After several failed attempts to use marketing to create a corporate computing platform, Microsoft is now turning to engineering in an attempt to pull Exchange, SQL Server, Windows and its other infrastructure servers into a cohesive stack of enterprise software.

Microsoft's engineering effort underlies the Windows Server System, which was born as a marketing term, but now could potentially become something quite different.

Microsoft has lumped 19 servers under the Windows Server System banner and is attempting to lash them together into a cohesive unit with its Common Engineering Criteria (CEC). The criteria were introduced last June as a blueprint and set of rules for how servers are developed, secured, managed, certified, customer approved and licensed.

The servers are grouped in three categories: Operations, which includes Identity Integration Server and System Management Server; Applications, which includes SQL Server and BizTalk; and Information Work, which includes Exchange and SharePoint Portal Server. Windows Server 2003 provides plumbing features such as Active Directory and VPN support (see graphic for a complete list).

The company has released its first three servers designed under CEC principles, and more are due this year. The goal is to simplify IT environments, says Bill Hilf, director of platform technology for Microsoft.

"We should be able to engineer out as much complexity as we can before the software arrives to the customer," he says. "The way to factor out that complexity is the integration story."

Chapters of that story include: completing its lineup of CEC-compliant computers, delivering on Microsoft's Dynamic Systems Initiative, a plan to create a management platform for Windows; succeeding in securing its code through its Trustworthy Computing initiative; and supporting XML-based standards to back integration with non-Windows platforms.

Just getting started
Microsoft's largely behind-the-scenes integration efforts are catching some customers by surprise.

"I didn't know they were doing this, but we can see it already working," says Lance Auman, director of enterprise infrastructure for the San Francisco Unified School District. Auman says he uses Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), one Windows Server System server, to integrate his 311 servers around a common management model. He also is in the process of testing one of the newest Windows Server Systems servers, Data Protection Manager, to help solve his back-up problems.

"The beta already has a MOM management pack with it," he says. "It's imperative for us that all this stuff work together, it is the only way we can manage it all with the small staff we have."

The CEC includes requirements that servers have modules, called management packs, that connect into MOM - a monitoring and performance application. It also stipulates support for command-line scripting that servers can run inside a virtual machine, and that all servers use the same installer technology and patching tools. CEC also mandates customer feedback loops, logo programs and training.

Microsoft plans to adhere to the CEC in all the servers it releases going forward. Next month at its annual TechEd conference, Microsoft plans to announce new CEC requirements for 2006.

"The thing that makes Windows Server System more than just a gimmick is the CEC," says Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies. "It also telegraphs to people what they can expect with products in that pool of servers."

Microsoft's efforts here amount to an acknowledgment by the company that it previously hasn't had common engineering requirements for its server products, Davis says.

It's an attempt by the company to compete using "its entire stack of software instead of point products. Instead of Windows vs. Linux, Exchange vs. Notes, and have people look at Microsoft's portfolio in its entirety," he says.

Still, observers say Microsoft also must convince users on the business case for using its software servers. "Integration is thinking that happens in the IT tech room, but it's not the conversation we have with the business people," says George Defenbaugh, manager of global IT infrastructure projects for petroleum company Amerada Hess. A perfect example of this, he says, is the company's adoption of Microsoft's System Management Server.

"We deployed it because we had a strong need to get patches deployed," Defenbaugh says. But the technology isn't integrated with anything else, he says. "I appreciate that Microsoft is developing [CEC]. The fact that Microsoft is offering this perspective tells me they are thinking five years down the road," he says.

Where it's headed
Microsoft has just started to release servers developed under the CEC. The first three are Virtual Server 2005, Live Communications Server 2005 and MOM 2005. SQL Server 2005 and Windows Server 2003 R2, both due to ship later this year, also will incorporate CEC principles. The company's other servers will gain CEC compliance as new versions are released.

Microsoft also is working with partners to develop security services such as the single sign-on that Microsoft and Sun demonstrated earlier this month between their directories.

Microsoft also is developing technology for its Longhorn servers and clients, called Indigo, which will provide an integration layer with other technologies.

"Indigo is fundamental to the way we will do interoperability," Microsoft's Hilf says. "When we think about criteria around interoperability, we will have a great foundation in Longhorn to help exercise the criteria around that."

If Microsoft's efforts go as planned, it should all add up to a stack for Windows Server System software that will reduce infrastructure management and complexity.

"If you want to be a serious player in the enterprise infrastructure space you have to be able to manage and operate these systems with the same quality of tools that you have seen in other platforms and with the same degree of rigour that you operate your high-end Unix, mainframe and AS/400 environments," says Chris Burry, technology infrastructure practice director at consulting firm Avanade.