Microsoft System Center 2012 Overhauls Licensing, Focuses on Apps

By Tim Greene Apr 20th 2012
Latest Microsoft management platform supports server application self-service deployment.

Microsoft has formally shipped System Center 2012 management platform, adding features that create application-centric views of corporate infrastructure and - just as important - implementing a new licensing scheme designed to capitalize on customers' frustration with the leading competitor, VMware.

Microsoft says the new licensing structure cuts the number of license packages to two - standard and data center - down from nearly 100, a move the company says will make life simpler for IT departments.

Rather than buying the component parts of System Center singly or in bundles of just a few, customers will buy the entire suite.

That's good news for the largest businesses that are heavily investing in private cloud architectures and buy the data center license, says Paul DeGroot, principal consultant at Pica Communications.

The price of a data center license jumps from US$2,620 for two processors and unlimited virtual machines to US$3,615, he says. "There might be a bigger initial payment, but it covers all the virtual machines on a server," he says, as well as the full suite of features, including new ones. "This is a very significant change."

While new customers will still be able to buy certain individual components as standalone products the option of buying just single components of System Center such as Configuration Manager or Operations Manager are pretty much gone. "It's all or nothing, folks," he says. "You're either going to use [Microsoft] management tools to do everything or you're not going to use [Microsoft] management tools. They expect most will take the first choice."

He says this follows the successful model of VMware and pricing for its management platform. And Microsoft does regard VMware as a top competitor of System Center 2012, says Edwin Yuen, the company's director of cloud and virtualization strategy.

The old licensing system with scores of bundle options was complex, DeGroot says, and often led to confusion. For example, if a customer wanted a System Center bundle that included a component they had already licensed for another purpose, it involved negotiation to decide what the additional license fee should be, he says.

Under the new structure, even if customers wind up buying a bundle that includes pieces they never use, the cost is manageable. "These products aren't terribly expensive compared to, say, SQL Server," he says. "This isn't a break-the-bank situation."

It could even save them money, says Don Retallack, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, depending on the blend of physical and virtual machines in their infrastructure. Current customers will be eligible for grants from Microsoft to ease the cost of upgrading, he says.

The pricing structure is important, says Matt Stratton, director of technology operations for online rental service Shifting from VMware to System Center 2012 resulted in a 70% savings in maintenance costs, he says. The company beta tested the platform and switched over to it before its general release.

Taking advantage of features in the Microsoft platform that VMware's lacked will lead to further savings, he says. writes its own customer-facing Web applications using agile software development methods and has a free-standing development network that is now supported by System Center 2012 which includes a new component called App Controller.

App Controller gives developers the ability to set up virtual machines to run specific versions of applications to test against new apps, he says. They don't have to wait for IT to do it by hand. If the developers are on a two-week sprint to complete an application, that feature alone could save 10% to 20% of the time it would take otherwise, he says.

"When it comes into play it's going to be big for things that have to happen fast," Stratton says. "We can get a product out that is more stable more quickly."

This is one of the goals Microsoft had for System Center 2012, Yuen says. The platform is designed to encourage self-service so when a department needs more resources for an application, they can spin up additional CPUs or virtual machines themselves, he says.

In order to accomplish this, the management software is compatible with multiple hypervisors and operating systems and can automate configuration and the handling of outages. So if a virtual machine goes down System Center 2012 can automatically respond based on preset policies to deal with such a situation. And this can be done across the range of available resources from dedicated servers to physical and virtual machines in a cloud, the company says.

With this type of management and automation, staff can free up time from mundane chores. "What we're trying to get past is the time somebody works on something and elevate what the person does," Yuen says.

The new licensing structure cuts the number of license packages to two.