Microsoft System Center 2007 (System Center as it was) is a foundation suite of management products designed for companies with investments in Microsoft products. This is a pretty large constituency.
The market positioning of System Center is typical of Microsoft's tactic of offering relatively cheap systems wherever enterprise systems are competitively priced. But many of the fundamental features of System Center (such as a knowledge base, forms-based interfaces, workflow, and change and config management database) are more like those of a mature, leading, systems management product.
System Center is comprised of a configuration manager, an operations manager, a virtual machine manager, a capacity planner and a data protection manager.
The Configuration Manager (2007) can run policy-driven IT management tasks in the background, such as application deployment, asset management and security patch management.
With a strategic eye on the future, Microsoft launched the System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), which aims to manage virtualised datacentre technologies. Its stated aim is to ensure efficient utilisation of physical servers, and centralised management of virtual machine infrastructure. Other features include Data Protection Manager and Capacity Planner 2006.
One aspect that stands out about System Center is that it offers the tightest integration with all the office and service software. It means organisations can simplify the management of different technologies and infrastructure types across the Microsoft product ranges. To take an obvious example, it unifies the management of server, application, and desktop virtualisation, given Microsoft's product portfolio.
A new advantage is that it is integrating the management of virtualised environments with that of equivalent non-virtualised technologies. It also integrates the management of desktop and server environments.
"We see virtualisation and systems management as being one and the same thing," says Neil Sanderson, Microsoft's virtualisation and management product manager.
From a supplier strategy perspective, the availability of Systems Center improved the alignment of Microsoft's systems management capabilities with the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) practices. System Center scores well here in crucial areas such as incident and problem management, asset lifecycle management, change management, and configuration management, according to analysts.
Do not believe that Microsoft management products are limited in scope, warns one analyst. They are capable of more than just managing Microsoft technologies, says analyst Roy Illsley at the Butler Group.
"System Center has a newly-consistent, overall approach," he says. "Microsoft has plans to extend the suite's capabilities to manage partners' technologies in key areas such as virtualised servers."
The scope of supplier platforms addressed by the main configuration manager and operations manager products is already widened by bringing in packs which either Microsoft, or its partners, or Independent Software Suppliers (ISVs) can offer.
Microsoft's strategy is to work with various hardware suppliers to supply management packs. Many of those delivered with the product can be downloaded, usually free. This management pack approach means only the particular management facilities aimed at individual target technologies are made available, while extending the reach to third-party technologies by directly bringing them under the umbrella of System Center's control.
The wider availability of System Center 2007 has made Microsoft's system management tools grow to become an armoury with all the tools that most organisations would need. Now the scope of System Center has broadened significantly (compared to Microsoft's previously limited toolsets) integration has become less of a challenge.
Microsoft knew integration of all product elements was essential for consistency and helped the CIO in his goal of creating an efficient IT operations. Now it is delivering on that need, says Butler group analyst Illsley.
The most obvious example is the management of virtualisation, which is the main interest of most CIOs now. Virtualisation management systems can deliver their promised benefits only if they can dovetail their efforts with the management of non-virtualised environments.
There is one drawback with Systems Center. It has not kept pace with some of the advances in business-oriented service management. Certain features are not available yet, which weakens the argument for System Center as the sole domain of organisational IT.
It is a few steps behind some competitors, such as IBM, says analyst Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at the Butler Group. But System Center has plenty to offer in terms of business value, he says, "Not least because its automation facilities tie into business policy and it enables better productivity," he says. It is better at identifying the causes of exceptions, which means organisations waste less time on false alarms and focus resources more valuably.
The analysts say System Center represents a turning point. Microsoft's system management capabilities have gained considerably in breadth and depth. It could now be a valuable help to organisations addressing their system and service management needs in a diverse infrastructure.
Function-wise, you certainly get good value for money. It all depends if you actually use those functions. Currently its characteristic benefits - such as policy-driven automation, strength and depth in variety of functions, and capacity to work across virtualised and non-virtualised environments - make System Center ideal for most organisations with a commitment to Microsoft technology. Future extensions of its technology integrations would be potentially market-changing.
Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007
Operations Manager 2007, Virtual Machine Manager (VMM)
Protection Manager (DPM) 2007, Capacity Planner 2006