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It's a war on complexity, explains Andy Lees

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The essential guide to IT transformation

Microsoft’s server operations are going well – this year it stuck its nose in front of its Unix rivals for the first time ever.

November sees the next phase of this world domination bid, with a raft of innovations to make the care and maintenance of Windows servers less of a headache.

So, the Reg caught up with Andy Lees, corporate VP and global marketing supremo for Server and Tools, on his flying visit to the group’s UK HQ at Reading.

One of the few Brits in the top echelons of Microsoft, Bradford-educated Lees talked through his plans to find new markets, harass Linux, and borrow sales techniques from Pimp My Ride.

Server and tools is one of the seven provinces in the Redmond empire, and one of the largest and richest ones, bringing in $8.5bn in 2004, up 19 per cent from the previous year.

“It comes down to reducing complexity,” says Lees. “There are some depressing statistics, that in companies’ IT spend 70 per cent of resources are spent on maintenance, and 30 per cent on new capacity. Why is that?”

Anyone who’s ever had to look after a server will be able to answer that question (and perhaps note that the only reason it’s not 80-20 or 90-10 is because they don’t get paid enough).

But Lees is here to talk about how they can start to shift the figures in the opposite direction.

Giving reboots the boot

Despite Redmond’s long-running campaign to clean up its act, security is still many sysadmins’ top gripe.

Even so, the sight of stormtroopers guarding the entrance to the group’s UK HQ in Reading was a surprise.

Luckily, it’s only a life-size model, stashed behind the reception desk to promote Halo 2. But Lees has some more potent weapons to defend Microsoft’s rep on the security front – Powerpoint slides.

Lees produces a series of PowerPoint slides which show how Apache and Red Hat are twice as vulnerable as IIS – 33 high-level vulns and 19 others, versus 48 and 84 for minimum configuration Red Hat and 77 and 97 for default configuration Red Hat.

This kind of claim certainly needs to be treated with some caution. PowerPoint slides can prove anything – see this discussion here.

Lees quotes another comparison, against Windows 2000. 700 days after release, Windows 2000 server had 67 important or critical bulletins, Windows Server 2003 had just 35. So Microsoft is at least making progress against its own benchmarks.

Of course Microsoft is keen to cut down on the number of reboots that its servers require. Part of the plan is to speed up and improve the process of distribution and management of the patch distribution process.

The big advances will have to wait for Longhorn, though.

“In Longhorn, we are able to reduce the number of reboot scenarios. When you have a kernel, the inner core… If you change it while it is running, it is very difficult, particularly when you have multiple things running in parallel,” says Lees.

“If you can compartmentalise things in the inner core, you can just turn one off, change it and bring it back up again so quickly that you don’t notice.”

“There are lots of things that the engineers do, very inventive stuff,” he adds.

Tooled up

These innovations will start to come on stream in a new line of products which appear on 7 November - SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006.

In particular, they’re looking at improving the way people develop programs for the Windows platform.

“That is an important milestone,” says Lees. “We will broaden out what we provide tools for from cutting code to managing the lifecycle.

“Today the developer produces a solution and throws it over the wall to the IT pro. Throws it over the wall and keep it running.

“It used to be that development is for developers and infrastructure is for the IT pro and these two are quite distinct. Doing these together is a very unique thing that Microsoft is doing.”

The move takes them into direct competition with Rational, the software development management vendor acquired by IBM for $2.1bn in 2002.

It’s a big market – “We’ve increased our addressable market by 47 per cent,” says Lees.

Pimp My Raid array

Of course, much of Microsoft’s competition doesn’t come from Unix or Linux but people just sticking with their existing Windows kit. So the company is always struggling to give existing users a reason to upgrade.

In autumn 2003 Microsoft shipped a bundled suite of software products, Small Business Server 2003, which aimed to be a simple office in a box solution that small companies could just switch on and run.

Partly a marketing bundle, with some integration and wizards built in, it sold well, and Lees is now looking to take it to the higher level – medium businesses, or companies with 50-250 employees and more than one server.

“When SBS has been so successful for us it is a no-brainer. That solution is a ‘my first server’. It is predictable it is reliable the resellers love it the VARs love it. We are looking to see is there more of these things that we can do in the future.

“The place where the complexity arrives most is the medium business. They have a very small IT staff but they want the same things as big business. They have a small IT staff but the complexity is there.”

Given that the bundle can be endlessly expanded to include line of business apps like ERP and CRM, does it leave them open to accusations of using a monopoly in one area to lever their way into another? Not at all, says Lees.

“It is not because we are bundling, it is because we are taking the complexity out. If people want to build in other stuff we won’t price against that. There isn’t really a legal question.”

Microsoft today announced a first step in this direction – a promotional server package for medium businesses, and a medium-business version of SBS, with closer integration out-of-the-box is likely to appear soon.

As part of the preparations, they have been giving unsuspecting businesses extreme makeovers in the spirit of Pimp My Ride (though with less hip-hop whimsy, and rather more beige boxes).

“We said, ‘We are from Microsoft. How about we just upgrade everything for free over a weekend?’ They said, that sounds like a good deal.”

“The difference in these businesses was completely night and day. In one place, the IT guy was hated because once a day, and they couldn’t tell when, the people on the work floor couldn’t print.

“He has not had a phone call since we have been in. It was a veil of pain that had been lifted.”

War on Linux

Selling upgrades doesn’t mean there isn’t time to harass the competition. Microsoft wants to eliminate the complexity of having to buy anything from anyone except Microsoft.

So the company is weighing into two areas where Linux is the platform of choice – web hosting and supercomputing.

Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition is due out in 2006 to target the low end of the supercomputing market, with large networks of nodes all linked together. So why bother to chase such a small market?

“In terms of end volume it is less than 10 per cent of the total end volume of servers but our market share is less than ten per cent. Linux dominates that scenario,” says Lees.

“We never want to give a customer a reason to go anywhere else. If Linux is at 80 per cent and we are at 10 per cent… we care.” He won’t be competing with IBM on a race to build the most monstrous computers, but chasing the smaller end of the market, which is (in volume terms) much larger.

“It turns out that the market is actually ready for things like 8 and 16 node clusters, in what used to be the work station market.”

The same is true for web hosting, where Microsoft has been thoroughly scalped by Apache.

Lees claims that Microsoft is now cheaper than Apache, in terms of total cost of ownership. “Six months ago a Linux server would be cheaper. Today they have parity.”

A large US hosting provider, name still undisclosed, has recently switched, he says, and has found IIS to be cheaper.

A new generation of tools aimed at this market to boost ASP.Net 2.0 as an alternative to PHP, with easy-to-define templates for everything from dynamic pages to weblogs.

There’s certainly plenty of stuff coming down the Windows Server pipeline. The challenge for Lees and his colleagues, though, is to convince IT managers that it’s more compelling than the default option - doing nothing.

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