Microsoft sets out vision for future of private cloud

The deep dive of System Center 2012 was not for the faint-hearted but it offered a glimpse of the future

There are deep dives and deep dives. Some vendors’ take on deep dive is a few explanation on some technical detail interspersed with some marketing puff – that’s not what I got when I went to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond to get a deep dive into System Center 2012.

When I say a deep dive, I mean deep dive. This was two days locked into the dullest meeting room in the western hemisphere in order to get immediate and unflinching Q&As with the SC2012 development and design team.

If you want the gory details, zoom in on Building 41 on Bing Maps. I can’t tell you any more about that vast HQ operation, because in order to scratch the surface of what’s going on with this major new platform, we had to sit still and pay attention, not sight-see or get taken for nice dinners. This is because SC2012 is big, not just in terms of its feature list, but also in terms of Microsoft’s hopes for the market segment it’s intending to address.

And I’m bang in that segment. It is guys like me, who earn their bread and butter in corporate and small business IT, who should be thinking seriously about understanding the propositions that underpin SC2012. The technicalities are going to emerge over time, and in any case might not actually hold still from the demo that we saw in the Light Brown Room, since the developers I was talking to were listening as hard as I was. What won’t change, though, is the view of what’s happening to our workplaces and therefore our careers, in the field of actually making a private cloud work.

Microsoft is watching a particular trend here. They see people in businesses, not inside the IT department, buying on-demand compute resources with their company credit cards, out in the classical public cloud. They listen to user representatives, which in this context means people coming from old-school IT, whose investment pattern is now the result of nearly two decades of buying Microsoft products.  That kind of shop has matured into a major revenue stream for Microsoft, and quite often the long-term IT employees have matured with those products.

These guys are more like custodians of the corporate data warehouse - they often stick with their employers longer than the frontline staff, and increasingly where there is a heavy reliance on a big and complex externally-developed base of software to run every aspect of the business, they tend to be the keepers of the workflow. When the software changes, the business changes.

Users, who previously were controlled by a rigid approvals process and a long-term budget outlook are placed in a completely different position. You have to  remember that the finance director is the guy in the driving seat for IT in these environments (even the web can pass them by entirely since development is frequently hidden inside the marketing budget, and equally often, outside the company firewall) and he or she has a new freedom. Cloud services are outside the harsh confines of budgetary and workflow constrained decision making, and there’s a lot of 19th hole or cocktail party cred to be had by saying “Oh yeah, I bypassed those guys down in the basement. Did it all by myself out on the cloud.”

SC2012 is at heart all about letting this kind of activity take place inside a corporate, internal, safe, well-understood private cloud infrastructure. In fact, it rolls that concept forward a good deal further than cloud instance management can achieve right now: since the guys who are most in need of this type of tool are the guardians of long-term corporate data, and of how it gets used, and of what tools are used in keeping it safe and consistent, then why not add those responsibilties to the private Virtual Cloudsvision picture?

So the bit of SC2012 which we walked through most laboriously (because we were struggling to get to grips with not just what it did, but how it expressed what it did) were the configuration editors and the permission structures.

Assuming you get the trial and you’re working through how it does it’s thing, the idea here is that you have a pool of users, with the most cloud-savvy ones most likely in the lower ranks, and a smaller group of more senior authorisers.

In the IT wing, you have a master administrator, and then a squad of business analyst types who express a user demand as a template for a virtual machine, and a template for how many of those machines can be run, where they can be run, when they can be run, and so on.

Eventually, the entire business can express the flexible, cloud friendly part of their compute portfolio as a set of rules and templates in SC2012, with users coming in to spool up instances of VMs, and then shutting them down when their work is complete, without IT having to get involved in daily operations at all.

That’s the headline capability in SC2012. There are a few others – not the least being the scale of network that can be managed by the system itself. Brad Anderson, VP of management and very much the owner of the SC2012 project, threw out a few handy statistics, such as there being half a million PCs managed by the pre-release code, of which 300,000 were inside Microsoft itself.

There are other neat tricks, like being able to apply an equivalent config template concept to Azure instances (though this isn’t the full on domain-inclusion structure lots of people have been waiting for), but the absolute take-home from Brad was that this is their way of presenting all the concepts they’ve learned from Azure, for corporates who want to see their private clouds working. Lots of green arrows in that PowerPoint slide.

The next one though, was the bad old way of working. Brad said, more than once, that bringing current working practice and configuration decisions up out of stick-in-the-mud corporates, and imagining it could be made to work within the cloud, wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

This is the heart of the matter. While everyone’s early experiments with VMWare and Hyper-V may seem to show that you can take the worst behaved server app in the world and virtualise it, the reality is that you can’t expect to take apps last refreshed in 2002 and then let users spawn thousands of instances of them under the impression that this will get them out of the office door any quicker. The real benefit of anyone’s truly on-demand cloud will come from truly cloud-aware apps, and by that I mean, apps that expect to be scaled out and can make intelligent use of that expansion.

I may have blotted my good reputation with Microsoft once that thought occurred to me, with a bout of nose wrinkling and Fawltyesque derision, because they made much mention of being user-lead and replete with customer consultation.

Thinking about the operations I know well that are big enough to suffer from the problem of internal data “leaking” to cloud services and the attendant chaos, I was struggling to imagine a software stack anywhere in common use that would survive the temptation that strikes users when they see an SC2012 dialog box that offers “Number of VMs: unlimited. Number of cores: unlimited” as a feasible option.

The response from Anderson and team was to make oblique references to current-day demands for Monte Carlo modelling (very big in derivatives, that one) on machines that are otherwise idle in a given time-slot, and of course to allude to corporations in which the distinction between users, and webhosts, and customers of their customer, becomes a bit of a mélange of exception clauses and reasons to be careful with quickfire judgments.

I think the most puzzling part of the two days came during the licensing discussion. There’s a massive simplification: you can have two OS licences in a tiny little SC2012 setup… or bazillions. There’s no finer cut, no CAL, no limiting by server RAM or cores. Of course, the small option would count as overkill on an unprecedented scale, and there was a bit of a silence when another analyst asked whether SC2012 itself manages licences – I think MS consider such concerns to be well outside the market sector they have in mind.

Getting to grips with the entirety of SC2012 isn’t a small task; it’s likely to define the landscape of private cloud service provision within the Windows Server faithful for the next half-decade or more, a period when VMWare’s early lead is likely to be eroded. Microsoft’s intentions, and the way in which they understand the businesses of its clients, were very much the topic of the day in Redmond, and, I have to say, the company has got it right.

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