If you haven't looked at the Microsoft TechNet Web site recently (see the first URL below), you're missing a variety of excellent documentation, including the fruits of a recent management initiative that I only recently discovered. Designed as a central location for IT-oriented documentation and related resources, TechNet has grown to meet the needs of Microsoft's most demanding customers: The types of large companies that need to perform massive server consolidations, design and deploy complex data centers, and accomplish similar tasks.
Microsoft's management solutions arose in part from frustration on the part of Brian Valentine, Microsoft senior vice president of the Windows Division, who often encountered customers interested in rolling out Microsoft technology. The problem, he says, was that Microsoft didn't often acknowledge that large enterprises weren't interested in running only Microsoft technology. Furthermore, customers asked that Microsoft lower costs and risks by helping them plan deployments. Who knows Windows Server better than Microsoft, after all?
The result was the Microsoft Solutions for Management (MSM), a suite of scenario-based prescriptive guidance blueprints from the Windows Server team, which provides Microsoft solutions directly to customers and through solution partners. Microsoft quietly released the first offering in this initiative—the Microsoft Systems Architecture: Internet Data Center—a modular and prescriptive guide to creating an Internet data center, in February 2002; however, the company didn't officially announce the guide until this past summer, after large customers such as T-Mobile rolled out production Internet data centers by using the Microsoft-supplied blueprints. The prescriptive architecture kits are rich and deep, designed so that customers can incorporate their existing technology or replace Microsoft products with those from competitors. This modular approach makes the kits applicable to a wider range of customer scenarios, although Microsoft solution partners can offer customized solutions. The company calls the underlying scheme Microsoft Systems Architecture (MSA), which harkens back to the old IBM SNA scheme, with one major difference: Microsoft doesn't assume you're going to use only its software and services. And because Microsoft isn't a hardware company, it's working with a wide range of hardware partners in areas such as storage devices, network devices, and server hardware to create these guides.
The second kit—Microsoft Systems Architecture: Enterprise Data Center—shipped this week. Like the Internet Data Center kit, the Enterprise Data Center kit documentation is freely available on the TechNet Web site. "We supply the architectural guides, the how to do it stuff, on TechNet," Michael Emmanuel, a senior product manager for MSM, said. "Our partners or any consulting group can make use of these guides, take pretested components, customize them for customers needs, and add their own pieces. The solutions are in the form of blueprints, guides, and templates."
Emmanuel said it wasn't enough for Microsoft to ship technology products anymore; the company has to help customers understand how to use the technology most effectively, and that help must apply to a wide range of usage scenarios. In the early days, these requirements meant a simple users guide. But today, Microsoft's documentation cuts a wider swath. At the next level is something Microsoft calls solutions guides, which are specific to certain tasks. For example, the company might describe how to use Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) to deliver a patch to 10,000 workstations. At the level above that, Microsoft creates MSA customer-oriented guides that are like cookbooks. Here, customers can use the free pieces from TechNet or find a solutions provider that can build a custom solution. The idea is that the solutions Microsoft delivers are tested and validated in the real world before they become available to a wider range of customers.
In the future, Microsoft will release other prescriptive architectural guides, and the company told me that it's working on guides for department data centers and branch offices. The company also has offerings for UNIX migrations and solutions for intranets and enterprise project management. Under the MSM umbrella, the company also offers operations assessments, critical patch deployment guides for SMS and Software Update Services (SUS), and blueprints for application deployment.