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Microsoft Updates Windows Azure; System Center 2012 SP1 Released

Microsoft announced three new releases on Tuesday that advance its cloud vision by promising to bring new capabilities for IT pros and hosting services providers.

Service Pack 1 (SP1) of System Center 2012 is now generally available, as well as a new Windows Intune service update release and Windows Azure improvements. The releases add to Microsoft's overall vision of marrying the Windows Server 2012 operating system with the cloud-based Windows Azure, the company said.

"We think that the OS will play a much more important role in the era of the cloud, moving beyond PCs to an OS that can manage the underlying infrastructure and application platform across public clouds, private clouds and hosting service provider clouds," explained Michael Park, corporate vice president of marketing at Microsoft's Server and Tools Business, in a Tuesday Microsoft press conference announcing the new products.

Park offered five ways why Microsoft's approach should be considered unique. First, Microsoft offers flexibility with regard to application development tools and languages, "not just .NET but open source." Microsoft is enabling the use of a single user identity through Active Directory and Windows Azure Active Directory. Unified management is enabled through System Center. "Integrated virtualization" with portability is supported through Windows Server. Lastly, Microsoft delivers a data platform powered by SQL that supports business intelligence solutions "from Excel to Hadoop."

New Management Products
This release of SP1 for System Center 2012 is more like a full new product release than a functionality rollup. It will allow organizations to manage Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 environments for the very first time. Without it, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 are the latest Windows operating systems that can be managed with System Center 2012. The service pack also unlocks management capabilities for those using SQL Server 2012. SP1 is vitally important, too, for enabling PowerShell 3.0 automation scripting capabilities via System Center Configuration Manager 2012.

The January 2013 service update to Windows Intune, Microsoft's PC management service, allows various types of mobile devices to be managed. The list includes devices running Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, Android and Apple iOS. Windows Intune customers currently using the June 2012 service update will start to see upgrades to the January 2013 version in February, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

Microsoft tends to stress using Windows Intune in conjunction with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2012 SP1 for mobile device management. Specifically, SP1 add the ability of SCCM 2012 to manage Windows To Go, which is Microsoft's portable thumb-drive-imaged Windows 8 desktop solution. The new service pack also allows Windows Embedded devices to be managed through SCCM 2012. Additionally, SP1 adds SCCM 2012 support for managing Linux, Mac OS X and Unix servers.

The Microsoft spokesperson was a bit vague on whether both Windows Intune and SCCM 2012 SP1 are needed for mobile device management and bring-your-own-device scenarios.

"It is not an either/or scenario," the spokesperson stated via e-mail. "Customers who currently use Configuration Manager can continue to use it for client management. By adding Windows Intune, customers gain a cloud-based solution to manage mobile devices which are not typically connected, as well as management of Windows RT and Windows Phone 8. 

"For smaller customers (under 5,000 seats) who have not deployed Configuration Manager and do not desire to, Windows Intune gives them a cloud-based solution to manage their mobile PCs and mobile devices without needing an on-premise infrastructure.

"Large customers, such as those over 5,000 seats or those with more complex client management needs, can benefit from deploying both Configuration Manager 2012 for PC management and Windows Intune for mobile device management."

Windows Azure Improvements
Microsoft also added a few enhancements to its Windows Azure cloud-based OS, some of which are unlocked with System Center 2012 SP1. For instance, Microsoft's Global Service Monitor service, which will be available in March, can be used with System Center 2012 SP1 to test Web applications. This Windows Azure-based service pushes out test transactions to measure the Web site experiences that users may face, reporting any performance issues back to IT pros or developers through System Center 2012 Operations Manager.

SP1 also allows System Center 2012 App Controller users to push on-premises virtual machines into the Windows Azure public cloud, while retaining management control through a single console. The new service pack also enables System Center 2012 Data Protection Manager to back up servers to Windows Azure, using Microsoft's new Windows Azure Online Backup Service. According to the Microsoft spokesperson, "the Windows Azure Online Backup Service is still in free preview." There's no word as yet as to when this hosted backup service will be rolled out, or its cost. Microsoft is recommending its Windows Azure Online Backup Service as a supplement to an organization's existing backup protection, such as disk or tape backups.

Microsoft's hosting service providers also gain some advantages from the new service pack. App Controller in System Center 2012 SP1 can be used to manage infrastructure-as-a-service solutions, as well as local management, via the same console. This capability is enabled by service providers through a new API, called "Service Provider Foundation API," which permits self-service management of hosted solutions by the service provider's customer. It's an OData API using a REST Web interface, allowing service providers to create self-service portals for their customers. This API capability is part of Orchestrator in System Center 2012 SP1.

Service providers also some options under Microsoft's Windows Azure services for Windows Server. They can push down some Windows Azure capabilities to Windows Server environments, including virtual machine services and Web site services. One of Microsoft's hosting service provider partners that has tapped this capability is Boca Raton, Fla.-based Applied Innovations, with 35,000 domains and 95 percent using Hyper-V. Jess Coburn, CEO of Applied Innovations, said in the press conference that the use of Service Provider Foundation enables the same System Center tools to be used on premises, providing one pane of glass for management.

Another happy early user of Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 testifying during Microsoft's press conference is Los Angeles-based limousine service company EmpireCLS. The company has transformed its business into a hosting services provider offering software as a service and infrastructure as a service. Alan Bourassa, EmpireCLS's CIO, said that 90 percent of EmpireCLS' systems are virtualized using Windows Server, although the company once was a total Unix shop. Using System Center 2012 and Windows Server 2012, EmpireCLS has virtualized its SQL workload. The company has more than 550 services customers and Microsoft's solutions have made it simpler for its IT staff to manage the complexity, he said.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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