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Q&A: System Center 2012 SP1 to deliver key management features

Systems management expert Don Retallack offers details of next year's Microsoft System Center 2012 Service Pack 1.

Don Retallack, research vice president for systems management at analyst firm Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., holds a doctorate in astrophysics, and previously performed technology evaluations for The Boeing Co. on some of the technologies used in the aerospace giant's new 787 Dreamliner.

Don RetallackDon Retallack

Retallack also previously headed the Very Large Array radio observatory's computer division in New Mexico. That makes him the next best thing to a rocket scientist, which is good because computer systems management really has become complex.

We checked in with Retallack to get his educated opinion about Microsoft's pending System Center 2012 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which is currently in beta testing and is due out early in 2013. Even though it might be labeled only as a service pack, SP1 will be extremely important to Windows administrators. For example, it will add support for deploying and managing Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, neither of which were available when the first release of System Center 2012 shipped earlier this year.

What are the most important new features coming in System Center 2012 SP 1 for IT shops?

Don Retallack: Managing VMs [virtual machines] both on-premises and in [Windows] Azure is important. Companies are evaluating Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, and are looking to also evaluate deployment and management tools for those OSes. They can do that with System Center 2012 SP1 beta since it is pretty close to what is expected with the final release. The other main benefit is Windows Azure cloud integration, both for virtual machines and for backup. IT staff also will welcome the expanded PowerShell support in Configuration Manager.

How will these features make life easier for IT pros?

Retallack: Since all the System Center 2012 SP1 components, except Virtual Machine Manager and App Controller, run on Windows Server 2008 R2 [Release 2], IT staff can test their processes now so they know what to expect when rolling out Windows 8. Azure integration means that organizations have more flexibility in managing virtual machines because they can move them to take advantage of on-demand Azure resources. For example, seasonal workloads can be run in Azure when on-premises resources are insufficient.

Is it a problem that IT pros don't yet have finished tools for deploying and managing Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012? How limiting is it that System Center 2012 SP1 is still in beta?

Retallack: Most organizations begin evaluating new software at the beta stage, if not sooner. Although the SP1 beta is not the finished product, it is likely pretty close and should pose no real problems to IT staff. But since SP1 beta is in English only, some customers may have to wait for localization. Customers should also be aware that some components, such as Data Protection Manager [DPM], can be upgraded in-place to SP1 while others, such as Virtual Machine Manager and App Controller must be re-installed on Windows Server 2012.

What about the ability to manage both Windows Intune, Microsoft's cloud-based systems management solution, and the System Center Configuration Manager from the same console? Why is Intune important in this equation?

Retallack: Customers have apparently been asking to be able to manage all devices from one console, something Configuration Manager can already do. The inclusion of Intune is somewhat curious, but it does allow IT staff to use either Configuration Manager or Intune to manage devices, including mobile devices and Windows RT devices, via Exchange ActiveSync.

Although Intune subscriptions are generally more expensive than System Center client management licenses, Intune rights include other items such the right to upgrade to Windows 7 Enterprise. And Intune does not require PCs to connect to a company's network, but allows management through the Internet. Organizations will have to evaluate which makes more sense: use Configuration Manager or Intune or a combination of both.

Why is Windows Azure Online Backup Service an important addition in SP1?

Retallack: It offers what Microsoft partners have been toying with but not actually doing much about. [DPM] has had the capability to back up to and restore from off-site repositories since DPM 2007 SP1. However, the inclusion of the ability to use Azure adds more and simpler options for backing up to the cloud.

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