I'd never spent a lot of time analyzing the standards that seemed to pop up everywhere in the IT industry. Like many administrators, I was always occupied with putting out fires with one hand while trying to prevent them with the other. I tended to pick up standards information on an as-needed basis. This behavior continued until I made an expensive mistake: I purchased several PCs not knowing that they lacked a function that my company's network-management application required.
Since then, I've paid more attention to hardware and software standards and whether the device I'm about to purchase complies with those standards. I've also used what I learn about standards to make more informed and, I hope, more intelligent strategic decisions.
If you're considering the merits of migrating to Windows XP, you're probably looking at how your current hardware platforms measure up to XP's minimum system requirements. If you find that you need to upgrade outdated equipment, you should also look at the processes and tools you use to manage this equipment. Because XP and products that conform to the "Designed for Microsoft Windows XP" logo specifications incorporate several industry-standards—based innovations, now is a good time to examine both the Windows Logo Program and the latest industry standards to determine their relevance to your organization's network- and systems-management strategy.
The Windows Logo Program and Industry Standards
Earlier this year, Microsoft released Windows Logo Program System and Device Requirements 2.0 and "Designed for Windows XP" Application Specification 2.0. As the names suggest, hardware and software products must meet the specifications outlined in these programs to get a "Designed for Microsoft Windows XP" logo. According to Microsoft, the logo signifies that the vendor has met the baseline requirements of platform features and quality goals that ensure a good XP experience for the end user. Microsoft also publishes lists of the hardware and software products that meet the specifications.
The Windows Logo Program for Hardware and Windows Logo Program for Software are proprietary standards. Nonetheless, industry standards are integral to both of them, as Figure 1 shows. Windows Logo Program System and Device Requirements 2.0 incorporates more than a dozen industry standards. Microsoft's incorporation of industry standards moves Windows platforms in the direction of greater interoperability, which helps Microsoft penetrate markets that UNIX typically dominates.
Microsoft is an active player in many of the industry standards bodies; thus, it had input into the development of standards that it eventually adopted into the Windows Logo Program. For example, as a member of the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) standards group, Microsoft worked on the Common Information Model (CIM) standard, which is at the core of Microsoft's Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).
Compared with the relatively orderly world of Microsoft's Windows Logo Program, the crowded arena of industry standards is chaotic. The landscape is strewn with organizations, committees, and task forces that often share many of the same members. Forming ad hoc groups to promote a new idea is common, as is the practice of one group adopting and extending a specification that another group developed. It's no wonder that few outside the standards organizations themselves have a comprehensive understanding of the relationships and interactions of the different standards organizations.
The seeming chaos notwithstanding, I'm impressed with the cumulative knowledge and vision of those who work in these groups. The fruits of their efforts are apparent in the IT industry's progress over the past 10 years.
Intel and Microsoft are well represented in the standards bodies dedicated to management standards and are active in launching new initiatives. Familiar hardware vendors such as Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Cisco Systems, and IBM also participate. Not surprisingly, the companies and individuals who populate the various standards organizations represent a who's who of the IT industry. These members share roughly the same goal: advancing common standards that promote cross-platform interoperability to improve the IT industry. However, the members are less likely to agree on the appropriate means to achieve that goal. Pride, profit, and politics notwithstanding, the members of these organizations are committed to applying their collaborative technical leadership to improve the IT industry.
Both Microsoft and the industry-standards organizations try to achieve a seamless and productive environment for administrators and end users. The biggest challenge for IT departments is to keep up with the standards and be prepared to exploit those that will reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO). In other words, what can you use and how do you use it for your greatest benefit? Rather than hit you with a laundry list of industry-standards acronyms, I'd like you to look at an example of how you can use certain management applications with devices that support standards to make short work of tedious management and support tasks.
A Standards Scenario
Heidi is an IT administrator for a company with two remote sites across town. She's part of a small IT staff at the company's main site and must set up new PCs for six new hires—three new PCs at each remote site. Heidi and her colleagues have developed an efficient way to perform this potentially time-intensive task.
