System Center 2012: Keep an Eye on System Center 2012

Soon the System Center family will have several new additions to facilitate self-service, process improvement and automation.

Joshua Hoffman

In the constant evolution of technology, there are new OSes for both the client and server side that deliver new functionality to improve user experience and strengthen the core infrastructure. There are new platforms for messaging and collaboration that change the way that we connect with our colleagues, partners and customers.

There are also new architectures—including the steady migration of business-critical data, applications and processes to the cloud. These also introduce new capabilities and break down both the physical and conceptual boundaries that previously restricted the way we do business.

However, in this technological evolution, the supporting processes are often overlooked—systems management, operational oversight, support and integration. These must also fundamentally change in order to keep pace. The “consumerization” of IT, shifting network borders, and the increasing mobility of both users and devices makes it more difficult—and more important—for you to have insight and control over your environment.

The forthcoming wave of System Center 2012 solutions will empower both you and your users. TechNetMagazine has recently covered several of the core System Center products, including Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2012, Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2012 and Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012. There are also several new additions to the System Center family that enable self-service, process improvement and automation: Microsoft System Center Service Manager 2010, Microsoft System Center Orchestrator 2012 and System Center 2012 code-named “Concero.”

Supporting Best Practices

Running a complex IT infrastructure is not an easy job. There are the inherent challenges of planning and deploying technology solutions and managing the steady rhythm of scheduled change. You must also remain prepared for the inevitable unexpected problems.

One new member of the System Center family—Service Manager 2010—gives you an integrated platform for implementing and automating IT services management best practices. A centralized configuration management database (CMDB) helps you automate the creation and management of incident, problem and change-management work items. The CMDB is built with information gathered from throughout your infrastructure, including Configuration Manager, Operations Manager and Active Directory Domain Services.

Its built-in processes are based on industry best practices, like those found in Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) and the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). It gives you a unified base of operations for managing and responding to problems and changes in the most effective way. You can rely on proven, tested support and information to make your decisions.

The CMDB is the heart of Service Manager, collecting pertinent data on the composition and operation of your entire IT infrastructure. It collects information by connecting to system management tools like Configuration Manager, Operations Manager and Active Directory Domain Services. The CMDB gathers three primary types of information:

1. Configuration Items: any component you need to manage to deliver a service. In Service Manager, configuration items might include services, hardware, software, buildings, people and formal documentation, such as process documentation and service level agreements (SLAs).

2. Workflows: represent a sequence of activities, actions or tasks through which documents or items are passed as part of an automated business process.

3. Knowledge: information that can help a user or analyst solve a problem.

Service Manager also includes Change, Incident and Problem Process Management Packs. These include workflows, views, forms, templates, reports and process activities to extend Service Manager. They provide information for implementing all or part of a service management process. Independent services vendors and in-house developers can also build management packs to provide other functions.

Service Manager combines information it gathers about your infrastructure and stores it in the CMDB, along with the best practices and templates available in the process management packs. This can help you rapidly respond to changes in your environment. For example, the Desired Configuration Management (DCM) feature of Service Manager lets you define and monitor configuration baselines on your users’ devices.

Service Manager can also detect when a device deviates from DCM baselines. It can then generate an incident report with all the details you’ll need to resolve the situation. By integrating your IT organization’s policies, Service Manager can automatically prioritize and determine a remediation path, which helps you and your IT staff expediently resolve any issues.

From these incidents, IT can easily use predefined templates to generate change requests. This way you can resolve compliance issues while maintaining a complete audit trail. By using a set of repeatable incident and change management process activities, you can accurately and quickly resolve issues, helping minimize impact on user productivity and reducing risk to the organization.

Service Manager also has a Self-Service Portal (see Figure 1).  This gives your users easy access to tools and information, which helps reduce the cost and effort of IT support. For example, there would be fewer calls to the help desk if users can resolve their own problems. Through the Self-Service Portal, users can:

  • Search for information in announcements and knowledge base articles to help find solutions to their issues.
  • Create incident tickets and view the status of their incidents.
  • Request software for installation on their devices or self-provision software with minimal IT involvement.
  • Reset their passwords.
  • Contact support via e-mail, phone or chat.

The System Center Service Manager Self-Service Portal

Figure 1 The System Center Service Manager Self-Service Portal.

The Self-Service Portal also lets you view and approve activities, view change management requests, add announcements and so on. To learn more about Service Manager, see the Tech·Ed presentation, “Microsoft System Center Service Manager: A Deep Dive on How to Automate ITIL or MOF.

Automate Systems Management

The average datacenter is a largely heterogeneous environment. Most are comprised of products and solutions from a variety of vendors and manufacturers. System Center Orchestrator 2012 (the forthcoming successor to Opalis Integration Server) lets you automate IT operations and standardize best practices to improve operational efficiency across those diverse systems.

You can use Orchestrator to connect different systems from different vendors without any scripting or programming. You can also automate tasks that cross multidisciplinary process silos.

To automate processes in Orchestrator, use the Runbook Designer to drag activities and link them to create workflows, called runbooks (see Figure 2). These runbooks become the visual representation of your automated procedures.

You can create runbooks that outline just a few steps, or that contain hundreds of steps, including running other runbooks. Each activity publishes data to the shared data bus, which any other subsequent activity in the workflow can also use. You can use this published data to provide dynamic decision-making capabilities in your runbooks or to automatically create e-mails and other alerts.

A sample runbook in System Center Orchestrator

Figure 2 A sample runbook in System Center Orchestrator.

System Center Orchestrator 2012 includes more than 70 built-in workflow actions, called “standard activities.” These perform a wide variety of functions, from monitoring a folder or event log to running a script or sending an e-mail. (You can find the full list of standard activities in the Orchestrator TechNet Library.)

You can expand the functionality of Orchestrator and its ability to integrate with other Microsoft and third-party products using the integration packs. Integration packs contain additional activities with their own unique functions.

Microsoft provides integration packs for all System Center products, as well as a number of other Microsoft products and technologies and other third-party products. For more information on the upcoming release of Orchestrator 2012, see the Channel 9 video, “Microsoft System Center Orchestrator 2012 Overview.”

Manage the Hybrid Cloud

Two of the primary benefits of cloud-based systems architecture are fluidity and elasticity. You can leverage resources and workloads as hosted services in a public cloud, or use an on-premises private cloud in whichever balance and configuration best services the needs of your organization.

As your needs change, you can adjust your resource allocation to meet the demand. While you want to maintain the flexibility of different infrastructures, you probably don’t want the overhead of separate management and operations tools. That’s where a new addition to System Center, code-named “Concero” (meaning “connected”) comes into play.

Concero will help you deploy, manage, and control applications and services on private clouds built using System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 and in the public cloud offering of Windows Azure. This gives you a simple and consistent user experience for managing services across these clouds.

Concero is still under development, but you can learn more about it in the Tech·Ed presentation, “Hybrid Cloud Management with Microsoft System Center codename ‘Concero’.”

As the nature of systems management continues to change, the System Center suite will continue to evolve as well. New solutions will help you enhance service management, automate operational efficiency, manage workloads in the cloud and more. For the latest updates on what’s coming in System Center 2012, be sure to follow the System Center Team Blog.

Joshua Hoffman

Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine*. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.*