Can IT directors love Microsoft?

Peter Judge: A shift in corporate IT's priorities might play to Microsoft's advantage, but it will take a quasi-religious conversion to get IT directors to accept the Microsoft way.

Microsoft really, really wants to be loved by corporate IT. There is no doubt about that whatsoever. Not just for its desktops, its productivity tools, or the ubiquity of Exchange-on-2000. It wants to be part of the infrastructure.

Consider the presence of the senior vice president for Windows, Brian Valentine, at IT Forum, the company's European enterprise event -- even during Comdex week. Consider that event itself. European IT managers get a whole pile of attention from Microsoft and its partners, all aimed at proving it has just as much place in the datacentre as IBM or Sun.

Product announcements include .Net Server and Titanium, next year's Exchange server. Between them these aim to do things from making it easier to build Active Directory structures that reflect the corporate map, to dealing with the issues of server consolidation.

"If you run fewer servers, applications will have to coexist on the same server," said Joseph Reger, chief technical officer of Fujitsu Siemens. "We see Microsoft putting a lot of effort there."

Visitors I spoke to agreed that Microsoft is addressing the right questions -- mostly those visitors are IT staff, not directors, but their opinions will count.

But the big issue Microsoft faces is the clash of cultures. "Datacentre people still see Microsoft as a PC maker," said one delegate from Barcelona. "It could take ten years to change that perception."

But it is more than perception. Microsoft has a different business model. In the datacentre, software comes as a service. Vendors or their partners install it for you, maintain it and take an annual service charge. Some parts may be free -- either open source, or bundled in to promote hardware sales.

Microsoft does almost the exact opposite. It ships a product, takes a licence fee and leaves you to it. Support is in the form of education and training, not people who do the job for you.

Microsoft Consultancy Services exists, and does real work, but many people think it is just a loss-leader.

For Microsoft to enter the datacentre, something will have to change, but will it be Microsoft? Take system management, traditionally service-driven and one of the parts of IT most like a priestly religion, where the likes of Tivoli and Computer Associates extract money from large IT shops, having first reassured and mystified them with slideware which says "We'll take care of everything".

Microsoft's approach is to simplify things: SMS (Systems Management Service) does configuration, and MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) will handle the real-time stuff. The demonstrations are about how ordinary folks in IT departments will use the tools.

There are signs that Microsoft is moving towards being a little more service-driven in that area. Microsoft Solutions for Management (MSM) is a set of procedures for the planning and analysis stage, which will be delivered by partners like Avanade, the joint venture with Accenture. But it's not an about turn. "MSM is not an ongoing commitment to a service," said Martin Dey, senior product manager for SMS.

If Microsoft products are going to fit into a service-driven model, then it will be up to people like Avanade, which carry both genes in their make-up, to work out the culture clash.

But it is clear that Microsoft expects the industry to move towards its model. It is worth saying that this issue is independent from the move towards services posited by the ASP bandwagon of a few years ago (which is now far enough down the hype curve to be almost feasible). Many of those proposed services are based on software which is owned and installed in a thoroughly Microsoft-like manner -- albeit by third parties.

To come back to the IT directors, there is one factor that could make them change their ideas. Just as in the wider world the economic disparity between the G8 nations and the rest of the world might be seen as driving conversion to fundamentalist religions, it might be that the IT downturn could move IT directors to a different religion -- away from Accenturism to Open Source -- or possibly Microsoftism.

Brian Valentine's keynote emphasised the drastic effects that the downturn is having on IT departments. "There have been 1.3 million layoffs in Fortune 500 companies," he said. "There is a new economic model in IT, based on cost savings, not new investments."

It could be fanciful, but in that situation, Microsoft might be able to push IT directors to a new model. It has to present its products effectively as productivity boosters. It also has to argue its cost-of-ownership model rationally, and in enough detail to convince people for whom cost-of-ownership calculations are a full-time job.

Of course, the end result can't be a win for everyone. If IT managers move to a model of buying and installing their software, and still make cost savings, and if Microsoft makes profits, someone must lose -- and that would be the big consultancy companies. In that respect at least, the Microsoft religion and the open-source faith have more in common with each other than the cults led by fat consultants.

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