A tour of Microsoft System Center 2012

Microsoft's client and server management tool finally looks worthwhile, thanks to its client-to-cloud integration

I admit it: I never liked Microsoft's System Center server management suite. If you are one of my long-time readers, you know I mention it only sporadically, and even then without enthusiasm. It's felt like a patch job of unrelated products. But the forthcoming System Center 2012 -- now available in the form of a release candidate -- might just change my mind. That's not a certainty yet, but what I've seen so far of its integrated client-to-cloud management capabilities is causing me to warm up to it.

Microsoft is positioning System Center 2012 as a cloud management tool for both your "private cloud" of internal servers (Windows, Solaris, and Linux) and for public cloud services. That "public cloud" claim is a stretch, though, as it means only resources hosted in Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud, not in competing public clouds.

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Also new in the 2012 version is System Center 2012's ability to manage Android, iOS, Symbian, and Windows Phone 7 mobile devices using the same EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) policies that Microsoft Exchange has long had to manage the same devices. System Center also remains a desktop and virtual-desktop management tool for Windows PCs, as in its previous version.

In the coming months, I'll go deep into several components of System Center 2012. But first, here's an overview of its core components:

App Controller provides a single interface for managing both your Windows Azure services and, via the VMM (Virtual Machine Manager) tool, your internal virtual machines. Tie-ins to the Overview interface for both Virtual Machine Manager services and Windows Azure services let you deploy and configure new services and entire machines easily.

SCCM (Configuration Manager) helps deploy operating systems, software applications, and software updates, as well as inventory hardware and software and do remote administration of computers. You may recall the original SMS (Systems Management Server), which was very hard to work with. Relax: SCCM is light years ahead of SMS in capability and ease of use.

DPM (Data Protection Manager) is more than a simple backup and recovery tool; it also provides continuous data protection. I've trashed DPM 2007 and then praised DPM 2010. DPM 2012 is even better and adds some interesting features as well. For starters, DPM will be able to deploy agents, which makes it fit better in the System Center's management context. The new centralization element lets you manage as many as 100 DPM servers from a single console. That same console allows for role based administration and centralized reporting (something that many have been asking for improvements on). Monitoring is also enabled through Operations Manager.

SCEP (Endpoint Protection), found in the Configuration Manager, provides anti-malware and security capabilities to your endpoint Windows PCs. It works with SCCM to deploy the security client to PCs and the configuration settings for Windows firewall. You may know it better by its old name: FOPE (Forefront Endpoint Protection). FOPE wasn't worth deploying without SCCM because you didn't get all the reporting and alerting elements, so merging FOPE into System Center just makes sense.

SCOM (Operations Manager), years ago called MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager), is primarily a monitoring solution that allows you to snap in various management packs (such as for Exchange 2010). Through SCOM, you can monitor services, devices, and operations through a single console. (That single-console concept is a key aspect of System Center 2012's new approach.) New features include network monitoring (for discovering and monitoring routers, switches, network interfaces, and ports) and application monitoring for Internet Information Services-hosted applications.

Orchestrator is a wholly new component in System Center, though the product has been around for years as Opalis vNext, which Microsoft bought in 2009 and rebranded as Orchestrator. The workflow management tool uses a graphical user interface called Runbook Designer to help automate processes and operations through what are essentially data center scripts.

Service Manager focuses on the user through a more organized way of providing support processes. It lets you track tasks and support tickets via a work log. Its self-service portal lets users help themselves through a knowledge base.

Unified Installer lets you deploy the System Center 2012 components. What's the big deal about that? In previous versions, you had to install each desired component separately, and each had its own set of prerequisites and (sorry to say) potential nightmares. The Unified Installer helps with all that; its wizard figures out the prerequisites for the components you select and configures what's needed for you.

VMM (Virtual Machine Manager) manages a virtual data center's servers. VMM 2012's new capabilities focus on configuring fabric resources, in an attempt to better compete with EMC VMware's vSphere management tools.

That's the lowdown of what's in System Center 2012. Again, keep a lookout in this column for deeper looks at several of the core components over the next several months.

This article, "A tour of Microsoft System Center 2012," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.