Monitoring and Management Go Mainstream

When you report about Microsoft for a living, as I do, you can't ignore the constant mantra from Redmond that things are going to get better in the next version. Whether it's Windows, Microsoft Office, or the company's various server products, the message is always the same: What we've got today is great, but just wait until version 2.0. Or version 3.0. Or version 2001. Whatever. Nowhere is this truer than in the areas of monitoring and managing applications and servers, with the company making various inroads over the past year through acquisitions, licenses, customer feedback, and simple, old-fashioned product evolution. With the advent of Windows 2000 and its ability to scale far beyond its predecessor, Microsoft has had to get serious about monitoring and management capabilities. We're just starting to see the fruits of this work now, with more to come in the timeframe of Whistler, the next version of Win2K. And of course, various third-party developers have stepped up to fill the server product line's gaps, which offer opportunities much like those that desktop software once offered.

But has Microsoft done enough? One of the biggest problems with products in the Microsoft server line is that each one goes its own way: If you must monitor Microsoft SQL Server and the data-backed applications based on that server, for example, you fire up Enterprise Manager and various tools that SQL Server provides to monitor performance and activity. Other servers, such as Exchange Server, and the OS itself, offer their own tools. For the typical corporation, the proliferation of tools makes the monitoring process both time-consuming and confusing. And as corporations grow and their networks scale to match this growth, the complexity grows correspondingly.

Web applications based on Win2K fare a little better, and given Microsoft's current fixation on its .NET strategy, this is hardly surprising. Since early 2000, the company has touted its upcoming Application Center Server as a fairly elegant solution for making Windows "clusters" more available and reliable. Using the so-called software-scaling technique, Application Center lets you administer and monitor groups of servers as easily as you monitor a single machine. One can almost continuously plug in small, inexpensive servers to scale up as demand grows. Application Center answers a key criticism of big-iron companies such as Sun and Oracle, which argue that simply adding machines to the mix does nothing more than increase complexity. But the big strength of Windows is its simplicity, and by making it easy to manage multiple boxes through a central console, Microsoft makes it possible for any Windows-based Web farm to scale to previously unprecedented territory. And of course, this set-up removes the possibility of a single point of failure—a major criticism of the Sun/Oracle approach.

But the key to enterprise monitoring, of course, is software. Servers must provide constant health and performance statistics that you can monitor and respond to from a central console, with prefabricated and automated responses that the console can initiate when it registers data that meets specific criteria. Application Center, as a modern example, is smart enough to diagnose and fix problems in a cluster without manually involving an administrator. But for more standard Windows networks, Win2K offers only basic performance and event-monitoring features, with the automation of these tasks generally left to third parties. However, this situation will soon change. Microsoft valued Operations Manager enough to license the product, which will be released as Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) this spring. MOM will integrate with Win2K, Systems Management Server (SMS 2.0), and the next version of SMS ("Topaz"), as well as IIS, Active Directory (AD), SQL Server, and Exchange Server, making it possible to manage servers and server applications. Adding MOM to Windows will enable proactive management and monitoring of performance and availability in the OS itself. And we can expect the interface for MOM to resemble the Application Center interface enough to let anyone experienced in one use the other. Application and server monitoring and management are no longer peripheral functions—they finally move into the mainstream.

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