Microsoft has shipped the first tool that forms part of the company's strategy to create a comprehensive platform for managing corporate data centres.

The company posted on its Web site its Automated Deployment Services (ADS), which supports the automatic and simultaneous installation of Windows 2000 and 2003 "images" to multiple servers that have no operating system installed. ADS is the first system imaging technology available from Microsoft.

The ADS command console runs on Windows Server 2003 and is available as a free download to users of Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and Datacenter Edition.

"The key tenet is to drive down administrative and IT costs," says Bob O'Brien, product manager for Windows Server 2003.

ADS is just the tip of an ambitious multi-year, multi-stage plan Microsoft unveiled in March called the Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), which is designed to create a platform to support a self-managing environment built around applications that can communicate their management needs to the network.

DSI's most critical component is called the System Definition Model (SDM), an XML-based technology that will be built into applications, the operating system and management tools. SDM will allow those three elements to communicate about management issues, such as performance and configuration, and understand the dependencies among applications and network hardware for systems to run correctly.

ADS, which is based on the SDM model, is the second release under the DSI banner. The first was the Windows System Resource Manager (WSRM) that was part of Windows Server 2003.

ADS is aimed at easing the rollout of the Windows operating system on servers by creating "images" or configurations that can be installed on multiple computers simultaneously. ADS is run from a central console and "listens" for new servers that advertise themselves on the network. ADS installs an agent that facilitates the installation of the operating system. After the install, the agent can be used for administrative duties, such as configuring a server to join a cluster.

ADS, which began as a project within Microsoft Research, has been under development for nearly three years and in beta testing with 150 customers since March.

Microsoft officials say the next step under DSI will come at the end of year with the release of virtual server technology derived from the acquisition of Connectix Corp. in March. The technology will be married with ADS allowing users to provision virtual servers on a single box.

Microsoft will start to build SDM support into Visual Studio.Net later this year, but support in the operating system and management tools won't come until the Windows Longhorn timeframe, which has slipped into 2006-2007.

Experts say that if Microsoft can fulfil its DSI plan it will become more competitive in corporate data centers.

The software giant is trying to keep pace with rivals IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, who also have evolving complex multi-year strategies to create management environments that let corporate customers adapt to change by dynamically allocating resources and installing software.