by John P. Mello Jr.

Microsoft’s Revamped System Center Focuses on Managing the Cloud

News Analysis
Jan 19, 20126 mins
Cloud ComputingData CenterDeveloper

On Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled the latest version of System Center, which promises to make it easier to manage virtual and cloud environments. Here, Microsoft officials, industry analysts and customers talk about how the new version lets you better manage both private cloud and public cloud services as well virtualization platforms from multiple vendors.

Microsoft’s new version of System Center 2012 totally revamps the product, with the goal of making it easier to use, more powerful and an enticing value proposition for organizations looking for a unified way to manage their virtual and cloud environments.

In addition to unifying the disparate tools found in previous versions of System Center, the new release candidate, System Center 2012, provides a way to manage private-public clouds, or hybrid clouds, from a single control panel and is designed to integrate better with third-party hardware and software.

“Instead of eight discrete pieces, you now buy one product so it’s very simple to deploy and easier to purchase,” explained Amy Barzdukas, general manager for server and tools marketing at Microsoft.

At the core of System Center 2012’s design is the cloud, according to Andrew Conway, director of product management for Microsoft’s System Center Business Group. Not only will the new System Center allow customers to manage clouds on their premises, but on public clouds, as well.

“We believe that customers will be in this realm of hybrid clouds for awhile,” Conway said, “so we have components in System Center that will let customers manage not just across assets and infrastructure they’ve deployed in their own data center but also on the public path, through something like Windows Azure.”

Most organizations will be running multiple clouds—clouds running in their data centers, in partner data centers, in Microsoft data centers—and they want one consistent, holistic way to look at that and manage their applications and services across those clouds, Brad Anderson, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s management and security division explained in a webcast Tuesday announcing the System Center roll out.

“With System Center you have one place to look at your private cloud and public cloud,” he observed. “But not only that, you can look at different virtualization infrastructures—whether it be from Microsoft or VMware or from Xen Server—in one consistent view through System Center 2012.”

Playing Nice With VMware and Others

That capability to manage disparate technologies through System Center is an expanded feature in System Center 2012 and one that surprised long-time Microsoft user Chris Steffen, principal technical architect with Kroll Factual Data in Loveland, Colo.

“I think it’s a new approach by Microsoft,” he said. “I think they’ve swallowed the hard pill and are acknowledging that they’re not the only solution out there for virtualization and management tools. They’ve decided to make an effort to play nicely with others.”

“Even two or three years ago, that was something that I’d be hard pressed to believe that was something that Microsoft would ever do,” he added. “It’s a sign of the reality of times and the market share that they’re going to distinguish themselves by being a heterogeneous competitor and provide some services to their clients that way.”

It’s also competitive necessity, according to Chris Wolfan analyst with Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn. “Today, if you want to be a credible enterprise management player, you really don’t have a choice,” he said.

“You have to be able to manage Linux pretty well,” he continued, “and in the case of virtualization, you’d better be able to manage VMware because that’s in the overwhelming majority of enterprise accounts today.”

Many companies prefer to use VMware and System Center in their infrastructure, even though it would be less expensive to use Microsoft products exclusively, explained Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass. “They don’t have to buy all those products, but customers have been doing that because they feel the VMware technology is more mature than what Microsoft offers.”

Wolf noted that System Center 2012 has a rich set of extensibility features. “That’s important because when you get into these hybrid IT models and cloud computing, everybody is a little bit different,” he explained. “By having an extensible framework, it’s very easy to have third-party vendors add additional functionality to Microsoft System Center.”

“That gives them a competitive advantage over other vendors, such as VMware,” he added.

System Center Price Is Right

Since every organization’s journey to the cloud is different, Microsoft says that is has designed System Center with the kind of flexibility to accommodate those journeys, according to Anderson.

For example, some organizations are moving the front end of their services to a public cloud while keeping their data behind their firewalls in a private cloud. “We can enable all that through Systems Center,” Anderson said. “It’s architected from the ground up to do that.”

Unifying the tools in System Center has also simplified the pricing of the product, according to Anderson. By taking what had been several products and combining them into a single SKU, organizations now have the capability to install a single product on a server and have the capability to manage unlimited virtual machines, he explained.

Not only is the pricing simple to understand, but it’s very competitive, too, some customers report. According to Annur Sumar, a senior infrastructure architect with Duff and Phelps in Chicago, System Center can be deployed at one-fourth to one-fifth the cost of a product like VMware.

Windows Server 8 and Hyper-V 3 Will Improve the Story

In addition, Microsoft is making System Center 2012 an enticing value proposition for companies, said Gartner’s Wolf. “For a core management platform it has a very attractive price because you’re getting a lot of products that a lot of folks are buying a la carte,” he observed.

He explained that the software provides not only cloud management, but also configuration management, operations management and automation. “You’re getting a lot of things in an integrated stack for the price—sometimes better than the price—for what folks would be paying for a single orchestration tool.”

That kind of value can give System Center 2012 an edge when organizations compare it to VMware Cloud (VMC), he said. “That’s what Microsoft is banking on,” he said.”

However, System Center 2012 alone won’t bring Microsoft on par with its competitors, according to IDC’s Gillen. “You can build a hybrid cloud with a number of solutions,” he explained. “Microsoft’s story gets a lot better when Windows Server 8 and Hyper-V 3 come along later this year. When those products come together with System Center, Microsoft will have a solution that will be fully competitive with VMware.”

“Microsoft solutions have always been less expensive than VMware, but you get less functionality so there’s a tradeoff there,” he maintained. “With new versions of System Center, Windows Server and Hyper-V, you’ll have a much more competitive solution and that makes the price differential all that more meaningful.”

“Until that time, there’s still value that VMware can deliver that Microsoft can’t,” he added.

John Mello is a freelance technology and business writer. Follow him onTwitter @jpmello.