Heidi has the PCs delivered directly to the remote sites, at which administrative assistants unbox the PCs, set them up on the new employees' desks, plug in a network cable, and notify Heidi when they're finished. Heidi then uses an application to schedule the new PCs to power on that evening, boot to the network, partition each hard disk, install a company-specific image of XP Professional Edition, and load the specific applications that each user needs as well as the agents and services the IT department requires. After the installation, an agent on the PC sends log and inventory information to a centralized asset-management database.
The next morning, Heidi arrives at work and checks a detailed report that the inventory application automatically generated. The report verifies that each PC was successfully inventoried and the pertinent asset-tracking data was sent to the accounting department. All told, Heidi spent less than an hour on setting up the PCs and accomplished it without even seeing them.
My narrative doesn't describe all the front-end preparation that makes the PC setup look so easy. Obviously, Heidi had to learn and configure the management applications. She also needed to know something about industry standards to know that remote setup was even possible and to make sure that she purchased PCs that supported the necessary standards. Heidi's remote PC setup used the following standards:
- Wake-on-LAN (WoL), which lets you remotely power on PCs
- Preboot Execution Environment (PXE), which lets PCs boot from the network and perform OS-independent functions such as hard-disk partitioning and OS installs
- CIM, WMI, and System Management BIOS (SMBIOS), which contribute to asset management
- ON Technology's ON Command SiteManager for remote OS installation and application deployment
- Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) for asset management (and application deployment)
Heidi used the following applications:
WoL and PXE are necessary for Heidi's hands-off approach to installing a new OS. Although the Windows Logo Program for Hardware requires PXE, it only recommends WoL. (An industry standard that includes both WoL and PXE is the Intel-led Wired for Management—WfM—initiative. You can read more about WfM in Lab Notes, "Wired for Management Standard," April 2000, and at http://developer.intel.com/ial/wfm/wfmover.htm.) This information is relevant because Heidi could mistakenly have purchased logo-certified PCs that lacked WoL and been stuck without the ability to schedule off-hours OS uploads.
If Heidi had really been trying to save some money, she might have bought generic PCs that weren't XP-logo—certified or industry-standards—compliant. In that case, she could have had problems manually installing XP. Even if she were able to get XP running, chances are good that some inventory data wouldn't have been available to SMS.
XP-logo certification requires hardware vendors to use the Windows Driver Model (WDM). Writing drivers to this Microsoft specification not only assures basic compatibility with the OS but also requires vendors to supply WMI data that WMI-based applications such as SMS, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), and various third-party products can collect. Cheaper PCs might include components that don't meet the WDM specifications.
The Heidi scenario demonstrates how using some key Microsoft and industry standards can dramatically affect how you manage your Microsoft network. Now, let's briefly look at how some of these standards evolved and converged.
The Heidi scenario might be encouraging to exhausted administrators, but the problem it solves is miniscule when you consider the breadth and complexity of the typical enterprise landscape. Quickly and easily setting up XP desktop PCs is great, but what about managing heterogeneous environments with some Apple Computer Macintoshes and UNIX workstations? What about the many Novell NetWare and UNIX servers? What about switches, hubs, and routers? Unfortunately, standards have yet to deliver on a unified scheme for managing all the devices on your network, although movement in that direction is occurring.
The IT industry has witnessed several standards with great promise and technical merit that nonetheless failed to become the unifying foundation for network management. SNMP, primarily designed for managing network infrastructure, evolved out of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The Desktop Management Interface (DMI), another management standard that has enjoyed some popularity, is a framework for centrally managing and tracking hardware and software. Both of these technologies are alive and well, but for several reasons, haven't been able to address the breadth of management needs.
The latest attempt to unify management methods, CIM from DMTF, is a foundational standard for formatting management data. CIM is analogous to language rules that dictate spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. The CIM schema is a hierarchical structure based on namespaces, classes, and class instances. Managed objects (e.g., a hard disk) typically have a data provider that passes object information to a process that stores it in CIM format. In XP and Windows 2000, data providers pass information to the CIM Object Manager (CIMOM), which stores the data in the \%systemroot%\system32\wbem\repository\CIM.REP file.
