Microsoft looks beyond Windows with data centre plan

Microsoft Corp. hopes its initiative for simplifying the management of data centres will play with Unix and Linux as well as with Windows.

The software maker plans to open up its nascent architecture for data centres, called system definition model (SDM), so that servers running operating systems other than Windows can be part of a data centre that employs the Microsoft technology.

Microsoft has only just started its initiative for simplifying the management of data centres, following similar initiatives from IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. The company unveiled SDM as part of its Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI) in March. Earlier this month, at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in New Orleans, Microsoft added yet another acronym to the list: DDC, for dynamic data centre.

The example of a DDC Microsoft presented with hardware partner Hewlett-Packard at WinHEC was an all Windows-based set-up. That was only a demonstration, however; the company realizes that a data centre is not a Windows-only world and plans to open up the SDM for heterogeneous environments.

“We realize that in the data centre it is a heterogeneous world and we will work with our partners around the SDM architecture to make sure they can deliver a heterogeneous environment,” said Eric Berg, technical product manager for the Windows Server Group at Microsoft, in a recent interview.

Heterogeneous, Berg said, means a data centre running applications on more than one operating system. The first deliverables for Microsoft’s DDC are being rolled out this year, although it will be 2005 or 2006 before the first completely automated DDC is built, Berg said. It is too early to discuss specifics of what that will look like, he said.

Microsoft isn’t necessarily promoting heterogeneous data centres, it is merely not creating barriers that would restrict SDM to Windows-only environments, Gartner Inc. Research Vice-President Tom Bittman said.

“Through the use of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and APIs (application programming interface), Microsoft will make it possible for third-parties to interoperate with SDM,” he said.

SDM is an XML-based architecture that underlies Microsoft’s entire DSI effort. SDM is not designed to be operating system specific, according to Berg. The Redmond, Wash., software maker is studying how SDM can be extended to other operating systems, he said.

Some analysts were not convinced.

“It is hard to imagine that DSI and SDM will be anything other than Windows-centric technologies in the foreseeable future,” said Dwight Davis, a Kirkland, Wash.-based vice-president and practice director for research firm Summit Strategies Inc.

“SDM may not be operating system specific, but Microsoft has no plans itself to extend SDM beyond Windows. For now, SDM is Windows-centric just like .Net,” said Gartner’s Bittman, who is based in Stamford, Conn. “The dynamic data centre is a Windows data centre, but Microsoft realizes that it needs to exist in an overall heterogeneous data centre.”

Microsoft has not released technical details on SDM; the company is expected to share more details at its Professional Developers Conference to be held in Los Angeles in October. “You can think of SDM as an XML model that really serves to unify the design, deployment and operations of applications in a data centre,” Berg said.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP, which is not only a Microsoft partner but also a major vendor of servers running Unix and Linux, sees opportunities for HP and others to support SDM in other platforms besides Windows, said Mark Linesch, director of infrastructure solutions for HP’s Industry Standard Servers group.

“As the SDM comes out in specification form, there will be platform opportunities for HP and other vendors,” Linesch said. “You can clearly imagine running a DDC being operated with this model called the SDM, and you can clearly imagine that it sits in a data centre including Unix, Linux and Windows systems.”

“Customers have multiple platforms within their enterprise and Microsoft understands that they have to integrate into that customer’s heterogeneous environment,” Linesch said.

It makes sense for Microsoft to give other vendors the opportunity to bring SDM to other platforms, but whether HP or any other competing operating systems vendor will pick up the technology is speculation for now because SDM is a work in progress, Summit Strategies’ Davis said.

“There is going to be some antipathy from Unix and Linux vendors in adopting this when they have their own initiatives going on. It is not clear whether things will be complimentary or competitive. So far, it is mostly a talking game,” Davis said.

Its talk of interoperability (and multiplatform) aside, Microsoft’s first and foremost focus undoubtedly remains gaining market share for Windows, said HP’s Linesch.

Davis of Summit Strategies agreed.

“Microsoft has two agendas: one is to use DSI to further the manageability of Windows and applications running on top of Windows, the other is to position itself as an open vendor that isn’t pushing solutions that are proprietary to the Windows platform,” Davis said.

In the demonstration at WinHEC, a Microsoft representative set up a “virtual server” with a few mouse clicks using DDC software under development at Microsoft, as well as prototype SDM-enabled software “providers” from HP, which allowed the Microsoft software to provision and manage HP’s Proliant Servers, StorageWorks disk arrays and ProCurve switches. The software allocated servers, installed an operating system and configured the storage array and network switches in minutes.

“DDC is really the integration of the server, network and storage components that are part of the DSI,” HP’s Linesch said.

The DSI is Microsoft’s move into utility computing, where it is playing catch up to IBM’s Autonomic Computing initiative, Sun’s N1 and HP’s Adaptive Enterprise concept. All these initiatives are about helping companies to lower the cost of IT through automation, improved service levels and more dynamic use of IT assets.

“When fully realized, the DSI will drive radically improved development and data centre management for Windows-based systems. Firms will slash IT costs, plus accelerate business agility, as they remove IT as an impediment to business change,” analysts with Forrester Research Inc. wrote in a recent brief.