Case in Point: Making Windows Safe for the Data Center

MSA program emphasizes customer, vendor relationships

How do you convince data center customers to take a chance on an operating environment—such as Windows 2000—that is often perceived as less reliable, available, and scalable than mainframe or Unix systems?

If you’re Microsoft Corp., you might consider partnering with established high-end players—for example, Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems and Unisys Corp.—to develop a program that certifies Windows configurations for deployment mission critical environments.

Microsoft announced just such an initiative, the Microsoft Systems Architecture (MSA) program, in February 2002. Five months later, in July, the software giant published its first MSA configuration for Internet Data center (IDC).

Microsoft describes its MSA configurations as prescriptive architectural guides for designing and rapidly implementing scalable, reliable and secure Windows systems in various environments. Since the introduction of IDC, Microsoft says, several customers—including Lego Group’s Web site and T-Mobile Business Solutions—have implemented data centers based on the guide.

Another IDC customer is LearningStation Inc., a North Carolina-based application service provider (ASP) that offers educational services for K-12 school districts in Arizona, Mississippi, New York and North Carolina. As LearningStation’s experience demonstrates, there’s plenty of room for customization and adaptation in Microsoft’s prescriptive MSA guides. At the same time, LearningStation’s experience also illustrates the contributions that MSA partners—such as, in LearningStation’s case, Cisco Systems Inc.—are expected to bring to the table.

Last January, for example, LearningStation deployed a new data center in Tempe, Arizona as part of an agreement with the Arizona School Facilities Board (ASFB) to provide educational tools and resources to the K-12 schools of the Grand Canyon State. LearningStation and its local integration partner, Phoenix-based Ensynch Inc., couldn’t consult the IDC guide during the construction of its data center. That’s because Microsoft didn’t announce the MSA program itself until February, 2002.

Jim Moncure, LearningStation’s business development manager, says that the educational ASP first found out about the proposed IDC guide during a session track at Microsoft’s Fusion conference for business partners. After that, a visit to Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash.-based business campus convinced LearningStation that IDC was something that it should seriously consider checking out. “We were out there in Redmond reviewing our architectural plans, and in doing so we just so happened to stumble across the work that had been going on.”

Moncure says that LearningStation was intrigued by IDC because of the operational aspects of its agreement with ASFB, which required that it support as many as one million users. Obviously, he allows, the requirements of K-12 students aren’t the same as an enterprise data center: "In the K-12 space that is our market, we don’t need five nines [of uptime].”

What LearningStation did need, however, was a secure and scalable means of delivering educational applications and resources to its large user base. That, Moncure says, is where the MSA IDC prescription filled the bill: “We had issues and concerns about security, scalability, availability. We’re deploying in the K-12 schools, so security is always a big thing, just for the security of the identity of the users, and for the fact that most of the folks who have the extra time to hack on boxes are in high school.”

When it announced its MSA program, Microsoft indicated that MSA partners could expect to play a significant role in IDC and other implementations. “This is not going to be something that customers want to do on their own. … No blueprint that we come up with would fit all users, so the partners that have been with us through the development process will help them with this,” said group product manager Alfredo Pizzirani last year.

To help it design its data center in accordance with MSA prescriptions, LearningStation partnered with Cisco, which successfully tested an IDC configuration based on its Catalyst 6500-series switches, 7200-series routers and PIX 500-series firewalls. According to Dave Cook, Director of Information Technology for LearningStation, the decision to work with Cisco was prompted by the fact that his company already enjoyed a good relationship with it. Another factor, he acknowledges, was the networking company's reputation as a purveyor of scalable Internet solutions. Comments Cook: “We had to have a data center that’s very, very efficient, very, very scalable, and very low-cost. The way we looked at it, that meant using Microsoft and Cisco technologies.”

Ted Streete, who heads Cisco’s Alliance team, says the value proposition of the IDC guide for LearningStation and for other Cisco customers is a relatively simple one. “By going with a pre-tested, pre-qualified solution, they didn’t have to go through the legwork themselves, so that with a limited team of IS personnel they could very quickly get up and running the data center environment.”

When customers approach it to partner with them in their IDC implementations, Cisco’s Streete indicates, his company will generally attempt to work with what they already have in house. For example, Cisco supplemented LearningStation’s existing server farm—based on Compaq hardware—with its own gear, along with equipment from unspecified partners.

If a customer is building an IDC from scratch and doesn’t have any vendor preferences of its own, Streete says, Cisco’s field team will generally make recommendations of its own. “They’ll typically recommend from among the [MSA] partners who satisfy their needs, because the field people have resources that they can tap into that let them make decisions about this.”

The point, stresses Microsoft’s Pizzarani, is that the MSA guides are intended to be flexible enough to meet customers’ real-world needs. “Every customer is always going to have a slightly different list of partners that they are working with, so we need to provide a mechanism for partners to be flexible. For our Cisco customers, for example, we want to provide an IDC based on what Cisco has.”

LearningStation’s Tempe IDC is powered by 40 Windows 2000 Server and Windows 2000 Advanced Server systems. In addition to its stable of educational applications and resources, LearningStation supports an Exchange 2000 implementation, along with SQL Server 2000. All of its servers are dual processor machines, with the exception of its SQL Server boxes, which are based on quad-processor systems. Its SQL Server systems are clustered using Microsoft Cluster Services, confirms Cook.

By far the biggest benefit of LearningStation’s IDC experience, confirms Moncure, is that it provides a template for rapid deployments at other locations. According to the terms of its agreement with ASFB, for example, LearningStation had to build a data center in Arizona. The upshot is that if the company needs to expand its operations to other locations, either as a means to satisfy contractual obligations or to accommodate more users, it can quickly roll out another data center based on the original IDC configuration that it developed and tested with Cisco. “We’ve got ample capacity on our center in Arizona, and we don’t necessarily need to build another data center, but at least now we’ve got a roadmap to quickly do so if the need arises.”

Although the MSA guides are designed to be modular with respect to their support for vendor hardware and software configurations, they typically prescribe the use of a single operating system—in LearningStation’s case, Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server—across a data center environment.

Microsoft’s Pizzirani says that his company will generally hew to that practice in future MSA revisions, although he notes that for environments that need to support, for example, Exchange 2000, the software giant will make exceptions. “Until the new version of Exchange ships, customers will want to run [Exchange 2000] on Windows 2000 Server. We will certainly allow for that. In general, our philosophy at this point is to be consistent in terms of the operating system.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.