Using CIM as a foundation, DMTF went ahead with an initiative called Web-Based Enterprise Management. WBEM is a set of Web-based management technologies that uses CIM for its data format, XML for data encoding and transport, and HTTP for its interface. Because WBEM is based on open Internet standards, it has a chance to become the foundation for a true enterprise-management framework that will function across heterogeneous environments. Sun Microsystems' announcement of its support for WBEM in the form of Solaris WBEM Services is an encouraging sign that administrators might one day be able to comprehensively manage heterogeneous environments with one application.
Microsoft's WMI extends WBEM, adding functionality specific to Windows environments. The CIM schema is open and flexible, allowing Microsoft to add an entire Win32 class to expand management capabilities for Windows platforms. The result is access to a wealth of accurate data about your Windows platforms. WMI maintains this flexibility, letting you further extend the CIM schema to include data about hardware or applications specific to your environment. Figure 2 shows the details of WMI, including the object providers and available interfaces.
WMI comes as part of XP, Win2K, and Windows Me. For information about adding it to Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 9x, see the sidebar "Adding WMI to NT 4.0 and Win95 Systems" in Christa Anderson, "Windows Management Instrumentation Scripting for Beginners," May 2001. As I mentioned earlier, the Windows Logo Program for Hardware requires hardware devices to support WMI, and WDM ensures the lion's share of WMI compliance.
A common way to access and retrieve WMI data is to use scripts. For more information about WMI scripting, see "Windows Management Instrumentation Scripting for Beginners"; Bob Wells, Scripting Solutions, "Systems Management Panacea," April 1999; and Darren Mar-Elia, "Leveraging Windows Management Instrumentation in Win2K Pro," Summer 2000.
The only other method Microsoft provides for direct access to WMI data is through a COM API. Although Microsoft offers several indirect access methods, WMI isn't entirely in the fold of interoperability that the WBEM architects envisioned.
CIM, WBEM, and WMI show much promise, but SNMP and DMI are still in wide use. Thus, software vendors such as Smart Technology Enablers offer tools that map SNMP and DMI data to CIM. As a result, you can integrate into a centralized management scheme devices that implement one of the older standards. These integration tools are attractive to organizations that support a variety of equipment and platforms and would like to reduce the number of tools they need to manage them.
More data is accessible through methods that are approaching a unified standard, which is good news for all of us. However, we still have a long way to go. Collecting data is only part of an effective management framework. The crucial remaining piece is a management application that can present and interpret the data so that it benefits administrators. I've been equally impressed and overwhelmed with the amount and granularity of data that I can gather using WMI on a Windows platform. A human can't reasonably expect to sort and interpret all that data. More application vendors must now step up to the plate and provide intelligent tools to help do that.
Microsoft took a large step in the right direction when it purchased NetIQ's Operation Manager and turned it into MOM. MOM, which offers monitoring, reporting, and alerting capabilities, could serve as the prototype for a tool with built-in intelligence that can sift through waves of data to extract what's important to administrators. Many vendors are working on equivalent tools for other areas of network management. Let's hope for their success.
Keeping an eye on standards can help you make intelligent decisions for both the short and long term. Knowing about standards today can help you choose the best hardware for your organization. If, for example, you're purchasing desktop systems, you should consider Windows Logo Program for Hardware certification and compliance with the latest WfM specification to be essential. Because these two standards "umbrellas" include the crucial individual industry standards, they should give you the foundation you need for managing a Windows environment. Figure 3 shows the cumulative management functionality of a PC that's Windows Logo Program for Hardware certified and WfM compliant. For complete details of these two specifications, see http://www.microsoft.com/winlogo/hardware/system and http://developer.intel.com/ial/wfm/wfmover.htm.
In general, first-tier vendors such as HP, Compaq, Dell, and IBM are the most likely to ship standards-compliant hardware. In addition, these vendors often include capable management tools that integrate well with their hardware.
In the long term, knowledge of the standards can help you plan your management strategy and purchase tools that are based on the best technology available. For example, your knowledge of the WBEM initiative gives you insight that helps you better assess the long-term value of a proprietary management application versus one based on Web standards. Ultimately, awareness of the standards is awareness of the industry's direction, and that kind of perspective should always be part of your strategic decisions. If those decisions include any kind of major systems upgrade, such as a migration to XP or Win2K, then you can definitely benefit from learning how standards-based technology can make your job easier.