Windows Server 2008 Brings Big Challenges

Microsoft's super-sized server launch offers both increased work and new opportunities for integrators and ISVs.

Anytime Microsoft releases a new operating system, many of its partners' lives get a little more interesting.

That new operating system is likely to contain features that either duplicate those of partners' products or make certain features of those supporting products less relevant. In addition, partners must scramble to add value to the new release or risk being left behind.

Ultimately, they may attempt to "sim-ship," or simultaneously ship, by making products available at the same time that the new OS becomes generally available. That means gaining Microsoft's confidence and earning the right to work with the company on ironing out bi-weekly drops and possibly even having input into the spec, years ahead of the actual product release. It's a long and demanding effort, but one that can be rewarded with Microsoft's endorsement and marketing muscle.

The bad news: Windows Server 2008 (WS2008), part of this year's ongoing product launch wave, does a great deal more than previous server releases. New capabilities and improvement include virtualization, higher performance, far greater configurability and better management tools. If you're in the business of providing tooling for servers or networks, WS2008 has probably caused you to rethink and re-architect some of your solutions. Even systems integrators have had a significant learning curve in gearing up for work with the new server OS.

The good news: There are many opportunities for partners to add value to the OS. Whether you're an ISV or a systems integrator, you should be able to find fertile ground with WS2008. But you'll have to work at it.

Redmond's Readiness Resources

When Julie Bennani describes the importance of readiness for Microsoft's massive ongoing "launch wave," she doesn't just mean that partners should bone up on the new features in Windows Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008 and SQL Server 2008.

"We're talking about readiness in the broadest sense of the term," says Bennani, general manager of the Microsoft Partner Program. "We want to make sure that our partners have an understanding of the value proposition not just of the products, but of the wave of products." The company considers it critical for partners to combine that big-picture view with deep technology expertise, she says: "Our customers look for that. It's a differentiator for them."

Microsoft is offering dozens of educational resources-all accessible through the program's Web portal -- to help partners develop that distinction. Among the highlights, in Bennani's view:

  • An online Learning Plan Tool: This self-service tool guides partners through a few simple steps to find the best combination of webcasts, workshops and other training opportunities to build their expertise about specific technologies. "We're not just driving awareness" about the new products, Bennani says. "We're trying to be very prescriptive and targeted in working with our partners. They can pick and choose [the launch-wave training] that's best for their companies and their people."
  • Access to learning consultants: Microsoft also offers access to education specialists who can help build customized training plans and alert partners to relevant promotions. Partners initiate contact through the Web site; consultants respond either by phone or e-mail.
  • Partner Skills Plus (PS+) benefits: The company's popular PS+ program continues to offer advice, training discounts, coaching, practice exams and other resources to help partners become certified in a variety of Microsoft technologies.
  • A new Worldwide Partner Learning Center: Microsoft says this new portal, which was scheduled to debut in February, consolidates many training opportunities into a single location with improved search and personalization capabilities. Bennani says the learning center will also undergo "a massive refresh of content" and offer RSS feeds to keep partners updated about new offerings and resources.

Sales and marketing resources -- also available through the partner portal -- include:

  • Focused campaigns: "The Ready-to-Go campaigns are very targeted around clarifying that value proposition for customers," Bennani says. "We're building momentum off those campaigns."
  • Demo Showcase: This popular sales-demonstration toolkit has been updated to reflect Microsoft's new releases, Bennani says. Partners can use the kit's predefined customer scenarios or customize the presentations to highlight their own solutions and services.
  • Solution Accelerator: The company's Microsoft Assessment and Planning Solution Accelerator, in beta at this writing, is an automated tool designed to help generate recommendations for migration to Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista and many other recent Microsoft releases. "You can sit with a customer, run through the assessment live and determine what that translates into from a product perspective," Bennani says.

Partners should also look for numerous launch-related licensing offers, Bennani says. And, for the first time, partner account managers have been instructed to help their assigned partners develop specific plans for taking advantage of the launch.

Partner program executives estimate that they had provided launch-related training to more than 190,000 people from partner companies by late January; Bennani says they're striving to have 400,000 enrolled in such activities by June. -- Anne Stuart

Different Partners, Different Paths
Systems integrators tend to be the big winners whenever Microsoft releases a new enterprise product, and the WS2008 release is no exception. From Server Core and the Read-Only Domain Controller (RODC) to the Hyper-V virtualization hypervisor, WS2008 is set to broadly impact enterprises as well as smaller organizations for the next several years.

Consider the prospect of Server Core and server roles. Server Core is a minimal version of WS2008 that provides very basic server functionality. It incorporates a command-line interface only, with no GUI shell. You can install and use the Server Core alone, although you'll almost certainly want to include roles and features.

Microsoft configuration tools such as System Center ease the complexity of setting up roles and optional features, but they're new and have an associated learning curve. Enterprises won't be ready to efficiently understand and employ WS2008 without help, and building up expertise as a part of the job is likely to take years. Knowing which roles are required, and how to configure those roles, will go a long way toward establishing credibility as a WS2008 expert.

For ISVs, identifying complementary opportunities and building solutions to leverage these opportunities is more difficult. Part of the problem is that WS2008, like most new Microsoft releases, subsumes features provided by third-party tools designed for Windows Server 2003 and previous server releases.

Probably the most significant feature for ISVs is server virtualization. For vendors like VMware Inc., this represents direct competition. ISVs in this position must look toward strengthening their feature set or adding features. Either path is a costly and time-consuming process, but some vendors will have to undertake it.

In some other cases, WS2008 may require less drastic updates to existing products. It's certainly possible to simply take existing products and make sure that they work with WS2008, and that may well be the first step for many. According to Terry Harshfield, director of product management for Compuware Corp., a Detroit-based Gold Certified Partner, the Compuware Vantage product line will support WS2008 with its existing feature set and aggressively seek feedback from users about what additional capabilities will be necessary on the OS.

While sim-ship may be the best possible outcome for partners, many aren't willing to risk it without first testing on gold code. Harshfield says that Compuware will wait to test its Vantage monitoring solutions on the release version before wrapping up its development and test process, and will ship about a month after the OS launch.

NetPro Computing Inc., a provider of Active Directory, change-management and access-management tools, is taking a similar approach, says Brad Hibbert, the company's vice president of strategy. "We're going to test with the actual released product," Hibbert says. "We don't anticipate any changes with the gold code, but you have to do that final test before you release your own products." The Phoenix-based Gold Certified Partner intends to ship within a few weeks of the availability of the shipping product.

ISVs can improve their prospects through a detailed examination of the product and their enterprise customers. Dan Woolley, director of strategic global alliances for Islandia, N.Y.-based CA, a Gold Certified Partner, says that the company performed an analysis of the expected adoption rate of the new server OS and is using that information to determine the scope and timing of support for CA infrastructure and operations-management tools.

Which Edition Is Which?
Microsoft has announced several SKUs for the released OS, but has also hinted that more will be coming. There have been estimates of as many as 16 different configurations for sale, so selecting the right mix of server SKUs won't be a simple task. Known SKUs include Windows Server 2008 Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter; Web Server; and WS2008 for Itanium Servers. Of course, all except the last will be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter editions will also be available as separate SKUs without the Hyper-V virtualization hypervisor.

Partners that move fast with expertise, support and new features for WS2008 are likely to get most of the attention, at least initially. But there's also a significant role for partners that take a more measured approach, carefully examining both the product and market. In that case, however, your customers still need to understand your expertise and what you can bring to the new server OS. Even if you don't have immediate products and services at launch time, make sure you brief customers on your plans and timelines.