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SML promises common language for systems management

Those proposing the Service Modeling Language as an industry standard predict it will have the same impact on systems management as TCP/IP had on networking.

IT managers ready to retire those bulky paper guides used for configuring systems in favor of point-and-click tools may get their wish if the Service Modeling Language (SML) specification becomes an industry-wide standard.

SML, which is based on the XML schema, was submitted to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in March for consideration as a standard. Microsoft, IBM and a slew of other vendors are hoping IT managers will welcome the spec, which they say could make all disparate network components communicate better with each other.

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"SML should, if successful, provide a common language for communication between systems management software," said Michael Sperberg-McQueen, co-creator of XML and chair of the W3C's XML Coordination Group. "Right now, systems just don't talk to each other. But with SML, you'll have a standard vocabulary and multiple tools from multiple vendors able to talk to each other." Sperberg-McQueen said he is cautiously optimistic that the standard will be adopted across the industry.

Ric Telford, vice president of autonomic computing at IBM, compared the disparity among systems management configuration to the days when he was a programmer supporting six different networking protocols. "I can't believe I used to do all that, which is all done today by TCP/IP" Telford said. "At the time, a lot of vendors felt they needed to differentiate, when what was really needed was to put differences aside to create a common language, a common development platform. The same thing needs to happen in systems management," he said.

SML offers common programming language

As it stands now, every systems management vendor shows IT managers how to configure and manage systems in a different way -- whether through print or through programming. If adopted as an industry standard for systems management, the Service Modeling Language would give vendors a common schema to create ideal configurations and provide ongoing recommendations for maintaining systems in heterogeneous environments.

Having that type of blueprint in place, IT shops would also be able to point and click to see if a system has drifted from a pre-set configuration. Essentially any component on the network would have an ideal configuration model or blueprint as a guide for IT managers to follow.

And, although an SML standard is still under consideration, that hasn't stopped Microsoft or IBM from embedding tools based on similar specs into their products already.

"SML can read knowledge documents and drive configurations to be compliant to those desired models," said Praerit Garg, director of Microsoft's Dynamic Systems Initiative, which is akin to IBM's autonomic self-healing computing effort. "This will drastically shift all the manual work IT guys do to deploy and change systems through guides. The software would automate all that work for them."

IBM's Tivoli provisioning management product has topology modeling built in that will evolve as the SML standard evolves, Telford said.

Windows Server 2008 already uses SML prequel

Microsoft's prequel to SML, the System Definition Model (SDM), can already be seen at work in Windows Server 2008, code-named Windows Longhorn. The first thing that pops up when downloading Windows Server 2008 is the Server Manager, which uses desired configuration models based on SDM version 2 to configure the Windows server.

The current System Center Configuration Manager beta also comes with desired configuration packs with rules on how to set up various types of servers that can be customized to IT shops' own set of policies. System Center Operations Manager similarly has SDM-based knowledge management packs built in on how to monitor Exchange 2007, Active Directory or a router, for example, Garg said.

The next version of SCCM as well as Windows Server 2008 will have the SML standard embedded, he said. The next step is what Garg calls the "fix-it" capability that would automatically fix a configuration or system issue to bring it back into compliance.

"None of our products have the fix-it capability yet," Garg said. "IT shops are sensitive to tools that automatically test environments and fix problems. Our goal is to have that in the next release of SCCM."

The next step for the SML standard

BEA Systems Inc., BMC Software Inc., CA, Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc., EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. join the list of vendors that submitted the standard to the W3C in March. There are some names conspicuously missing from that list, however, that make some IT market analysts wonder if it may hinder the industry-wide adoption of the standard.

"I don't see Novell, LANDesk or Altiris -- now part of Symantec -- on that list. And, what about the application vendors like SAP and Oracle?" said Andi Mann, an analyst with research firm Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. "If the goal is to ultimately model the entire business service environment, it concerns me that such vendors aren't on the list. It could be fractious and prevent [the SML standard] from being successful," Mann said.

"This standard has got legs," Mann said. "There's a lot of buzz around being able to model what a business service looks like across the whole infrastructure. If you're able to model all those components that intersect and interact so they no longer disconnect, life will be a lot simpler for IT people."

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