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Microsoft's service desk plans caught on rocks

Is Microsoft learning that CMDBs are hard to build? Arrival of the ambitious System Center Service Manager has been moved out a year.

Microsoft's ambition to join the ranks of leading systems management vendors has hit a bump as the arrival of its service desk technology, the System Center Service Manager, has been pushed to the end of 2008.

Although an initial public beta of Service Manager was released last June, and despite a previous general availability date of early 2008,

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Microsoft is now saying that a second beta is planned for the first half of 2008, and a release date is in the works for the end of 2008. But the company declined to explain the change of plans.

Microsoft unveiled its plan in the spring of 2006 to develop a help desk platform that would rival incumbents like IBM, BMC, Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard Co. The software would include features such as problem, asset and change management resolution and tracking. It would also include a configuration management database [CMDB] and a self-service portal for users.

Service Manager's tall order

Service Manager is expected to integrate with other Microsoft systems management products like System Center Configuration Manager and System Center Operations Manager. Microsoft said it would incorporate other products like Reporting Manager and co-exist with legacy and third-party help desk platforms already entrenched in many Windows shops.

In an October interview with about its System Center line, Brad Anderson, general manager of Microsoft's management and services division, said the team was working on the second beta for the product and the release date was set for 2008.

In March, Kirill Tatarinov, the former systems management boss and current vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions at Microsoft, said the company was not ruling out building a governance, risk management and compliance platform as a tie-in to its forthcoming service desk product.

High ambition could explain the delay, or some experts believe it could also be a sign that Microsoft is revamping the product completely. Though there were rumors that Microsoft had in the past considered acquiring a help desk product, the company opted to develop its own product and disclosed its plans at the Microsoft Management Summit in 2006.

One expert said the desire to integrate the service desk with the entire System Center product line might have been too big a bite for Microsoft.

"Using .NET, it shouldn't have been difficult for them to develop a product in a pretty short time, but where they're having difficulty is they felt it was important to have [its service desk] integrate seamlessly with the System Center line like the Configuration Manager and Operations Manager," said David Coyle, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "They also wanted it to integrate with the Office workflow engine and work with their systems definition model as part of their Dynamic Systems Initiative."

It's been a matter of too many moving parts within the company, going in different directions and changing strategies along the way, said Coyle, who said he estimates that Microsoft has been working on its service desk strategy since 2004. "With all the delays -- and you have to assume they've been working on it all along -- it almost feels like they are reengineering the product extensively at this point," Coyle added.

First catch on, then catch up

Putting a configuration management database together is also a pretty significant piece of the development, and one where the big systems management vendors have a good head start.

"A CMDB is not just a simple database," said Richard Ptak, a principal at Ptak, Noel & Associates, a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm. "There are so many areas where it can go wrong in how to structure it and how to make it integrate with other available databases."

What's happening now is vendors like IBM and BMC are getting together to allow access to each other's databases and integrate them through federation, he said.

This is an area that Microsoft is falling behind, and not the only one, Ptak and other industry pundits have said. Corporations are now looking at second- and third-generation service desk products with entirely new sets of capabilities -- not first generation ones that have yet to be tested.

Kroll Factual Data is an early adopter and tester of Microsoft products, including its hypervisor virtualization technology. The company does not have Service Manager on its test schedule, mainly because it doesn't have the budget to begin testing a new platform.

As with many other enterprises, Microsoft's System Center Service Manager would also have to unseat an existing product -- in this case a Hewlett-Packard service desk already in place. But the company is not averse to a switch, said Christopher Steffen, principle technical architect at Kroll Factual Data, a subsidiary of risk consultancy Kroll, in Loveland, Colo.

Microsoft will also have to convince IT shops to essentially toss aside the countless hours they've spent customizing their service desk, and to start from scratch with a new tool. Steffan's team has tailored its own workflow management processes to meet the company's own Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) needs.

"We've spent so much time customizing the whole process like workflow management processes that it would be a hardship to look at anything new," Steffan said.

Getting back to its roots

But Microsoft does have the advantage of its synergy with Active Directory. And if the company can somehow make the service desk easy to use, it will grab the attention of IT managers. After all, the company brought the PC to the masses by making a simple interface for a complex piece of machinery, Ptak said.

"IT Professionals don't want to have to wrestle with a product to make it useful," Ptak said. "It needs to use that same simple approach with [the service desk] by making it policy and process driven and automated."

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