Utility computing plan takes shape

High-tech heavyweights determined to deliver on utility computing continue to pull out their checkbooks for key technologies they hope will fill out their product lines.

Microsoft this week shipped one of the first tools in the company's wide-ranging portfolio designed to create a comprehensive platform for managing computing resources.

The company made available for free its Automated Deployment Services (ADS), which supports the automated and simultaneous installation of Windows 2000 and 2003 on networked servers.

But ADS is just the beginning of an ambitious multi-year, multi-stage plan Microsoft unveiled in March called the Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI). The plan is designed to create a platform for a self-managing environment built around applications that can communicate their management needs to the network.

Experts say if Microsoft fulfills its DSI plan, the company will become more competitive in corporate data centres. The company has committed US$1.7 billion in research and development this fiscal year for DSI-related technologies.

The software giant is trying to keep pace with rivals Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems. All three have evolving complex strategies to create management environments that would let systems adapt to change by dynamically allocating resources and installing software.

"ADS is a small piece of DSI, but Microsoft is headed in the right direction," says Paul Wimmer, lead system developer for Rackspace. A San Antonio, Texas, company that hosts servers for corporate customers. Wimmer used ADS to replace some homegrown scripts for automated deployment of the Windows operating system, which shaved 40 minutes off the time it takes to roll out a server. "Anything that means our administrators have to touch our servers less and makes us more efficient, we are all for it," he says.

Wimmer says he is on track to roll out DSI as it evolves and he hopes it makes his Windows environment easier to manage.

The road to DSI, however, is a long one.

"Microsoft is trying to develop a management mindset with its utility model, but a lot of the pieces are missing," says Audrey Rasmussen, vice president of research for Enterprise Management Associates. One of those pieces is support for non-Windows platforms. "There is a lot of functionality that you need in managing the network, managing servers, capacity planning, and when you move to the utility model the link between those management systems will be more critical. It all has to be integrated. Microsoft will start to get there as they develop SDM."

SDM is the System Definition Model and is DSI's linchpin.

SDM is an XML-based technology Microsoft will build into applications, the operating system and management tools. SDM would let those three elements communicate among themselves about management issues and to understand the dependencies among applications, hardware and network capacity for systems to run correctly.

"Each vendor is addressing this management model in a different way but the desire is to drive out cost and complexity," says Bob O'Brien, product manager for Win 2003. "We are taking the life-cycle approach from design to deployment to operation. ADS helps address the deploy and operations piece."

ADS, which is based on the SDM model, is the second release under the DSI banner. The first was the Windows System Resource Manager that was part of Win 2003.

ADS is aimed at easing the rollout of the Windows operating system on servers by creating "images" or configurations that can be installed simultaneously on multiple computers. The free tool is run from a central console and "listens" for new servers that advertise themselves on the network. ADS installs an agent that helps get the operating system up and running. After the install, the agent can be used for administrative duties, such as configuring a server to join a cluster.

ADS, which began as a project within Microsoft Research, has been under development for nearly three years and has been beta-tested by 150 customers since March.

Company officials say the next step under DSI will come at year-end with the release of virtual server technology derived from the acquisition of Connectix in March. The technology will be married with ADS to let users provision virtual servers on one box. In mid-2004, the company plans to combine its Microsoft Operations Manager, an event and performance monitoring tool, and System Management Server into a product called System Centre, which would provide tools to manage desktops, laptops, PDAs, applications and servers.

Microsoft also says it will begin to add tools for change and configuration management, asset management, application management, IT process orchestration, performance trending, reporting and capacity planning.

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