Microsoft's System Center 2012: Building A Private Cloud

Microsoft is beefing up its private cloud offering by enhancing existing modules in System Center 2012, adding an application controller that disconnects apps from the OS, an orchestration module that automates application and virtual machine deployment, and unified management tasks. Microsoft is also reducing System Center 2012's licensing options from 113 different combinations to two editions--a Standard edition and a Data Center edition. This is Microsoft's big move into private cloud, which

Mike Fratto

January 17, 2012

6 Min Read
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Microsoft is beefing up its private cloud offering by enhancing existing modules in System Center 2012 Release Candidate, adding an application controller that disconnects apps from the operating system, an orchestration module that automates application and virtual machine deployment, and unified management tasks. Microsoft is also reducing System Center 2012's licensing options from 113 different combinations to two editions--a Standard edition and a Data Center edition. This is Microsoft's big move into private cloud, which should make it easier for enterprises to get into the game, but it is also a first step along a longer path in Microsoft's march to private cloud.

Brad Anderson, corporate VP with Microsoft's management and security division, sees enterprises' first step into cloud computing coming through private clouds that are scalable, automated, dynamic platforms combining servers, storage, networking and applications. Our June 2011 research report Research: IT Automation agrees. We found the second most common step IT was taking to focus on providing new services was building a private cloud (35%).

Microsoft is taking the lessons it is learning from running its own cloud services and applying them to its private cloud offering. There are three pillars to Microsoft's initiative: productive infrastructure, which includes the servers and software that support cloud services, is where Microsoft has made the biggest gains with System Center 2012 automating and managing their environment, as well as integrating with VMware's vCenter and Citrix Xen; predictable apps, which automate application deployment life cycle and decouple the application from the underlying OS, make application and server management easier; and, finally, unified management, which uses a set of common tools via Systems Center 2010. It's a pretty heady lineup, and today's announcement is a solid first step.

Perhaps one of the biggest news items is the change in licensing to System Center 2012. The short story is that Systems Center now comes in two versions that include all of the modules that used to be licensed individually, like Virtual Machine Manager and Configuration Manager, as well as dependencies like SQL Server. The licensing is loosely tied to the number of CPU sockets (regardless of the number of cores per socket) in the server. Standard edition is a two-socket license that includes what Microsoft calls an operating system environment (OSE)--Windows Server 2008 R2 and one guest VM. Windows Server occupies one socket, and the VM occupies the other. The list price is $1,300. Data Center edition includes one OSE and an unlimited number of guest VMs for $3,600. In either case, if you have a four-socket server, you need two licenses. You can stack standard licenses if you want, but you hit the crossover point where it makes more sense to buy Data Center edition at two licenses.

Hyper-V is still free, but the licensing changes slightly from number of sockets to number of OSEs (or VM images). Standard edition gets you two OSEs per Hyper-V server, while Data Center edition gets you unlimited OSEs. Microsoft also has a transition plan for existing Systems Center customers that maps the old licensing to the new. The net effect, Microsoft believes, is that in most cases, the cost per license will be close to even. The benefit is that you get all of the System Center modules plus two years of software assurance for one price. Microsoft has a separate plan for Core Infrastructure licensing. The licensing for virtual desktop applications are not affected.

Microsoft has two new System Center modules. The first, App Controller from the 2010 acquisition of Avicode, abstracts applications from the underlying OS and eases application deployment. One of the biggest benefits of App Controller is the ability to abstract an application from the OS, making it simpler to move an application from one host to another, between data centers, or even to Microsoft's Azure. App Controller provides rights management so that users can be limited to a subset of resources, such as 10 VMs, which helps to control VM sprawl.The second module, Orchestrator, from the 2009 acquisition of Opalis, ties together the various System Center modules as well as integrates with external IT systems. This is what links System Center and the data center into a private cloud. The tightest integration is currently with Microsoft's own products, but Orchestrator can be extended by IT as well as by vendors. Orchestrator discovers existing virtual machine templates, service catalogs, hypervisors and other integrated components, and lets IT build run books of automated tasks.

Other modules have been improved, as well. Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) has multihypervisor support for VMware's vCenter 4.1 and Citrix Xen. Anderson said, "Four years ago we talked to customers about VMware and walked away impressed. We beat VMware on price, but our features were not comparable. We are addressing that gap with this release." He went on to say that both vCenter and Xen are first-class citizens within Systems Center with support for automation and management. Both Operations Manager and Configuration Manager have been improved and support delegated rights management, which is a benefit for organizations that want to delegate management to departments.

All of these improvements and new additions come together in Service Managers Service Catalog and self-service request portal. Here, IT can create simple-to-use self-service request forms that allow business users to request IT services. IT defines a workflow and all of the templates needed to deploy, configure, manage and monitor the service. For repeatable IT service requests like a new SharePoint server, the automated workflow will save time per project and empowers the business to better manage projects.

In all, these changes and improvements bring Microsoft's System Center 2012 and private cloud initiative close in feature parity with the likes of BMC, CA, HP and IBM. Microsoft now needs to focus efforts on enticing server, storage and networking vendors to integrate with System Center. For example, there is no direct integration for the configuration and management with network equipment today. IT or vendors could add the integration themselves via Orchestrator, but, today, it is missing. Even in terms of integrating load balancing, System Center can't discover templates from load balancers like F5's BigIP or Citrix NetScaler. These are shortcomings Microsoft acknowledges, and the company is addressing them with partnerships.

If you are a Microsoft shop and use System Center, which Microsoft claims 50% of Windows Server customers already do, then System Center 2012 is going to be a big improvement for you in both features and licensing. If you are new to automation and orchestration, System Center 2012 may be a viable product set to get you started--especially if you use Hyper-V and Windows Server 2008.

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About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

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