Microsoft only makes part of what's needed for a complete end-to-end application. So it has got together with partners to test out pre-planned configurations which include Microsoft SW, partner SW and partner HW. These HW/SW/network designs are said to be designed according to Microsoft's Systems Architecture or MSA.

The latest iteration, MSA 2.0, includes a wealth of storage suppliers amongst the seven development partners listed by Microsoft:-

• Cisco Systems for networking
• HP for servers and SAN storage
• Unisys for servers
• EMC for SAN storage
• Brocade Communications for SAN fabric
• CommVault Systems for backup/recovery
• Emulex for Fibre Channel host bus adapters

The suppliers listed are pleased as punch to be part of it. For example, CommVault states 'CommVault software is the exclusive backup and recovery solution for the MSA reference configurations. Each configuration is subject to rigorous qualification process in order to ensure that the MSA standards are met and consistent throughout all current and future MSA infrastructure offerings.'

Emulex trumpets the fact that it 'is the exclusive MSA Fibre Channel host bus adapter supplier.'

It is interesting that Veritas is not included here, although Veritas does say, and say often, how close it is to Microsoft. Obviously Microsoft offered or was willing to trade exclusive functional roles for some components in its MSA to suppliers, witness the Emulex and CommVault statements. That explains why suppliers of the stature of Veritas are absent.

This points up the fact that these MSA blueprints are not open. You exchange a lessened implementation risk for a restricted supplier choice and, possibly, lower overall functionality and a lower pressure on suppliers to be cost-competitive.

A fuller list of MSA partners can be found here.

Supplier Roles
Other roles in MSA are not exclusive to one supplier. Thus servers can be supplied by Dell, HP, Fujitsu Siemens or Unisys. Unisys, of course, supplies its ES7000 'mainframe' Windows server that no other supplier, except IBM - which isn't included in the MSA program - can supply. THis is for the enterprise data centre. Dell's and HP's servers are for the Internet data centre. NEC supplies a Japanese version of this.

Fujitsu Siemens says it is an MSA-compliant supplier. The company says on its site 'In cooperation with its partners Cisco Systems, Stonesoft and F5 Networks, Fujitsu Siemens Computers and its service partner Siemens Business Services has gained qualification as a vendor of enterprise data center solutions that comply with the guidelines of the MSA program. The computer company and Siemens Business Services offer enterprise customers extensive support in implementing central data center infrastructures and services."

These can be large configurations. The test configuration included, for example, 116 Intel-based PRIMERGY servers and 18 PRIMECENTER racks from Fujitsu Siemens Computers.

MSA Data Centre Schemas
Brocade says 'The Microsoft Systems Architecture program was developed with the goal of architecting, validating, and documenting a set of IT infrastructure architectures that simplify deployment and management of storage to support Microsoft software applications. These architectures include:

• Internet Data Center (IDC)
• Enterprise Data Center (EDC) - the Fujitsu Siemens focus
• Department Data Center (DDC)

Brocade goes on to say that Brocade-based SANs are an integral part of the core MSA infrastructure ensuring scalability, reliability, manageability, and a platform for business continuance. A Brocade focus is the Internet Data Centre and a descriptive PDF can be downloaded from here.

A goal of the MSA process is to provide building blocks upon which other solution offerings can be built. One guideline is the Prescriptive Architecture Guides (PAG) that contains tested and validated installation and operation of the reference architecture.

This is typical descriptive text from a supplier about MSA; Through MSA, industry leaders can develop and qualifiy a prescriptive blueprint (PAG) to deliver a complete, web-enabled, IT infrastructure, including servers, storage, storage networking infrastructure, software, and other tools and scripts as a Microsoft-validated architecture that supports an extensive array of e-business applications with the highest degree of availability, security, scalability, and manageability.

MSA Documentation
What Microsoft and its partners do is to specify and test out implementations of particular HW/SW and network combinations. They are tested and proven in a lab and the output from this is documentation that is afreely available. The MSA v2.0 documentation set includes some introductory documents that explain what MSA is and how to use it as well as the Reference Architecture Kit and Implementation Kit.

The complete MSA 2.0 documentation set can be downloaded from here. There is 45MB of it.

Microsoft claims that MSA architectural guidance provides the following business benefits: • Ensures integration between products
• Provides predictable, reliable performance and scalability
• Reduces implementation times leading to faster time-to-benefit
• Helps identify and control costs
• Mitigates implementation and operation risks

For customers who wish to use Windows Server 2003 in enterprise environments with what we might describe as fairly mainstream suppliers for HW, networking and so forth then MSA can be a useful starting point, leading to a safer way of using Windows Server 2003 in enterprise environments.