MEC Opens with a Confusing Server Message

Unraveling Microsoft's confusing line of enterprise products

MEC 2002, being held this week in Anaheim, California, has evolved from its beginnings as the Microsoft Exchange Conference and has taken on a wider focus of enterprise manageability. To that end, MEC 2002 includes tracks on Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003, Active Directory (AD), and various Microsoft .NET Enterprise Server products, including Microsoft Exchange Server. Like Tech Ed (previously an administrative show) and the Professional Developers Conference (PDC), which appear to be merging into one show in 2003, MEC has evolved over time, as has Microsoft's enterprise push. And if you're confused by Microsoft's extensive server product line, you're not alone.

Summing up Microsoft's server products used to be easy. I recall a 1996 server overview where the company touted such products as Windows NT Server 4.0, Microsoft Mail (the company's Messaging API—MAPI—mail server in pre-Exchange days), SQL Server 6.5, SNA Server (for connectivity with legacy IBM servers), and Internet Information Server (IIS) 1.0, all of which were part of the Microsoft BackOffice suite. Back then, BackOffice seemed like a great play on words. However, the product suite was destined for little notoriety because the products would just sit quietly in the server room and do their thing. Although the BackOffice name and suite will quietly end with the Win.NET Server generation of products, the successors to the products that were once part of BackOffice—a confusing mix of products that Microsoft is constantly tweaking—are playing a major role in Microsoft's expansion into the enterprise. You can expect to see some consolidation of these products in the coming year, but until then, we all have to deal with a bewildering set of server products. To help you understand this group of products, I've categorized them according to functionality in the following summary. Although this product list isn't complete, even this subset should demonstrate the difficulty in identifying and understanding which products make sense for a particular enterprise.

For infrastructure, Microsoft offers its core server products: Windows Server, Exchange Server, and SQL Server. Not coincidentally, Microsoft will use a SQL Server-based data store to integrate future versions of these products. For enterprise management of PCs, people, and other resources, the company offers AD, Systems Management Server (SMS), and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), although the future of these products is unclear because Microsoft might merge them in some way. To manage Web applications and Web services, Microsoft offers Application Center and Internet Information Services (IIS) products and various .NET-based support services. For interoperability with legacy systems, Host Integration Server has replaced SNA Server, and the Windows Services for UNIX (SFU) product offers tools for integrating Windows into UNIX environments. For managing inhouse resources such as documents and time, Microsoft offers Mobile Information Server, SharePoint Portal Server, and Project Server. The eBusiness server products, which have been evolving in recent days to adopt open standards such as XML, include BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server, and Site Server, as well as the recently upgraded Content Management Server 2002, which Microsoft officially launched this week at MEC 2002.

Microsoft's description of Content Management Server does little to identify the product's unique role. Microsoft says that Content Management Server provides a faster, more cost-effective way to create, deploy, and maintain mission-critical, content-rich Web sites that are business tools for communication with customers, partners, and coworkers. Compared to the company's other Web-site building products, Content Management Server's distinctive functionality isn't as well defined. One might use SharePoint Portal Server, for example, to build intranet- and extranet-based Web sites, generally for internal use only, where customers can share and collaborate on documents using a Web interface. Commerce Server facilitates the creation of e-commerce Web sites. And all of these products build off of IIS, of course.

Apparently, the distinction among these servers is that the sites they create perform different roles, but differentiating among them is confusing. And when you add BizTalk Server into the mix—a product designed to use XML-based adapters to integrate your applications with those from other companies—you get a bizarre mix of servers, each of which comes with a hefty price tag. Pity the poor company that needs to publish sites internally and externally and link to its customers' and partners' systems. And who has the skills to manage all these products? Microsoft's Web site creation servers need to undergo the same type of consolidation that the company's management servers will undergo in 2003.

In Microsoft's bid to head off potential competitors in the vastly interconnected world of the future, the company has forgotten the successful formula that brought the company to its current position. That formula can be summed up in one word, "simplicity", and simplicity is sorely missing in the company's current enterprise strategy. In fact, the only certainty in any of these products is, sadly, the licensing, which you can also sum up in one word, "expensive". Microsoft has adopted the UNIX pricing model, which generally means a per-processor price. For BizTalk Server, for example, that price is $7000 per processor for the Standard Edition, or $25,000 per processor for the Enterprise Edition. And most of these products aren't available in standalone configurations. Content Management Server 2002, for example, requires Windows 2000 Server or later, which is to be expected, and SQL Server 2000, another capable but expensive solution. And you'll want Microsoft Office XP on client machines so your employees can author content and Visual Studio .NET for your developers. As you can see, Microsoft's server products comprise a totally integrated environment.

Nervous yet? If the most obvious way for customers to approach these products is to simply ignore them, Microsoft is doing something wrong. And if the company is serious about offering end-to-end solutions for the enterprise, it needs to simplify its server products—not offer a different server for every conceivable product niche. Ironically, Microsoft's management products are anything but manageable. I'd like to see that situation change.

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