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Microsoft System Center 2012 SP1 eases transition to private cloud

Admins should ignore previous complaints and look at System Center 2012 SP1 to turn their data centers into modern private clouds.

System Center has earned a reputation for being a monstrosity of a suite; most people only picked one or two of its components to manage specific problems or systems management issues. But Microsoft thinks its management suite deserves further consideration as a unified product for scenarios that weren’t possible until now.

Put simply, System Center forms the meat and potatoes of the Microsoft private cloud.

While some professionals joke that private cloud is just another term for a corporate data center, Microsoft argues private cloud goes beyond a name change because the concept forms around the idea that administrators can see their data center as one big resource. That resource can be carved into individual units of service, and admins can put in definitions of those units, service-level agreements, costs billed back to users and performance limits to ensure the overall health of the resource. Users and departments can then request those units of service themselves and gain access without admin intervention.

System Center puts these principles into practice. By using Microsoft System Center 2012 SP1 on top of the latest versions of Microsoft's OS and server products, computing components become less discrete. Applications are seen as functional or not -- they are managed based on if they function rather than their database location or the Web server OS patch level. Networks automatically reconfigure and allow new applications to come online. New hardware becomes available for use right from the bare-metal shipping box.

Microsoft System Center 2012 SP1 achieves this "cloudy" state by applying the cloud principles discussed above and by integrating best practices.

  • Automated configuration and reconfiguration achieves consistency. A cloud abstracts away computing component specifics and lets you work with the "compute resource." You don't care what SAN your data is on, which hypervisor your VM runs on or how those things are addressed in the data center-- all of that is taken care of automatically. To this end, Microsoft System Center helps automate the creation of resources for consumption and configures the host hardware and networking to make that creation happen quickly and consistently. In particular, System Center 2012 Orchestrator allows you to drag and drop workflows to show how different applications and scenarios should be configured. Orchestrator will launch programs, .NET scripts, PowerShell or SSH commands so all actions happen based on activities and sequences you define.
  • The software provides a mechanism for systems to be resilient and self-healing. If the data center is to be viewed as one logical resource, then it ought to handle a problem the way the human body handles issues -- detect, isolate and then remedy. You can configure System Center's child components -- Orchestrator and Service Manager -- to detect when there is a problem with an application stack and its resources. Orchestrator can follow a number of actions to fix the situation, which could include firing off IISRESET commands, recycling app pools or restarting services.
  • The cloud management fabric understands the heterogeneous nature of most networks. System Center Virtual Machine Manager can work with both VMware- and Hyper-V-based virtual machines. VMM can directly kick off live migrations or host-based operations on VMware hypervisors while taking advantage of how it integrates with the remainder of the System Center suite. Orchestrator remediates problems with VMware virtual machines just like Hyper-V machines.

Other criticisms of System Center have centered on its complexity. I constantly hear complaints that System Center is an 800-pound gorilla; it had so many components, tried to be so many different things and touched so many system parts that it was impossible to know if you properly executed its deployment or daily operation. The fact that you didn't just install System Center exacerbated this; you had to install each component of the suite separately. And that further complicated the process.

There is progress, however. System Center 2012 comes with a unified installer that manages and installs prerequisites, performs installations in the necessary order and leaves everything working or ready to be configured once the setup wizard finishes. Getting started is not the bear of a task it once was.

You couldn't have lived in the Microsoft world for the past few years without hearing the term "cloud" bandied about. Microsoft System Center 2012 SP1 puts some actual meat on the bones of the private cloud thinking. The hardware and OS are critical components of any cloud operation, but System Center 2012 SP1 can give the data center what it needs to turn into a modern private cloud.

About the author:
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUSHardening WindowsUsing Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Learning Windows Server 2003. Jonathan also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is president of 82 Ventures LLC, based in North Carolina, and is currently an editor for Apress Media LLC, a publishing company that specializes in books for programmers and IT professionals. 

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