In the beginning, Microsoft's system management suite, System Center, was all about managing network servers and other physical resources. Then along came virtualisation, so Virtual Machine Manager was added to handle virtual as well as physical systems. And now it's all about the cloud, with the upcoming System Center 2012 release hyped as a platform for managing private cloud deployment.
To support this less-than-subtle change of direction, there have been big changes to the applications that make up System Center. Not least Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), which gets a major rework to enable it to build private clouds comprising virtual machines running on a mix of VMware and Citrix hypervisors, not just Hyper-V.
System Center Orchestrator, the tool that lets you automate workflows, also gets a revamp to work with private clouds. Plus there's a totally new application — App Controller — that adds template-controlled self-service access to both private and public cloud resources.
There have also been changes to the way the product is packaged and licensed. Out go individually packaged applications to be replaced by just two versions of the new suite, each made up of all eight of the constituent applications, now called 'components'.
(For details of where Endpoint Protection has got to in this screenshot, keep reading)
Both versions are licensed on a per-processor basis, with support for two physical sockets on both the new Standard and Datacenter editions. With the Standard licence, however, you're limited to just two managed operating system environments (effectively two VMs), whereas with the Datacenter implementation you can create and manage as many VMs as you want.
A firm launch date has yet to be announced, although it's widely believed that System Center 2012 will be released to manufacturing in April. In the meantime a Release Candidate has been made available. However, when we downloaded it we found it far from the polished evaluation kit we were expecting.
To start with, the various components have been packaged independently, using a variety of technologies, each with its own prerequisites. OK, there's a new Unified Installation tool designed to use Orchestrator to deploy the components to servers around the datacentre, but this itself takes some time to master. Moreover, we had problems using it with the new App Controller component (still in beta in the RC package), which came as a self-extracting executable (see below) rather than a compressed file archive.
There's certainly a lot to get to grips with in this new release, and if you're intending to check out System Center 2012 yourself be prepared to set aside plenty of time. Moreover, if you want to play with the private cloud features you'll need a good bit of server real estate on which to host it.
Other requirements are an absolute need for Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 and the full version of SQL Server 2008 rather than the Express edition, which is no longer supported. We also spent some time wondering why Endpoint Protection, the component that manages client anti-malware, wasn't in the package, only to discover (eventually) that it's now integrated into Configuration Manager as standard.
On the plus side, there's plenty of supporting documentation — if you're prepared to go looking for it — together with online labs to help get you started. These are resources we'll be using to build a test environment ourselves, in order to get better acquainted with System Center 2012 and publish more in-depth reviews over the coming weeks.