Microsoft claims it is taking the fight to VMware with its release of the latest weapon in its arsenal: Windows Server 2012. This is a battle that will be fought on many fronts that touch areas other than virtualisation - including cloud, mobility and BYOD, against continually rising business costs. As long, of course, as the channel too has the stomach for the struggle.
According to Ingram Micro, in fact, the channel will need to develop a kind of “combative competitiveness” to maximise the benefits of the Server 2012 opportunity. It seems that the IT firepower may well be there in this new package. However, some commentators also suggest that, partly because the sale is less about box-shifting than ever before, a really determined assault will be needed on what was in recent history still the no-man’s land of genuine customer experience.
This is the way the industry is moving. A focus on developing much better overall tactics and strategies that scale easily and on demand will surely better serve customer requirements - and not just when it comes to Windows Server 2012 specifically.
Al Gillen, US-based vice president for research into the systems software market at IDC, says the market watcher believes Microsoft has done a good job of updating and improving on the Windows Server product. In particular, Microsoft invested a lot of attention in making the product more usable in a private, public or hybrid cloud environment, Gillen says.
“While many customers are just beginning to think about cloud-based deployments, given the fact this product will be in market for a decade it will, through the course of the life cycle of Windows Server 2012, become very important,” he says.
“The improvements include better management, broader use of PowerShell, and significantly improved storage resource management and utilisation. Beyond that, improvements to Hyper-V make that technology finally able to equal or better VMware on speeds and feeds.”
Gillen adds that it will also mean money-making opportunities for the channel, although Windows Server 2008 will continue to be useful as ammunition for software refresh sales while resellers figure out how to adapt to a future where they will be more likely to play the role of broker, SaaS company or hosting provider.
The industry is changing and standardisation as well as server consolidation will drive further into the mid-market and small business segment with Windows Server 2012, but not so rapidly that it will disrupt the channel completely in the interim, he suggests.
“The transition itself is likely to last a decade or beyond,” Gillen says. “In the end, Small Business Server (SBS) functionality (Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL Server) has largely been stripped out of Windows Server 2012 Essentials, presumably on the assumption that these customers will replace that functionality through Office 365.
"There is an argument that says for small businesses, Office 365 is a better solution.”
Resellers will still be able to sell standalone copies of SharePoint, Exchange and SQL Server and install it directly onto Windows Server 2012 Essentials, but long term, subscriptions, SaaS and hosting are where the industry is heading, he notes.
Microsoft is billing Windows Server 2012 as offering options that are superior to those of VMware for the customer in some ways. Gillen says that until now, Hyper-V was good enough for many tasks but VMware’s portfolio retained the lead overall.
However, Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012, particularly when combined with System Center 2012, should offer equal or better functionality than “a good portion” of VMware’s product suite.
“Customers will have more choice now, and that should lead to some share growth for Microsoft,” says Gillen.
So what can Microsoft itself tell us? Wayne Meyer, the company’s Windows Server product manager, says it is about the issues that business customers are seeing today - whether they are SMBs, mid-market, or enterprise focused.
“The channel gets the ability to go out there and provide optimised infrastructure and a platform on which they can build,” he says.
“The product to date has integrated virtualisation that can scale up to an enterprise-wide deployment with as many as 8,000 virtual machines (VMs). It is a product that can suit many different types of customer.”
Mobilising the forces
Meyer (pictured, left) notes that the launch tackles the big data trend as well as the increasing need to be optimised for cloud and increasing mobility. Out of the box, he promises, Windows Server 2012 users will receive high availability and clustering for redundancy purposes as well as network virtualisation. Storage can be consolidated for manageable service delivery, harnessing technologies such as data deduplication.
“We have customers at Newham with 50 to 60 per cent reduction of actual storage requirements, with general file sharing - such as Office files,” he says.
“Think about a smaller business today. It perhaps has 1TB of storage attached to a server. That means it might not have to go out and buy more disks. In a mid-size organisation, the problem starts to expand. And in a large enterprise, this is where the issue really starts to come into play.”
Deploying Direct Access through Server 2012 will be less complex than it was for Server 2008. They will not need to set up VPNs, yet the experience will be deliverable from a “multitude” of devices. Legacy apps can be moved to a virtual-app environment and accessed via a touchscreen device. Also, the package conforms to open standards - which Meyer sees as key.
“Ruby, PHP, Python, Java, and obviously .Net can build access to multiple different devices and experiences. And we connect that with Windows Server 2012, through support. It can be ported to different apps if you move into the cloud as well,” he says. “Linux, Hyper-Visor and so on can be supported with our VMs.
"Even if they have Macs as standard they can connect, because there is cross-platform support.”
Virtualisation specialist VMware was unavailable for interview but directed Channelweb to a Q&A session at VMworld 2012, where chief executive Paul Maritz answers a query about competition from Microsoft in the space.
Maritz notes that there are different kinds of virtualisation and the sector is continuing to evolve: “The reality is that people’s expectations of what is needed are rapidly changing. Hypervisors are given away for free today, where it’s all about the automation layer on top,” he says.
