Microsoft's one-stop management

It's beta-testing time for us systems managers. Microsoft has just made SCE (System Center Essentials) 2007 Beta 2 available as a public download; I think it's coming on the next TechNet CD/DVD release, too. Typically, I don't play with these things much in the real world, but what Microsoft is promising with SCE is cool enough that I'd say, Look at it early and let Microsoft know what you think.

SCE is more than just a rehash of low-end MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) and higher-end SMS (Systems Management Server). It's a ground-up new systems management tool that's designed to allow us systems managers to do our entire job within a single console. No, that won't happen, because most of us have to manage apps and clients that don't fall within Microsoft's product boundaries, but if Redmond manages to make its products a one-console management job, that's still a significant step up.

From the screenshots I've seen thus far, SCE looks friendly enough. Functions are arranged in a tree format using a left-hand nav pane. You can click on views such as "All clients" or "All servers" and get customized health and monitoring information in the workpane -- customized because you can (to a degree) instruct SCE on what it is you want to see in these views.

A tab pane below the tree view looks the same as the Mail, Contacts, Calendar tabs from Outlook 2003. Here, you can choose the kind of work you need to do in SCE: monitoring, pushing out updates, managing software licenses, and so on. It's truly a simple-looking interface. If you need to learn anything, it'll be the mechanics of what you're doing; finding it in the interface isn't going to be a problem.

Microsoft's also gone to a lot of trouble to improve its reporting and expert knowledge areas. Smart, because those are two areas where Microsoft can stick it to the open source competition that's breathing down its neck. Open source tools can do a decent job of putting out reports in PDF or HTML, but integrating with SQL Server, Excel, and SharePoint -- or a SharePoint-like platform -- is still more difficult. Microsoft can make this much easier.

And with years of support and millions of members, Microsoft's making a smart move in leveraging its TechNet Knowledge Base into an "expert knowledge" repository that any SCE user can access. Again, the open sourcers still need to rely on message boards and the like for the most part. Microsoft can offer its users context-sensitive expert knowledge links and searching.

And I'm still gushing mainly about the interface. SCE is supposed to also contain significant internal smarts, especially when it comes to proactive monitoring, automatic update management, and software distribution. Because I haven't had a chance to test it, I can't comment on the specifics.

If you're a midsize business that's already settled on MOM and SMS, then SCE probably isn't for you -- at least until it comes time to upgrade those two applications. SCE seems designed to give a midsize business a big enough helping of both those applications under one roof. Not only does that make it cheaper, it's also easier to learn and maintain. If you've got some beta-testing time, SCE seems worth the trouble.

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