Systems management: Microsoft's biggest marketing challenge

How do you rate Microsoft's chances? It wants us to believe that systems management is a) exciting and b) something we can entrust to Microsoft

If anyone had any doubts about how seriously Microsoft wants to get into the hearts and wallets of enterprise CIOs, then this week will have dispelled those doubts completely.

It may have passed you by, amongst the other news going on, but Microsoft has made a big effort to present itself as a serious systems management player, with announcements dedicated to controlling and administering servers in big companies.

Yes. Systems management. Even in a quiet week for international affairs, you'd probably miss that one. Systems management is arguably the least exciting area of IT. I should know. I've followed it, on and off, for years. The usual Microsoft approach, of polishing the features and adding glitz, just will not work here, because this whole area is the exact opposite of glitz.

Users see systems management as a vital necessity, but are never, ever going to get excited about it. Years of dealing with lumbering leviathans like IBM's Tivoli and Computer Associates have accustomed users to functionality grudgingly delivered, huge service bills and never, ever, anything remotely like excitement. People like paying for the services as much as they like paying their council tax, and they like using systems management products as much as they like using toilet bleach.

In public image terms, marketing pounds spent on systems management are worth just a few pennies, compared with pounds spent on new operating systems, new applications, and "cool" new stuff like Web services and instant messaging.

So if Microsoft is spending money trying to make this glamourous (and it is -- the announcements took all week, and took place in Las Vegas by the way), it must really think this area is strategic. The company has promoted its Management Business Group, turning it into an "Enterprise Management Division", which means the whole thing is more important to Microsoft than it ever was.

The company has tried hard with this announcement. Firstly, it uses terms like "self-aware", which sets us off on comparisons, reporting that Microsoft is going head to head with IBM's autonomic computing , HP's Utility Data Center, and the like.

I'm not so sure the comparisons are right. There are aspects of new versions of Windows which address provisioning software onto hardware, but the utility promises are all about virtualising hardware, creating a layer of hardware that meets the needs of business software without too much intervention from the user.

A lot of the announcement is to do with bundling and upgrades, combining a new version of its MOM, with its SMS product into one suite, called System Center. This is something that makes sense, if Microsoft is going to continue to sell the idea of manageability with its software.

The "big idea" with this initiative is to do with how management is going to be sold, and goes by the name Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI). "Applications will be operationally aware," says Michael Emmanuel, a senior product manager for management systems at Microsoft in the US. Microsoft wants us to accept the idea that applications will take part in their own management.

DSI has a certain logic. If applications are built of loosely coupled components, like Web services, then managing all that will be a big headache, if the components can't handle some of it, and it can't be automated.

Emmanuel reckons that software components ought to all have some idea of what their "health" means: "Management needs to permeate every level of the software stack, and be put in at the development cycle of the software. We are moving away from the concept of application-specific 'management packs' which ship with the management product, and towards embedding the functions in the application."

In other words, DSI is an initiative strikingly similar to Microsoft's "trustworthy computing" programme, which -- starting last year -- has been working on security. Take an issue where Microsoft is seen to be failing (in this case, manageability), issue a promise to build that aspect into future products, and improve it in existing ones.

The nuts and bolts involve a System Definition Module (SDM), an XML-based technology built into operating systems and applications, creating schemas for management. The first version of System Center isn't due till next year, and will include new versions of MOM and SMS due this year.

As you would expect with a Microsoft announcement, there is scepticism about. "Microsoft is trying to squeeze its way into the enterprise," says Tony Hart, managing analyst at Datamonitor. "It is the correct move for Microsoft to make, but in terms of belief from the user community, it will take a huge amount of marketing dollars to get users to go with them. The hurdle it has to jump over is trust."

He warns: "This Microsoft vision is pie in the sky. It sounds good from the Powerpoint perspective, but the user base needs to see past the Powerpoints. They will wait for real-life demos and scenarios that have been deployed, before they make up their minds."

And Hart points out that users still think of Microsoft as the provider of desktop software that needs rebooting every day: "If we let Microsoft run our busines, will we have to restart our business once a day?"

Despite this, there may be one thing in Microsoft's favour. It is possible that the very maturity of the management market (and the users' lack of satisfaction with it) may encourage users to change.

According to Datamonitor, systems management might actually be ripe for the arrival of Microsoft, and a change of role for existing players. "Sixty-eight percent of European enterprises have already invested in traditional systems management, from people like Tivoli, BMC and Computer Associates," says Hart. "There's not a mass of upsell for CA and Tivoli to make, as the market is becoming saturated. In 2003, only six percent are going to invest in traditional system management."

So if Microsoft can actually pull off what it promises, and thereby undercut the existing players by bundling a lot of basic functions, it only hastens what the traditional guys need to do anyway -- which is to move to higher level functions, monitoring business processes and services.

So how do I reckon Redmond's chances? I think we should watch carefully. This is one marketing battle that it won't win overnight, or even in a year, but it has shown a lot of persistence before.