“Our goal is to extend the benefits of virtualisation not just to servers but the whole datacentre. Microsoft is saying ‘we are now good enough for server virtualisation’. But we are saying the game has changed. The game is about datacentre virtualisation.”
But Adam Pedder, managing director of Essex VAR and support services provider Shadowfax Technology, says that despite concerns about the demise of Microsoft’s popular SBS platform, what is on offer in Windows Server 2012 should largely prove positive for smaller businesses. Resellers, though, will have to take up the challenge of maximising the new server opportunity, working hard to get up to speed.
“There are some good things in there for small businesses,” he says. “Small businesses today want the same things as enterprises, just a lot less of it. They want the same features and performance and so on.”
Pedder welcomes in particular the simplification of Direct Access, which he agrees was “incredibly complex”. Microsoft’s package will in some ways offer a good alternative to a high-end VMware deployment, while delivering much of what a business would want from VMware. Even the end of SBS “might not be a bad thing” although some partners have been very vocal in their disappointment, he adds.
“We never really got into VMware, because it seemed we would be paying more money just for something that Microsoft did,” he notes. “[And] Office 365 is the only IT thing in the past few years that clients have actually asked me about as a brand.”
However, Pedder has a criticism about the new user interface: alterations to the interface can cause problems for users even if they ultimately make better sense as part of the overall offering.
Windows Server 2012 has been implemented in a series of pilot-type situations this year. James Griffin, director of product strategy and marketing at Manchester-headquartered hosting and cloud services provider Outsourcery, says it chose to enter Microsoft’s rapid deployment programme for Server 2012 and is already very happy with the package.
“We took the decision then to put it into live and upgrade the whole production platform on effectively a new, day-one release OS,” Griffin says. “So we had a lot of confidence in it doing what we needed it to do.”
Outsourcery, which has three offices and 150 staff, is migrating live across clusters 10 times faster than before. PowerShell 3.0 command-line interface and scripting lets the firm build an eight-node cluster in a couple of hours - a job that used to take a week. Powershell also allows it to manage servers, network and storage and add further automation.
It used to take IT staff at least 30 minutes to migrate running VMs from a cluster node but now takes 20 seconds, according to Outsourcery.
Over time, the services provider is aggregating more network interface cards (NICs) and using Quality of Service (QoS) to guarantee minimum bandwidth per VM, with a view to protecting performance across a network shared by many customers. Hyper-V Replica allows backup and replication of customer on-premise Hyper-V environments to remote datacentres.
Virtual LANs isolated networks of VMs for individual partners and customers on the shared physical infrastructure. Previously, its two datacentres used Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter with Hyper-V and new HP ProLiant BL460c G7 blade servers. It had 12 VMs with four processors each per host server, with 32GB of RAM per VM.
Post-upgrade, it rebuilt all 10 clusters in its datacentre to host 1,000 VMs. By increasing the density of VMs, it will lower its IT labour costs by £50,000 per annum, while promoting growth by improving its agility as a company in terms of scalability and in delivering new or customised products and services, says Griffin.
“We are using ERP and database-driven workloads, so that opens up whole conversations [with potential customers],” he adds.
Take AIM with Ingram
Apay Obang-Oyway, head of category for software, cloud and mobility at broadline giant Ingram Micro (pictured, right), confirms that the channel will be able to source comprehensive support to help customer migration and adoption of Windows Server 2012, as per usual. And it will be needed, because for resellers the transformation it reflects will require a genuinely “competitive, combative” approach.
“For us it is business as usual. Ingram has long prided itself on its focus on the support of the reseller and vendor partners, to help them wade through some of the complexities that exist in our market,” he says. “So we will continue to educate and build that capacity into the business.”
He notes that available support is targeted at the complete opportunity, rather than assisting on specific or individual products. That also means access to credit and finance through its CreditBuilder offering, and to the distributor’s marketing collateral via the Agency Ingram Micro (AIM) portal. However, he points out that the offerings may change slightly, due to the nature of hosted deployments and cloud offerings such as Office 365.
For resellers, the SMB opportunity is real, Obang-Oyway confirms. However, partners may need to be trained up enough on the entire IT estate to enable them to be more of a “virtual CIO” for small companies, he suggests.
Ingram Micro is hosting a number of its regular Microsoft Professional (MSP) University events this month around the country that will tackle Windows Server 2012, and encourages partners to attend. The events will aim to give resellers the right arsenal to tackle their customers about the server upgrade and its advantages. More will be held in Q4, he adds.
“The opportunity is certainly there, and it is really about our channel partners taking up the mantle and getting themselves versed in what is new, and the ecosystem that will help them leverage that,” says Obang-Oyway. “Also, it’s about how they truly understand their end customers’ reality today, and making sure they can marry all those together. That is what will determine more speed of adoption.”
Windows Server 2012 is about the “connected revolution” and that is already how partners are being encouraged to see it. “Today, more than ever, businesses as well as us are really having to be more connected. More connected to vendor partners, and more connected to our channel partners generally. Also, more connected to our customers and their businesses.
“And it is about how IT can realise their businesses’ potential.”
A properly kitted-out and trained channel will surely reap the longer-term rewards.
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