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Microsoft aligning management, clouds

Microsoft this week shared the latest on its ambitious cloud computing management, though customers and analysts say they still have plenty of questions on issues such as timing and security.

The company said at its annual Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) that its System Center family of server and desktop management tools will be a cornerstone of its software-plus-services strategy to meld internal networks with cloud-based resources. The intent is to manage both internal and hosted networks from a single set of tools.

At the conference, Microsoft dubbed those internal networks “private clouds,” which are built to mimic the flexible characteristics of cloud infrastructure.

The term “private cloud,” however, is more semantic than architectural given the fact that private clouds are nearly identical to corporate data center infrastructure built on software Microsoft customers are already using, namely Windows Server.

The other pieces of Microsoft's cloud strategy are virtualization, Active Directory and Forefront security tools, including the new Identity Manager (formerly Identity Lifecycle Manager).

“If you are on the road to virtualization, you are on the road to private cloud,” said Bob Kelly, Microsoft's corporate vice president for infrastructure server marketing, during his address at MMS.

But while many of the core pieces for a private cloud are in place on corporate networks, some are not.

The rollout of virtualization is nowhere near critical mass among Microsoft users.

Tools for cross-platform management aren't slated to ship for another two months. The service desk software designed to integrate System Center tools and automate management tasks from detection to remediation is a year away, and cross cloud federation capabilities that will make it easy to manage workloads between public and private clouds won't come until 2011 at the earliest.

So even as System Center management tools are finding favor with Microsoft users, key pieces of the cloud management puzzle are tied up in the portfolio's road map that stretches from the end of 2009 into 2011.

“There is real concern from my perspective about how they are going to bring this all together moving forward,” says Steve Brasen, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. “We are really in the early days of this. You go back a year to MMS 2008 and there were major announcements, but this year they seem to be laying the ground work for bigger announcements. They have a lot of obstacles to overcome to bring integrated management together.”

One area that needs to be fleshed out is security. Microsoft said at MMS that its Geneva identity management platform for the cloud and its Forefront tools would be integrated with System Center's forthcoming tools for federating public and private clouds, but the details of how that will be done were not disclosed.

But clearly that information is needed by corporate users.

“How secure this is will make or break the decision for us,” said one IT architect with a government agency who asked not to be named. “When we look at the cloud we ask ‘can we trust your service?' We believe Microsoft is two to three years out from a competent platform.”

Microsoft's road map reflects that belief.

In fact, the push to bring everything together will start with the simultaneous rollout of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 this fall.

Microsoft has tagged the start of an upgrade to its entire System Center portfolio on that event. The client-server combination will bring enterprise features such as Branch Cache and Direct Access that will require management and monitoring oversight.

The next version of Operations Manager — 2007 R2 — will ship before the end of June with cross-platform support for Linux and Unix environments, service-level monitoring and deep support from partners.

Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) 2008 R2 is slated to come 60 days after the shipment of Windows Server 2008 R2 and include controls for managing the Live Migration features of the server's Hyper-V platform.

But it will be the version of VMM after the R2 release that will bring critical features for provisioning and managing virtual machine-based resources between public and private clouds. At MMS this week, Microsoft demonstrated a feature called Cloud Federation that simplified the management of workloads on different networks.

A new version of Configuration Manager is on track to ship in 2011, following the shipment of the 2007 SP2 version slated for later this year. The SP2 version includes features such as conditional delivery, which lets administrators set policies on how users will access applications based on what device they are using.

The big picture is to integrate System Center tools into a logical whole that can analyze and aggregate data from the “infrastructure fabric” that houses hardware, operating systems and applications as separate entities.

But the ability to create that logical whole is missing because Microsoft has yet to ship Service Manager, which it unveiled in 2006.

The problem resolution software has been delayed repeatedly due to Microsoft's inability to get the System Center tools to work together smoothly.

Service Manager is designed to pull all management data together and act on the results based on policies and workflow rules. After another delay last year, Service Manager is now slated to ship in 2010.

Some analysts say the elongated release schedule for new and updated System Center tools points to another issue.

“Operations Manager and Configuration Manager have had a chance to mature,” says Don Retallack, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft. “These other pieces have not achieved the same level of maturity and then with Service Manager we have to wait and see how it integrates all of this.”

But Retallack says one thing Microsoft has done right on the integration front is make sure everything works under PowerShell, its scripting language that has caught the fancy of IT administrators.

Another piece that is in the wings is Window Azure, the cloud operating system introduced last year. Having nearly identical Windows platforms on either side of the cloud equation will be key for management until Microsoft and others can develop cloud standards.

The effort got underway this week with the Distributed Management Task Force and a handful of vendors launching the Open Cloud Standards Incubator, which will work to develop a set of informational specifications for cloud resource management.

Microsoft is actively working both sides of the fence to get public and private clouds up and running.

The company this week released the Dynamic Datacenter Toolkit for Hosters, tools and guidance to support deployment of on-demand managed services and virtualized servers based on System Center and Hyper-V. And it plans to ship in the next 90 days the Dynamic Datacenter Toolkit for Enterprises, which includes tools and guidance for creating private clouds.

“We believe that business enterprise customers will demand the same levels of reliability and predictability [in the public cloud] for their internal data center, and we call that the private cloud,” Microsoft's Kelly said.

Given all that Microsoft plans to deliver in the next three years, it will take time to determine the truth in that statement.

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