Microsoft has set its sights on becoming a dominant enterprise management vendor, but experts and users say it needs to define the scope of its goals, improve the platform, and prove it can be the caretaker of non-Windows systems.
At the recent Microsoft Management Summit (MMS), the company laid out its plans for a cross-platform enterprise datacentre management infrastructure that includes hooks into Linux and Unix systems.
It's a major shift from five years ago, when Microsoft announced at MMS that management was no longer going to be an afterthought and a comprehensive platform to manage Windows was at the centre of a 10-year plan called the Dynamic Systems Initiative.
Just five years later, Microsoft plans to climb the ladder and attempt to compete with the major managment software vendors — CA, HP, IBM and BMC — to help users manage desktops, datacentre automation and distributed systems, regardless of the logo on the software.
Steve Brasen, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates, says "The shift they made was to support heterogeneous environments, and the question becomes how well will they support them.
"Initially [Microsoft's offering] is not as comprehensive as the big four," he says, "but over time I would expect their heterogeneous support to improve but the question then will be to what degree".
Brasen says Microsoft, which has been relying on third parties to build bridges to non-Microsoft platforms, has to take up the charge on its own in order to compete with the big four.
CA isn't fazed by the announcement, viewing it instead as an endorsement of its own view that systems management is a vital area.
"We weren't surprised by their announcement," says Roger Pilc, senior vice president and general manager of CA's infrastructure management and datacentre automation business unit. "It validates our view that systems management is an important space and companies increasingly need help to manage growing complexity."
Pilc says CA is experiencing demand to integrate management across physical and virtual platforms and that users are looking for integration not only within CA's offerings but with "adjacent systems, so integration with System Center is something we bring to our customers".
At MMS, in addition to unveiling System Center Operations Manager 2007 Cross Platform Extensions, which bring Linux and Unix under the Microsoft management umbrella, Microsoft unveiled Operations Manager 2007 Connectors.
The Connectors, acquired when the company bought Engyro last year, integrate Microsoft's System Center family of management tools with HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli management platforms. Other platforms will follow, according to Microsoft.
The two-sided approach in sensible, according to experts and users.
Some say Microsoft is likely to win over Windows-centric shops that have a few Linux servers to manage and want to use Microsoft management tools that are familiar. But in larger companies with complex infrastructures, the most likely path will be integration, and those users will evaluate Microsoft on the elegance of those integrations.
"I don't think we will ever be at one management system," says an IT architect with a major manufacturer who asked not to be named. "We will look at Microsoft where it makes the most sense and how well it plays together with other systems."
The proof will be in Microsoft showing what it can do.
Nelson Ruest, co-author of Microsoft Windows Server 2008: The Complete Reference, says "Microsoft needs to prove to its customers that they really know and understand the management space.
"What has happened in the past five years [since the introduction of DSI] that has made them knowledgeable enough to do this?", he says. "I have not seen anything happen".
Ruest concedes that the management message from Microsoft is better, especially around virtualisation and the datacentre. But if the company wants to convince users it can integrate platforms, it will need to show it can integrate its own tool set.
A case in point came in February when Microsoft delayed until 2010 a critical workflow and service automation tool called System Center Service Manager.
The tool helps administrators work through help requests and anchors automated, pro-active service requests initiated via other system management tools. The tool also can aid in compliance auditing. Its workflow engine is based on the Windows Workflow Foundation, and it incorporates ITIL and the Microsoft Operations Framework.
It also provides a configuration management database (CMDB), which will host data from System Center Configuration Manager and from Operations Manager, and a workflow engine to move help requests through the entire range of Microsoft management tools.
Microsoft says once the CMDB is re-built, integration of System Center tools will become easier.
Some say Microsoft can't catch the major management vendors without the Service Manager capabilities, because users can't automate infrastructure management without it.
The Service Manager delay was caused by performance and scalability issues and the fact that it all needed to more closely align with Operations Manager 2007.
Analysts, users and partners praise the work Microsoft has done on Operations Manager, even though a re-architecting of the software gave users a painful migration from the 2005 version to the 2007 edition.
"Operations Manager is a very powerful platform," says a partner who requested anonymity. However, he says that as far as becoming a major management vendor goes, "Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up".
Author Ruest says Operations Manager is the best management product Microsoft has and it is smart to build around it, as evidenced by the two announcements around cross-platform extensions and platform connectors made at MMS.
"It has a good programming model, a good design and a good ISV model, so lots of vendors can add functionality by creating management packs," Ruest says.
Unfortunately, Configuration Manager does not share the same programming model qualities, says Ruest, and does a poor job integrating with Active Directory, an important cog in Microsoft's management infrastructure.
Microsoft also is putting its faith in the open source realm in order to align its products with other platforms; for example, it is tapping the OpenPegasus project to build a bridge to Unix and Linux systems.
The project is an open source implementation of the Distributed Management Task Force's Common Information Model (CIM) and web-based Enterprise Management (WBEM) standards.
The project is run by the OpenGroup, and Microsoft says it has joined the OpenPegasus steering committee.
Linux vendors Novell and Red Hat have incorporated WBEM or its derivatives into their Linux operating systems, and Sun and HP have done the same with their Unix-based operating systems. Microsoft has its own implementation of WBEM called Windows Management Instrumentation.
But some management vendors, such as CA, do not support OpenPegasus in their management agents, which could eventually cause some integration issues.
It all adds up to a number of challenges Microsoft will face in terms of products and perceptions over the next few years.
"I think there will be lots of scepticism in the market that Microsoft can do better Linux and Unix management than Linux and Unix vendors," says Darren Mar-Elia, president of SDMSoftware, which develops tools for Microsoft group policy.
"I don't see Microsoft competing in the traditional sense [with the major vendors]. I don't think they will take a big bite away from HP, CA and others in the near future," he says.