowerShell, Microsoft's Snover said.

"All of our admin GUIs will go to this architecture," he said. Although PowerShell is a separate download, it is a prerequisite for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, System Center Operations Manager, Windows Vista, System Center Virtual Machine Manager, Data Protection Manager, the Lotus Notes Migration Tool. PowerShell was just added to Beta 3 of Windows Longhorn.

There will be a learning curve, and IT managers will have to invest some time with the shell programming language. The first five to 10 minutes are confusing, said Corillean's Hanselman. But after a bit of a learning curve, the tool's potential will become clear.

Some PowerShell training available

Some third parties do offer PowerShell training. Microsoft hasn't announced plans to offer training right now, but Snover did not rule out that possibility in the future as PowerShell gains popularity. Languages and tools often take many years to catch fire, he said, citing Perl and Python, the open source programming languages that have been around for decades.

Managers who do take the time to learn often find themselves writing computer programs without realizing it. The command line script may look like DOS, but, essentially, it's a program framework hidden underneath a familiar-looking shell. For example, there is an add-on data visualization tool for PowerShell made by PowerGadgets LLC. in Boca Raton, Fla., that helps IT managers author "gadgets," or mini applications.

"If you are in charge of managing a Web server, you can write a script that lets charts and graphs leap out of the DOS prompt," Hanselman said. "You are writing cmdlets, but you don't know you are doing it. Next thing you know, your IT pro is more effective."

PowerShell-enabled technologies highlighted

Developers are also using PowerShell to build tools, to prototype .NET code, to manage and test software processes or simply to make their own tools more manageable. A handful of software companies -- such as F5 Networks, FullArmor, PowerGadgets and Quest Software -- showed off PowerShell-enabled technologies at this year's Microsoft Management Summit.

Danny Kim, chief technology officer at FullArmor Corp. and a Microsoft MVP, is developing a workflow technology around Group Policy that sits on PowerShell. The company said it expects to commercialize the software.

"One of the neat things about PowerShell is it has its own set of cmdlets, which lets you call any .NET or COM API," Kim said. "It's as powerful as VBScript or C# but as simple as a scripting language."

Microsoft's Snover said it's likely that Microsoft will be discussing the future of PowerShell at its Professional Developer's Conference this fall. Some features planned for PowerShell 2.0 may include improvements to its remote capabilities, as well as some added support tools, he said.

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