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Issue of January 2003 
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Microsoft's SMS 2003

Is Microsoft planning to do an "Internet Explorer" on the lucrative network management market? With the launch of Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 beta 1 version last month, the signs are ominous for the other players in this field. However, Microsoft has so far insisted that SMS is still a "Windows-only" tool and will rely on cross-platform partners for heterogeneous support.

"We are very much focused on managing the Windows environment," said David Hamilton, director of product management, management business group, Windows division, Microsoft.

The list of management features includes software distribution, asset management and remote troubleshooting. He said that Microsoft is merely plugging a "weak point" in most vendor management solutions, which is Windows management, and will integrate with vendors like NetIQ, HP and others to provide cross-platform management.

So will Microsoft intrude on the turf of heterogeneous or Unix management? "We simply don't do that", was the quick answer from Hamilton.

"What we are trying to do," he said, "is to leverage on our Windows platform and create a uniquely-customized management solution." He felt that major management vendors in the market, like BMC and Tivoli, tend to take a generalized approach to managing Windows environments, which makes them less apt than the newest version of SMS when it comes to, say, installing Microsoft applications.

"If you want to remotely-deploy Internet Explorer on Windows, it is more complicated (with other vendors) because the OS isn't going to help them along," he said. The "help" in this case refers to providing access control, security patching, elevating user profiles in some instances, and invoking specific software installation mechanisms like the Windows Installer, he said. Also, software deploy tools from other vendors may not understand the nuances of the installation behavior of Internet Explorer, like profile matching and login after reboot.

As a result, he said, vendors like BMC and HP often require additional pieces of client software, called agents, when it comes to managing Windows environments. This makes them clumsier to install, upgrade and patch, he said.

2.0 vs 2003
But just how good will SMS 2003 be? After all, SMS 2000 endured bad rap as a flaky management suite that has only its low price going for it. According to Hamilton, SMS 2003 has been significantly enhanced in several key areas. Most notable are the improved management of bandwidth-strapped remote devices using slow bandwidth-aware agents; and a glitzier Web-based reporting interface which replaces Crystal Decisions' Crystal Reports used in SMS 2.0. Other enhancements include slow-link enhanced software metering and better SMS management and upgrade.

"The remote environment is a key focus for SMS 2003, and we have re-engineered the agent software so that it is deeply bandwidth aware," he said. As a result, he added, using SMS 2003 to manage across 14.4Kbps modem links will now be less bumpy. SMS 2003 is also bandwidth sensitive depending on the applications that are running. "For instance, if you are reading e-mail, SMS 2003 is smart enough to not interrupt it with a preset software upgrade trigger," he explained.

SMS 2003 will also be smart enough to operate in a Web services world. A key aspect of the .NET architecture is to allow mobile, non-PC devices to connect to a network and access personal information at any time and from anywhere, which was a key development focus of the new version. SMS 2003, together with Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Application Center Server, are seen as key software components to manage future versions of .NET, Biztalk and Exchange servers.

And recently, Microsoft announced a group to look at storage management, which will almost certainly add a key component to SMS, since storage management is increasingly being tied with network management.

So while Microsoft insists that it wants to complement existing solutions in the market, it is also building complementary components of its own to enhance its product coverage. And no wonder. By Gartner's reckoning, the worldwide network systems management market broke $9 billion in 2001 and by 2005 the Windows management market alone will surpass $6 billion. It is simply too lucrative to pass up.

- Ong Boon Kiat
The article first appeared in Network Computing Asia

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