System Center Rally in St. Louis

Today was Commencement at Washington University (where I work). It is a great day for the graduates and their families, but for most staff, it is a great day to stay as far away from campus as possible. Parking is horrible and no one is in their office working anyway; instead people are at the various ceremonies held around campus. Normally I work from home, but this year things were a bit different. I was at the 2012 Greater Midwest System Center Rally.

The event is hosted by Oakwood Systems Group and was held for the second year. This year the event was at Moulin and was organized around the theme “Leveraging System Center to Address Real-World Challenges.” To be honest, I hadn’t heard anything about the event until Rod Trent (@rodtrent) tweeted one day that he was going to be in St. Louis. I wasn’t able to attend MMS so the rally was a good way to follow-up the recent IT Camp at and Higher Ed events at Microsoft as well as get revved up for TechEd.

Rod gave the keynote, which was delayed a bit due to technical difficulties with the laptop. I always find it amusing when a conference of, by, and for technical people has technical issues. I’m sure the presenters never find it amusing, but when you’re sitting in the audience, you can safely chuckle and think to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” (Fun fact: You can thank John Bradford for that expression, a variant of what he actually said. See Wikipedia.)

Rod gave a rundown of the announcements and news that came out of MMS this year (including the speculation about TechEd and MMS being co-located in New Orleans in June 2013). He also spoke about the power of community, a topic about which he is quite familiar (see Unless you only use homegrown systems in your shop, you can be sure that whatever problems or challenges you have with a product or technology is shared by at least one other person out there. I find it comforting to know that the solution you need is only a tweet or forum post away. If the solution takes a bit more work than that to find, at the very least you have some sympathetic souls to commiserate with.

I’m not going to go over every session (you can see the full agenda online), but I will highlight a few things.

Symantec presented a session on a management solution for portable devices, aimed at organizations with a “Bring your own device” (BYOD) program. Athena MDM and Nukona are two products that Symantec acquired. Athena focuses on managing the devices and enforcing policies, whereas Nukona deploys policy-enforced apps and data. Athena uses a combination of agents and native management capabilities to control Windows Mobile, iOS, Android, and Blackberry with Windows Phone coming soon. With the management story for Windows RT devices (Windows 8 ARM tablets) looking a bit leaner than many had hoped (I’m keeping my fingers crossed), this may be an area we investigate to manage devices that sit outside our current regime. I like that their product integrates with Config Manager and doesn’t require additional infrastructure.

Jamal Malik ( @maliknyc) of Microsoft and Jason Rutherford of Oakwood, presented “Automating IT Process, Creating Efficiency.” They showed how Orchestrator (the former Opalis) can be used to take your manual processes and automate and integrate them with the necessary security and controls. I’m always impressed by demos of Orchestrator, and I firmly believe it would be useful in my group. The thought of taking the processes that I perform manually and translating them into runbooks that can be delegated is a dream come true. When you’re the only real sysadmin in a group, that’s a heavy weight to bear. The trick is setting aside some time to implement the program and start to build runbooks. There is a trick though, or at least a shortcut of sorts. Remember what I said about Community earlier? has a community repository of runbooks that can serve as a starting point. I’m definitely going to check that out.

The last session I’ll mention is “Windows Server 2012 – The Elephant in the Room” presented by Chris Meyers from Oakwood and Kevin Sullivan from Microsoft. Windows 8 gets most of the attention as the two products work their way towards release later this year, but of the two, Server 2010 is the product I’m most excited about. Windows 8 on tablets is going to be a big move forward for Microsoft and portable devices in general, but Server 2012 is packed with so many great improvements and new features it is going to have a huge impact on data centers everywhere.

For this presentation, Chris and Kevin focuses on a few highlights, Hyper-V 3.0 of course is the star of the show. I use both VMware and Hyper-V 2.0 at work, but for the last year all new VMs are going on Hyper-V. Capacity is the only thing holding me back from moving everything over to Hyper-V, but it is only a matter of time. Hyper-V 3.0 adds a number of features that I’m eagerly awaiting. Things like Virtual Fibre Adapters, hot–adding memory, merging snapshots online, concurrent Live Migration, shared-nothing Live Migration, and more. Kevin did a demo of the last two, and even though I’ve seen it before, I’m still impressed every time I do.

They also talked about Continuously Available File Servers, mostly in the context of storing Hyper-V and SQL data. I’m interested to see how this works for a standard file server for end users. I love the idea of being able to failover a node without clients losing their connections to open files. Need to find out more about use cases and any restrictions or warnings while I’m at TechEd.

After the event was over, there was a reception in the Malt House Cellar complete with appetizers like tater tots with bacon & cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and pretzel bites. Yum! I was able to spend some time talking to folks from Oakwood and WU Medical School. Even though we’re at the same University, Hilltop and Medical School are two different worlds, so we don’t always get the chance to talk in the normal course of business. I also caught up with Kevin from Microsoft. He used to cover the education area, so he was on campus on a regular basis back in the day, but I don’t get to see him very often anymore. Sharp guy and a great resource, like most of the Microsoft people with whom I’ve had the good fortune to work. I also had to chance to put a face to a Twitter handle when I met Gina Montgomery of Softmart. You can follow her at @GinaMMontgomery.

It was a good event, and I look forward to attending next year. I’d like to see some more deep dives into the product, but that’s really the only change I’d like to see. Now… time to get ready for TechEd!