Microsoft faces challenges in expanding management strategy

Software giant looks to lineup against CA, HP, IBM, BMC

Microsoft this week set it sites on becoming a dominant enterprise management vendor, but experts and users say first it will have to define the scope of its goals, improve the platform, and prove it can be the caretaker of non-Windows systems.

The company laid out its plans this week at its annual Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) for a cross-platform enterprise data-center 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 center 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 vendors -- CA, HP, IBM and BMC -- to manage desktops, datacenter automation and distributed systems regardless of the logo on the software.

"The shift they made was to support heterogeneous environments, and the question becomes how well will they support them," said Steve Brasen, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "Initially [Microsoft's offering] is not as comprehensive as the big four, but over time I would expect their heterogeneous support to improve but the question then will be to what degree."

Brasen said Microsoft, which has been relying on third parties to build bridges to non-Microsoft platforms, had to take up the charge on its own in order to compete with the big four.

"We weren't surprised by their announcement," said Roger Pilc, senior vice president and general manager of CA's infrastructure management & data-center automation business unit. "It validates our view that systems management is an important space and companies increasingly need help to manage growing complexity." Pilc said CA also sees demand to integrate management across physical and virtual platforms and 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."

Microsoft is taking the sort of integration attitude, clearly recognizing that corporate IT now has many management systems in place that keep operations alive.

At MMS this week, in addition to unveiling System Center Operations Manager 2007 Cross Platform Extensions, which bring Linux and Unix under the Microsoft management umbrella, the company 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.

Observers 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," said 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.

"Microsoft needs to prove to its customers that they really know and understand the management space," says Nelson Ruest, a noted speaker and co-author of Microsoft Windows Server 2008: The Complete Reference. "What has happened in the past five years [since the introduction of DSI] that has made them knowledgeable enough to do this? I have not seen anything happen."

Ruest concedes that the management message from Microsoft is better, especially around virtualization and the data center. But if the company wants to convince users it can integrate platforms it will need to show it can integrate its own tool set.

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