Microsoft, Novell, square off on configuration tools

Microsoft and Novell may be working together on some areas of technology, but the two firms will soon be going head-to-head in the market for improved enterprise configuration management.

Last week Microsoft confirmed that Systems Center Configuration Manager 2007, its update to Systems Management Server, will begin shipping in about two months. Novell, meanwhile, has already launched ZenWorks Configuration Management, the latest addition to its systems management portfolio. Configuration management refers to technologies that track how software, hardware or other elements of IT infrastructure have been changed or modified over time.

Novell is highlighting ZenWorks Configuration management’s ability to work natively with both its own eDirectory and Microsoft’s Active Directory, and in particular its ability to automate software setup and support for Windows Vista. Novell’s flagship network operating system, Open Enterprise Server, is based on Linux and competes with Microsoft’s server OS, although the two firms signed a controversial cross-licensing agreement to build greater interoperability between their two product lines. Active Directory and eDirectory were among those products.

“We think there is a very compelling rationale that says we can take these great Novell tools and deploy them to customers who don’t have eDirectory and Open Enterprise Server, people who have nothing but Windows Server and (Microsoft) apps,” said Ross Chavelier, Novell Canada’s CTO. “Those folks still have the same problem. There isn’t the same scope and depth that you would find for that in the Windows space.”

Microsoft, on the other hand, is more focused on customers who are already Windows Server users but who are struggling to keep pace with server environments that have been consolidated through virtualization software. Configuration Manager 2007 will be able to update IT managers on changes to virtual machine images, for example, though integration with its Virtual Machine Manager and SoftGrid application.

“SMS 2003 R2 was a great tool with respect to bare metal installation and hands-off type of integration,” said Derick Wong, a product manager with Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada. “This is something that can integrate with Windows Vista and Windows 2008 Network access protection, which means you’ll be able to facilitate the scanning of a computer coming onto a network and ensuring it’s actually meeting compliance standards. If it’s not, it can go off to another server or a quarantined area.”

Configuration Manager’s other new highlight will be what Wong called “state management” – the ability to offer real-time updates on individual changes to a user’s settings. “If a user changes a program or opens a port, it can detect that,” said Wong.

Both Microsoft and Novell said they see the difficulty with deploying patches, finding various IT assets and meeting regulatory requirements – tasks that will likely drive demand for their configuration management products. Brian Babineau, an analyst with Enterprise Management Group in Milford, Mass., said HP’s recent acquisition of Opsware and the initial public offering of BladeLogic are signs of renewed interest in data centre automation.

“That urge for better management and control – that will be the driving force behind these kinds of products,” he said.

Novell has set pricing for the enterprise version of ZenWorks Configuration Management at $320, but Microsoft hasn’t yet said how much Systems Center Configuration Manager 2007 will cost.

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