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Systems management tools: Microsoft takes aim at the Big Four

Microsoft systems management tools have come a long way in a short time. Should the Big Four be worried?

Microsoft's flagship systems management tools are growing up fast, but technology professionals and IT industry analysts don't expect Redmond to overthrow the Big Four just yet.

The Big Four -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard, CA and BMC -- continue to lead the systems management tools market.

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But experts say that Microsoft, with its ever-improving Systems Center Operations Manager software, may soon be poised to take them on -- that is, if the company can overcome some remaining technological hurdles and public perception woes.

"From a feature/function standpoint, Microsoft definitely does have a very good product," said David Williams, a research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc. "But [managing] the heterogeneity of an infrastructure -- the ability to manage all databases and look at your infrastructure as it pertains to a service which may go across all different things -- is still a challenge for Microsoft."

Preparing for a systems management battle
Analysts say Microsoft has shown a strong commitment to improving its systems management capabilities in recent years, and the company makes no secret of its intent to take on the Big Four on the systems management front.

The latest version of Systems Center, Systems Center Operations Manager 2007, delivered a marked improvement over its predecessor, Microsoft Operations Manager 2005, according to Gartner. Some of the improvements include increased scalability, performance and usability; additional security capabilities like access and change monitoring; and additional ECA capabilities, including response time monitoring and auditing.

But what really showed Microsoft's intent to take on the Big Four was Systems Center 2007's increased support for non-Windows systems like Linux and Unix. That support came in the form of subsequently announced Microsoft Management Packs and third-party partnerships.

"Microsoft released a piece of software that will run on a Linux box and [serves as] a foothold from the Microsoft world into the Linux world, and they also have a partnership with Novell to manage SUSE stuff," said Michael Cote, an analyst with Seattle-based research firm Redmonk. "That's interesting primarily because, at least until recently, you don't expect a lot of open source-friendly moves from Microsoft."

Microsoft's decision to provide greater support for non-Windows systems was a major breakthrough for the notoriously proprietary software vendor, added Tony Iams, a senior vice president and senior analyst with Ideas International, a research firm in Rye Brook, New York.

"That signaled Microsoft's entry into the broader systems management market and their intention to compete increasingly head on with the leaders, including IBM, CA and BMC," Iams said.

A model approach to systems management
According to Gartner, Systems Center 2007's core features and functions do not differ a great deal from IBM Tivoli, HP OpenView, CA Unicenter and BMC Performance Management (formerly Patrol).

However, Microsoft's highly modeling-centric approach to systems management is one thing that may set it apart from those leaders over the long haul. All systems management vendors offer modeling capabilities, but this has been a particularly strong area of focus for Microsoft.

"Microsoft has invested a lot of resources in their development of Systems Center to allow users to build models of what is happening in the system," Iams explained. "[Systems Center users] now have the ability to build a before and after type of picture of what the system and you can measure the difference between the model of the system you have now and what a healthy system should look like. That will give you a prescription for what you need to do to get the system to the desired end state."

While the model-based approach isn't exactly a radical idea, Iams said Microsoft has an opportunity to be particularly good at it, because the system was built recently with the needs of today's blade server and virtualization technology users in mind.

"A lot of these other leaders have been around for awhile and so they have an architecture that represents the requirements of other classes of systems," Iams said, "as opposed to what you might have to deal with today."

Redmonk's Cote added that while Microsoft Systems Management products may be catching up to the Big Four in terms of functionality, companies like IBM-Tivoli still have more capabilities to offer overall, and are probably thought of as something customers would prefer above Microsoft.

"When you got to very high end enterprises, they usually have five of everything," Cote explained. "That's really the strength of the Big Four. They're really not the best at anything, but they work at [helping user do just about] everything."

Challenges remain
Despite technological inroads and work with the open source community, Microsoft may still have to overcome some persistent public image issues if it wants to build a larger systems management customer base.

Paul Stahlke, director of manufacturing with Equipois Inc., a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of mechanical arms that allow heavy items to be easily maneuvered, says his growing startup company has for the most part steered clear of Microsoft products.

"We would certainly consider Microsoft [in the future]," said Stahlke, who helped design Equipois' IT operations. "But generally speaking, we haven't gone with Microsoft for the most part because it's proprietary and expensive and they kind of lock you in."

What the future holds for Microsoft systems management
Systems management software users can expect Microsoft to release its long-awaited System Center Service Manager in early 2010. The company says the new release will add service desk capabilities to the Systems Center Operations Manager as well as a central integration point for service management workflows.

The product will also support service management standards such as the Microsoft Operations Framework and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library.

Cote said the new product shows that Microsoft is now focusing on managing processes and workflows.

"Microsoft has been working hard on that part of the Big Four vision," he said.

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