Microsoft SCCM 2012: built for PCs, smart enough for VDI

Microsoft broadened Systems Center Configuration Manager 2012 to manage physical and virtual desktops and mobile devices, and it’s not just an answer to customer demand.

Last week, I attended Microsoft Management Summit 2011 in Las Vegas, and I had two significant takeaways. The first...

is that Systems Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) has grown into a ridiculously powerful tool. The other is that Microsoft is using SCCM to change the way the desktop is perceived by changing how it is managed.

The desktop no longer means “the physical device under my desk.” Instead, the term desktop now refers to “the conceptual, abstract (but still managed) environment where I see my apps.”

While this isn’t a new concept to people who have been working with Terminal Services for the past 12 to 15 years, it hasn’t been easy to manage the virtual desktop and the physical desktop in the same way. With virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), many tactics for managing desktops after they’re deployed still apply because we’re dealing with single-instance operating systems. Today’s tools, once used only to manage traditional, physical desktops, have evolved to encompass any kind of desktop, physical or virtual.

One such update, which I consider to be a pretty big step for Microsoft, is the announcement that SCCM 2012 will not only be aware of the footprint of a desktop -- physical or virtual -- but that it can also configure, apply policies to, and manage mobile endpoints running Android, Symbian, iOS and, of course, Windows 7 Mobile. 

This means that SCCM has the intelligence and ability to deliver specific configurations and applications to different endpoints based on their individual capabilities. Is the user at a physical desktop in the office? Install the app locally. What about an iPhone or remotely accessing from home? Use RDS or XenDesktop. How about a native VDI or RDS/XenApp user? Stream it with App-V.

The key here is that Microsoft is acknowledging that there is greater power and flexibility in management and provisioning when the desktop concept is separated from the desktop device. But we already knew that, so why do this now?

Last year, Brian Madden wondered if Windows is in danger of becoming the “XP Mode” of the cloud. He asked when and if applications move to the cloud, is there a place for Windows other than to run classic applications that can’t run anywhere else, in the same way XP Mode runs apps that can’t run on Windows 7? In effect, this approach treats “The Desktop” as a monolithic package that is consumed and managed, created and destroyed as a whole. I think Microsoft's new management approach is laying the groundwork to ensure that Brian’s scenario doesn’t happen.

Microsoft might be able to continue to compartmentalize the end-user experience, which currently consists of data, apps, desktops and endpoints. It would have to include user environment virtualization and further isolate apps from the Windows user interface (UI). If Microsoft did these things -- both of which require their own articles to fully explain -- it could avoid a situation where people cling to Windows 7 for a long time, as they have with Windows XP.

In order to do that, though, the management needs to be in place before the decoupling can take place. Otherwise, there would be a hodge-podge of managed and unmanaged pieces all trying to work together, which is probably what’s keeping most people from jumping into some sort of desktop virtualization or cloud environment today.

Microsoft SCCM is the example here, but there’s nothing stopping other desktop management vendors from stepping up to the plate. And while SCCM 2012 doesn’t do it all right now, it is possible to combine SCCM with third-party products from AppSense or RES Software to enhance your management capabilities. Add something like Citrix Project GoldenGate to handle the decoupling of the app from the UI, and the future looks pretty bright.

Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

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