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Microsoft concocts cloudy mixture with System Center 2012

False dawn or genuine breakthrough?

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Is it possible to have cloud and on-premise computing intermingled in a hybrid called the private cloud?

Such arrangements are mocked by Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff, who has said “beware the false cloud” on several occasions.

But the concept appeals to enterprises that want the benefits of on-demand computing without ceding control to a third party or sharing resources with customers.

Summit meetings

This raises the question: what is a private cloud, beyond server virtualisation?

Microsoft’s answer is System Center, particularly in its new 2012 edition, which the company presented at its Management Summit (MMS) in Las Vegas last month and at a series of Best of MMS sessions in the UK.

Four characteristics distinguish a private cloud from just a bunch of virtual machines, Manchester attendees were told.

1. Pooled resources: if physical resources are allocated rigidly to specific users, it is not a cloud.
2. Self service: users should be able to obtain server resources on demand.
3. Elasticity: the system can scale up and down as demand varies.

4. Usage-based, or pay as you go: some companies implement charge-back accounting but more often this simply means the ability to report on resource usage.

The aims are noble although System Center 2012 falls short in certain areas. Still, the elements are all present, implemented by a suite of applications targeting servers running Hyper-V, Microsoft’s hypervisor.

System Center 2012 also supports Citrix and VMware, but with caveats: VMware 5.x is not yet supported, Citrix XenServer must be 6 or higher and some features work only with Hyper-V.

System Center 2012 is a suite of eight components, and you will need all of them to realise the complete Microsoft private cloud concept.

if you get one component you get them all

Eight components, that is, in addition to Windows Server with Hyper-V or an alternative hypervisor, and miscellaneous dependencies such as the 1.7GB Windows 7 Automated Installation Kit, required to install Virtual Machine Manager (VMM).

If that sounds complex, it is, but Microsoft licenses System Center only as a suite so if you get one component you get them all.But do note the difference between System Center 2012 Standard and System Center 2012 Datacenter.

Standard is predominantly for physical servers and Datacenter is for hosts. Datacenter offers the management of an unlimited number of virtual machines on that host (per two processors). This may address concerns about the cost of licensing in virtualisation deployments.

VMM is at the heart of Microsoft’s private cloud and it is where you will find the Create Cloud wizard. Before you can use it, though, you must set up your “fabric”, a set of resources including virtual machine hosts and groups of hosts, storage, networking, and library servers and shares containing standard virtual machine images.

Hide and seek

A cloud definition specifies a bunch of fabric resources that are treated as a unit, abstracting the underlying physical resources.

Other key features of VMM include service templates, which define a set of virtual machines and components needed to deploy a specific service such as an application, and server app-v, which lets you package an application as an image that is easy to deploy or move between servers.

VMM also has a self-service portal, but this has been deprecated in favour of App Controller, a portal for automatic deployment of virtual machines and services.

Another critical component in Microsoft’s private cloud is Orchestrator, a workflow automation product based on software from Opalis, which Microsoft acquired at the end of 2009. You cannot do cloud without automation, and Orchestrator lets you build scripts for data-centre management tasks.

The other products in the suite are Service Manager for user support, Data Protection Manager for backing up your virtual machines, Operations Manager for monitoring application and server health, and Configuration Manager to administer your cloud application clients, whether Windows PCs or BYOD (bring your own device) tablets and smartphones.

It is an impressive array of capabilities, although if cloud is about abstracting complexity System Center is only partially successful at hiding the many underlying moving parts.

One of the puzzles is that Microsoft’s Azure public cloud uses a substantially different model from the System Center private cloud, though both use Hyper-V virtual machines. Azure does a better job of allowing users to focus on the application rather than the infrastructure.

Write your own scripts

There is some common ground between System Center and Azure, with the ability to monitor applications across public and private cloud, but Microsoft has more to do here.

Another issue is lack of elasticity. An ideal cloud should scale applications on demand, firing up or closing down virtual machine instances as required. System Center 2012 can do this, but in most cases you need to have the patience to create your own Orchestrator scripts for the purpose.

It would help if Microsoft provided this as an integrated feature, even if only for its own applications such as Exchange, SharePoint and SQL Server.

The Technet Documentation is the best place to look for details, being relatively free of marketing wibble. ®

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