Microsoft server and tool upgrades demand CIOs' attention

Windows Server 2012, SQL Server 2012, System Center 2012 and Visual Studio 11 undergo refresh cycle

CIOs and IT directors tracking the barrage of major upgrades for Windows and Office also need to stay tuned to the refresh cycle for Microsoft's servers and tools, including Windows Server 2012, SQL Server 2012, System Center 2012 and Visual Studio 11.

The 2012 version of Windows Server, the version of Windows that runs on enterprise and data center servers, is "quite possibly the most significant release of Windows Server ever," packing hundreds of new and improved features in areas like virtualization, networking, storage, user experience and scripting, according to Microsoft.

IDC analyst Al Gillen believes it will be "a dynamite product."

"We don't normally use superlatives like that, but from what we've seen, based on what's going to be included, such as the new release of Hyper-V, and together with System Center 2012, Microsoft has a very attractive package," Gillen said. Windows Server 2012 is in beta, while System Center 2012 became generally available in April.

Gillen foresees a popular scenario in which customers choose Windows Server 2012 as a virtualization host for their Windows software infrastructure.

"That scenario allows customers to get Windows Server 2012 and its benefits into their organizations very quickly, and it also keeps them from having to deal with a lot of porting, migration and testing of the apps, because they can take these apps, whatever they are, and virtualize them in the Windows Server 2012 environment," he said.

There will also be take-up of the product, albeit at a slower pace, as a formal migration upgrade for Windows Server 2003 and 2008, which will require more time-consuming compatibility testing, he said.

On the enterprise database front, SQL Server 2012, which was released in final form at the beginning of April, features improvements in application availability, in data warehouse and data analysis performance, in data visualization and presentation, in data integration and management, and in tools for application and database developers, according to Microsoft.

Industry analyst Curt Monash from Monash Research calls SQL Server 2012 "basically adequate" for a variety of scenarios especially for organizations where the Microsoft database is already the primary one, and a "good choice" in particular for OLTP (online transaction processing) jobs.

"If you just want to put up a little database for a small project that depends a lot on your organization's Microsoft skillset, it might be easier to use SQL Server," he said.

However, if a company isn't tied to the Microsoft software stack, there are better choices for analytics, like Sybase IQ; data warehousing, like Teradata; and website tasks, like MySQL and NoSQL, he said.

Equitable Life of Canada uses SQL Server for all of its databases except for one. It mostly uses SQL Server 2000, but it also has SQL Server 2008.

When asked about upgrade plans, Equitable Life CIO Cam Crosby said: "We'll definitely upgrade anything on SQL Server 2000. Right now our target version of SQL Server is 2008 R2."

According to Microsoft, SQL Server 2012 is already deployed in production at "hundreds" of global companies, including Volvo, Revlon and LG Chemical.

The upgrade wheels are also churning for Microsoft's Dynamics enterprise software.

Microsoft's first cloud-enabled Dynamics ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications will be rolled out in the fourth quarter of this year.

The company's plan to port its four Dynamics ERP lines to the Azure cloud platform will begin in the fourth quarter with the release of NAV 2013 and GP 2013, Microsoft said.

Also due in the fourth-quarter is the release of AX 2012 R2, an update that will include new BI (business intelligence) capabilities geared for the needs of individual users.

AX and Dynamics SL will also end up on Azure later on.

All Dynamics ERP products will continue to be available in on-premises form and through traditional hosting partners after the Azure launch. Microsoft expects there will still be a strong market for both scenarios, as well as hybrid deployments.

Several years ago, Microsoft aborted Project Green, an attempt to bring together its four ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications under a single codebase.

Now the vendor seems to have settled on a strategy that will keep each product's core functionality separate, while providing a modern user experience that can be tweaked to better serve various types of workers, integration with Office and SharePoint, and eventually, support for cloud-based deployments on Azure.

"All the parts are finally coming together," said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research. "Where Dynamics used to be an entity off on its own, now we're starting to see them take advantages of some synergies."

The strategy makes sense for the smaller and mid-size companies that constitute Dynamics' installed base, Wang said. "As a customer in the midmarket you do want to bet on one vendor, because you don't have the money or time to worry about all these integrations."

Microsoft's approach is working well for GPS (global positioning satellite) equipment seller Western Data Systems, said Robb Delprado, chief operating officer.

"I can have a sales guy who takes his smartphone out on the road, he can set up a follow-up appointment, get that in his Outlook and then we can sync that up with [Dynamics NAV]," Delprado said.

Western Data went live on NAV in 2006. Previously, the company did everything on paper, according to Delprado.

"The CEO, at the time, said 'You guys can use it, but don't expect me to be a part of that,' " Delprado said. But NAV's ease of use won over the CEO. "Now he uses the executive dashboard on a daily basis."

Western Data is currently running its server at an off-site hosting facility. It has no plans right now to shift to a cloud-style deployment, something that is possible now with some Dynamics partners and will be for NAV on Azure later this year.

But the reason isn't security or other oft-cited concerns expressed toward the cloud.

Instead, Delprado is worried he'd have to pay more money for NAV. Right now, Western Data has 15 concurrent user licenses that are shared over about 40 total users, who are on and off the system at different times.

"I'm sure there'd be a cost for licensing each one of them [on the cloud]," although over time the costs should come down, he said.

Today, Western Data's main problem is getting as much out of NAV as the system has to offer, according to Delprado. "There's a lot out there that I know we're not using."

Meanwhile, the next version of Microsoft's enterprise application development environment, Visual Studio 11, is now in beta and features a simplified user interface that has fewer toolbar commands, making the "work area" larger and cleaner.

Visual Studio 11 also has an improved search capability, new "workflow hubs" that consolidate tasks on a single window and preview tabs to reduce the number of open documents on the developer's workspace.

The tool also provides broad application lifecycle management (ALM) features, including architecture and UI design, writing of code, analysis, deployment, testing and validation.

Visual Studio 11 also lets developers build Windows 8 Metro-style applications, cloud-hosted Windows Azure applications, mobile applications and web applications.

CIOs whose organizations have adopted the Microsoft development platform and tools should definitely keep an eye on what's coming in Visual Studio 11, said Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst.

Significant features include the ability to build Windows 8 applications, and the extension of the ALM cycle features, he said.

The cleaner UI also "should be more productive to use and it supports agile principles of development that are increasingly being adopted in enterprises," Hilwa said.

It would be good if Microsoft invests in additional functionality for requirements gathering, analysis and tracking in future versions of Visual Studio, he said.

In addition, he'd also like to see "a more streamlined and productive way to handle the migration from Windows Phone applications to Windows 8, or providing the ability to co-deliver to both platforms from the same code."

Asked whether Visual Studio 11 should be an automatic upgrade for enterprises, Hilwa said that decision depends on their portfolio of projects.

"Generally, the bigger the portfolio and the more new projects being started, then the more enterprises should look at incorporating the new tools in the team, at least partially," he said.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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