As a tool for managing physical servers and desktops, System Center has proved a big hit for Microsoft. It's also becoming popular for managing virtual servers running Hyper-V as well as competing hypervisors.
But servers and server management could become less central to IT plans because of BYOD and the shift to cloud services, especially to infrastructure-as-a-service options and even to platform-as-a-service clouds such as Microsoft's own Azure.
The management market has also become increasingly crowded. VMware, Citrix and Xen all offer management tools, and Microsoft is competing with many established firms in mobile device management, as well as with VMware's cloud-management platforms.
Microsoft needs Windows Server to remain a key part of business infrastructure and cannot let it become relegated to virtual machines managed by other tools.
So it's promoting the idea of the private cloud, based on Windows Server and managed by System Center, pushing Active Directory into the cloud so domain accounts can work on non-domain joined devices. It's also developing cloud-based management tools and services to support managed service providers alongside traditional IT teams.
Windows Server 2012 — formerly called Windows Server 8 — has key features for private clouds, including storage and network virtualisation. With the release candidate due in early June alongside the Windows 8 Release Preview, businesses planning to take advantage of Storage Spaces and Hyper-V 3 will also be looking at the promised SP1 for the just-released System Center 2012 to manage those new features.
ZDNet UK caught up with Brad Anderson, corporate vice president of the Management and Security Division at Microsoft, to find out what System Center can do for Server 2012, for cloud — and for managing all the personal devices that don't run Windows, including the upcoming ARM-powered Windows RT devices.
You've talked about new features in System Center and Windows Intune to manage devices beyond Windows desktops — devices such as smartphones, iPads and Windows RT tablets through cloud services. Why would I choose System Center for that? Wouldn't it be easier to make Windows RT join the domain?
Even if the device itself is not domain-joined, that doesn't mean that you can't bring domain value to the device. The user is still joined [to the domain]. Everything we've talked about for the past couple of years is about this concept of user-centricity. And now we talk about people-centric rather than user-centric, but it's all about enabling that user to be able to log into Active Directory.
That Active Directory could be in the cloud and have all the things that users need to get jobs done automatically delivered down to them based on their identity in the directory. In that model there is still value, security and protection that's delivered by Active Directory, all based on the user — even if the device isn't a member of the domain.
We're going to enable you to make the devices domain-trusted by having the user authenticate to Active Directory. We'll verify the identity of the user on the device through Active Directory.
Organisations that have made these investments in Active Directory can carry forward that value even into the cloud and even onto devices they haven't purchased and don't control.
You are going to be able to manage the devices, whether they are Windows, iOS, or Android, from Windows Intune, from the cloud. Even when your users are out past the boundaries of your firewalls, they will be able to authenticate against your Active Directory through Windows Intune, and Azure Active Directory.
Identity is one of the critical technologies [in Windows Server 2012]. The authoritative source of identity in the enterprise is Active Directory and that will continue to be the case whether organisations are consuming their services from their own datacentres or our datacentres.
What new role can these personal devices take on once they can be managed in this way?
It can empower employees to get to the apps and data they need. IT can establish a set of rules and policies that the employee can then either choose to subscribe to or not — a governance model for accessing corporate apps and data on the device.
[It's about] enabling an intelligent application infrastructure — a design and mechanism for making applications available to their users in a self-service way based on their identity and role in the organisation, and doing it in a way that puts the person rather than the device at the centre.
Do IT teams actually want to manage all these devices? Isn't it a lot more work?
No. Management where users are bringing their own devices is different to management where you own the device, you manage it, cradle to grave, you set an exact desired configuration and monitor and correct drift from that, and you take remote control of that asset.
With the advent of employee-owned tech, the game changes. What's possible on the device changes dramatically. And instead you establish a governance model for accessing corporate apps and data on the device.
Microsoft keeps talking about private cloud, but with a private cloud you don't have the cost advantage of public cloud with elasticity, of not paying for hardware you only need occasionally. So are there other advantages, such as efficiency and automation?
All too often when people hear cloud computing they automatically think about the public cloud and for whatever reason they may not be ready to move to the public cloud. But it's not about the location. It's about what cloud computing is and being able to choose where you want to do it, and what cloud capacity you want. If you want to build your own — great.
The authoritative source of identity in the enterprise is Active Directory and that will continue to be the case.
Cloud computing is happening, it's real. You have to move to a world where there's much more automation and management. That really is the transition from a highly virtualised world into a cloud world. You could say that cloud is great virtualisation and great management. That's a dramatic simplification but it puts it into context.
It's not some nebulous concept. It's literally taking the tools you've been using in System Center for years and using it more fully and doing more automation, more orchestration and management, and really taking advantage of all the technology to get rid of having to do all these things in a manual fashion.
Are there features in Windows Server that work better if you have System Center?
[What] we have done is to really drive down the cost of things like continuously available storage. Storage Spaces allows you to offer a level of flexibility and resiliency in your storage on commodity hardware that in the past you had to buy a gold-plated storage solution to get. The same with virtual networks.
Addressing this through [System Center] just provides a solution that's dramatically lower cost. I think the work we've done in storage and networking in Windows Server 2012 is going to have ripples in the market. It's all about the design principle of bringing you the flexibility and reliability that you need and doing it on the lowest cost hardware at lowest cost possible.
[With System Centre] you can manage your compute, your storage, and your network as one cohesive whole. And we've done a bunch of innovation in how you can model a service that you deploy inside an organisation [on Windows Server].
You can represent all the different tiers, what the dependencies are, how much capacity is needed in each service, when each service should automatically scale up and scale down, and what those conditions are. And then what constitutes appropriate performance and availability of that service.
There's an end-to-end solution through System Center on Windows Server. You use all the components of System Center, from Virtual Machine Manager managing the workflow and the approval, Orchestrator orchestrating the process, the interface that we built for an application owner with a tiled view of all the different clouds and the services, and Virtual Machine Manager and Operations Manager showing how the infrastructure is performing and making sure that the right things happen.
What do you get by managing Windows Server virtualisation with System Center that you don't get from Hyper-V 3 alone?
Historically, when you deploy an application onto Windows Server, the application and Windows go through a mating ritual and come together in a way where you can no longer identify what's the application and what's the operating system. One of the biggest things we've done in System Center 2012 is we've broken that tight coupling.
When you were tightly coupled, you lost flexibility and the ability to provide the level of resilience you needed. Every time you had to patch a server, you had to bring the server down because everything was so tightly coupled.
When you can get into a world where the different layers are loosely coupled rather than tightly coupled, it just gives you more flexibility and allows you to make sure you've got a much more resilient solution.
When will you be able to manage those Windows Server 2012 features with System Center?
As we are developing features in Windows Server that need to be able to run at scale and be managed at scale, [we] have made the commitment that the feature will be lit up through System Center at the time that Windows Server 2012 is released.
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