With systems such as Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 and VMware ESX reaching a certain level of maturity and market acceptance, it's only natural that the vendors that make these products have begun turning their attention to other crucial enterprise virtualization needs. One key area that these companies have pursued is management. Although most management products can work with virtualized server environments as if they were physical devices, virtual machines (VMs) come with special needs as well. And as you begin to rely more and more on these environments, you'll need a centralized tool for managing them.

On the Microsoft front, the recent beta release of System Center Virtual Machine Manager fills this roll. As the newest member of the System Center family of management products, Virtual Machine Manager manages Virtual Server-based environments and will work with Longhorn Server's Hypervisor-based virtualization layer as well.

Virtual Machine Manager provides two key services. It can optimize the performance of VMs by intelligently allocating physical datacenter resources as needed, and it can aid in the process of converting physical servers to VMs, allowing you to provision virtualized environments more quickly than was previously possible on the Microsoft platform. Microsoft also ships consolidation tools that examine a physical datacenter and recommend a VM migration strategy.

Interested parties can download the Beta 1 version of Virtual Machine Manager from the Microsoft Web site. The final version is expected by the end of the year. http://www.microsoft.com/systemcenter/scvmm/default.mspx

Virtualization isn't the only area into which Microsoft is expanding its System Center line of products. The company is also prepping a small- and mid-market management product called System Center Essentials (SCE) 2007 for an early 2007 release. SCE 2007 is aimed at small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) that want to outsource their IT operations. Essentially, the product will be sold by Microsoft partners that can remotely deploy software and patches and monitor the health of servers over the Internet using System Center Operations Manager (formerly Microsoft Operations Manager--MOM) 2007.

The idea is a good one. Because most of Microsoft's enterprise management servers are too complex and expensive for SMBs, SCE will allow these companies to get the benefits of Operations Manager without having to invest in IT staff hiring and training. From a solution provider standpoint, SCE offers the same benefits as Windows Small Business Server (SBS) and Microsoft's upcoming midmarket line of server products and provides an ongoing revenue stream from new customer relationships.

Although SCE isn't publicly available yet, you can attempt to join the private beta via the Microsoft Web site. A public beta is expected later this year. http://www.microsoft.com/systemcenter/sce/default.mspx

Other Microsoft Developments It's been a busy, busy year for Microsoft releases. And although I don't have the space to write about all of these topics the way I'd like, here are a few more items you might be interested in:

- Microsoft is killing its line of Speech Server products and rolling the technologies into Office Live Communications Server 2007, which is due next year.

- Microsoft has been on a roll (the bad kind) this year with regards to security patches. The company has issued almost as many critical security patches in 2006 as it did in 2004 and 2005, and it's not even September yet. One of the August patches (MS06-040) was considered so serious that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a warning recommending that users install the patch as soon as possible.

- Microsoft has released a bit of information about Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Windows XP x64 Edition SP2 on its Windows Server blog. Find more information here: http://www.windowsitpro.com/windowspaulthurrott/Article/ArticleID/93003/windowspaulthurrott_93003.html