System Center 2012: Private Cloud for the Masses?

Microsoft makes private cloud more approachable for System Center licensees

As the attention about cloud computing has shifted from a purely public cloud view towards a build-your-own private cloud computing model, IT pros run into a familiarity problem: We know how some parts of a cloud work, but other parts are brand-new to most of us. Microsoft's recent System Center 2012 announcements are designed to make it as simple as possible for the moderately experienced IT shop to set up a private cloud. Last week, my colleagues Mike Otey, Jeff James, and I attended a private cloud reviewer's workshop where Microsoft laid out their 2012 intentions for what was formerly the System Center suite of products. (For more detail on what's happened to the suite, take a look at Jeff James's article on the changes in System Center branding and licensing.) Let's take a closer look at which components of the Microsoft private cloud solution fill in the gaps. 

The best way to understand the complexity of cloud architectures (public or private) is to look at them in layers, then see if we recognize patterns in a layer that we can relate to our previous experience. In the cloud computing model, the parts most familiar to the IT pro are the resource pools at the bottom layer, and the self-service portals at the top. What's generally not familiar is all the management and automation in the middle layers. What System Center component controls these layers? Have a look at the figure below to see where everything goes.

System Center 2012 Private Cloud
System Center 2012 Private Cloud

SCVMM 2012: Resource pool management

In the infrastructure layer of a cloud architecture, we recognize  resource pool management; it's the server virtualization we know, plus network and storage virtualization. Microsoft calls these three resource pools the infrastructure fabric. In the Microsoft private cloud, System Center 2012 Virtual Machine Manager handles VMM Cloud Button VMM Cloud Button these System Center self-service portals tasks and more, including service templates and cloud configuration. VMware and Citrix Xen are fully supported in this component; corporate vice president Brad Anderson stated "the VMware virtualization platform is a first class citizen in System Center". Mike Otey's blog from the workshop goes into more detail on Virtual Machine Manager's many new capabilities.


Most medium to large enterprise employees are familiar with the self-service portal concept, having used them for HR or IT help desk functions; many IT pros have used VMware's vCenter or System Center Virtual Machine Manager System Center's self-service portals. System Center Service Manager 2012 has an upgraded self-service request portal based on your service catalog. In addition to this portal, the Microsoft private cloud solution adds a new portal component to the System Center 2012 family: App Controller.

App Controller is a self-service portal for private cloud application owners. It provides a unified view of all the resources delegated to the application or service owner across both private and public clouds. As this portal is designed to manage services, in addition to being able to manage their delegated VMs, the application owner is able to deploy and manage services that have been pre-configured with VMM service templates.

Orchestrator: The magic in the middle

What IT pros are generally unfamiliar with is all the stuff in the middle of the private cloud: automated workflow. What is workflow, anyway? The term has been used in process automation for quite a while, but the average IT pro doesn't use this term. Simply put, workflow is the process of passing a unit of work around from one place of administration to another from start to finish. For example, when a user submits a help desk request, the request triggers a workflow to have the ticket looked at by a help desk representative and eventually closed. When you ask for vacation time off, your vacation request kicks off a workflow to get manager approval. We use workflows all the time, but most of the time we don't call them that; they're simply documented procedures. Automated workflow is the heart of the cloud computing model, the magic that translates the user's request from the self-service portal to automated, actionable items.

What Orchestrator enables you to do is easily build these workflows to link self-service portal requests to Virtual Machine Manager actions. Through a series of wizards you can build a simple or a very complex workflow and approval cycle. For example, you can configure a workflow to require an approval board where a majority must approve a request for it to move forward. You then combine these workflows into "runbooks" to automate processes you're doing manually today.

You'll still have to get pretty handy with PowerShell to handle your unique requirements, but Orchestrator is designed to do much of the heavy lifting for you. It will certainly enable you to quickly create a test private cloud environment to help familiarize you with how to scale the task up for your production environment.

You can quite reasonably say that since you've never built a private cloud before, you don't have any existing procedures to build workflow runbooks from. Microsoft has thought of that, and provided the System Center Cloud Service Process Pack, currently in beta, as a collection of best practice runbooks to help you get started. These workflow best practices were derived from Microsoft's long experience running public cloud services (remember, Microsoft acquired Hotmail in 1997).

A Big Evolutionary Step For System Center

On the heels of the Windows Server 8 (now known as Windows Server 2012) and Windows 8 developer previews tour de force, Microsoft has pulled off another impressive body of work with System Center 2012. Six separate products that had little integration are now, with the addition of Orchestrator and App Controller, eight major components working as a far more integrated whole. Thanks to the new licensing scheme, all current System Center licensees will automatically get these upgraded components; if you can spare a VMware, Hyper-V, or Xen host you can start experimenting with cloud construction immediately. This low cost of entry into cloud computing ensures Microsoft's large community of System Center licensees will give their solution a try before investing in others. Remember, though, that installing enough System Center components for even a test private cloud – a minimum of Virtual Machine Manager, Service Manager, Orchestrator, and App Controller – is in itself a good-sized project.

Building your own private cloud is an exercise that's still far from trivial, but Microsoft has made the process much more approachable with System Center 2012.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @shorinsean.


Related Articles:

System Center 2012 RC Ships, Showcases Revamped Licensing and Branding Strategy

Microsoft System Center 2012 Enables the Private Cloud

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