What Configuration Manager’s 25th birthday party tells us about the future of IT

While the near future seems to be all about Windows 10, CM may be more necessary than ever...especially for the enterprise.

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Configuration Manager is the unsung hero of corporate IT no more.

Indeed, as if to make up for lost time, Microsoft has been marking the 25th anniversary of one of its least-celebrated, yet most-ubiquitous, products with significant fanfare – including, believe it or not, a 30-minute documentary film charting the full story of CM. (And it’s actually really good –  you can watch it here.) Microsoft has also been inviting users to share their CM recollections, too, good and bad.

It’s hard to resist the invitation to reminisce, especially when my own history with Systems Management Server (SMS, as it was once known) stretches all the way back to the beta of version 1.0, which I was helping to implement at a chain of UK banks in the 90’s.

The project was very successful, though it’s fair to say that SMS needed a lot of TLC in those early days, and I got to know some Microsoft support folks pretty well during the project. Working late one night on a server upgrade, a colleague glanced at his monitor, clapped a hand to his skull, and literally ran out the office. I went over to look at the SMS console – and saw a small, animated wrecking-ball gif methodically smashing through the SMS hierarchy, each of the listed offices, one by one. My colleague had made a serious mistake.

Stopping that was an interesting little sub-project all by itself. We managed it though, and had it all working again by next morning. Ultimately, it was through such experiences that we came to understand how powerful the tool was, and how to handle that power.

Following that job, I joined Microsoft for a couple of years, and then left to start 1E, and to help to large organizations successfully use SMS to automate PC management. Our first project was to deploy SMS V2 at an insurance company. SMS V2 faced quite a lot of criticism, not least internally in Microsoft, but we had a lot of success implementing it. Compass, an organization that measured operational efficiency, subsequently recorded a five-fold improvement in it, attributed to SMS. Even at that early stage in its development, SMS was evidently a revolutionary invention.

I’ve built a career writing and launching tools that help CM flourish in distributed, complex environments, environments in which making software work can be difficult, let alone the piece of software that manages all the others. It’s interesting to me, at this quarter-century mark in CM’s history, to wonder what changes and challenges wait for it in the future.

The future of Configuration Manager

What’s striking about these CM anniversary celebrations is what they seem to tell us about Microsoft’s shifting expectations around the future of IT servicing. To me, the fact that at last year’s Ignite event, Microsoft was trumpeting a near future full of Azure and Intune, while this year the talk was all about Co-management, is significant.

In short, Microsoft appears to have now adopted a more pragmatic approach to the issue, one that recognizes the strengths of Intune for mobile devices and simple, modern applications, and the strengths of CM for critical systems and complex scenarios. In addition, Microsoft heavily hints at a presumption, not merely that there will be a transitional phase between the present and a future of full cloud management, but that this phase will be significant, lengthy and perhaps even interminable.

This acceptance should be appreciated in the wider context of Windows 10.

When it comes to Windows 10, one of the key concerns organizations have is the rate of change presented by the operating system’s exacting servicing cadence.

Indeed, left to handle this rate of change all by itself, CM still faces one of the most significant challenges of its history. Its underlying strengths burn bright even in this context, however, when contrasted with the thought of a pure mobile and cloud world, where you would have significantly less control over those updates.

When it comes to the level of granular control required in contemporary IT, Intune can’t come close to matching CM.

The near future, at least, is all about Windows 10 – migrating to it and/or managing it (depending where you are in the process). The OS’s compulsory rate of change makes CM more necessary than ever, especially for large organizations. As the backbone for a systems management infrastructure, CM is likely to be around – if not necessarily for another twenty-five years – for some time to come.

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