The Windows IT Pro editorial team recently descended upon Las Vegas to cover the Interop and Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) trade shows. MMS focuses primarily on the Microsoft System Center family of products, while Interop has a much broader focus on IT interoperability. Both shows had interesting products on display, but perhaps the week’s biggest news was represented by a plastic pig given out by Microsoft at both events.

I've put together a Flickr photostream of Microsoft VP Bob Muglia's keynote (and some other MMS photos) that you can see here.

MMS 2008: Beware the Flying Pork
My, how times have changed. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted a few years ago saying that Linux was "a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches." The attitude behind that sharply-worded jab at Linux was nowhere in evidence at the MMS 2008 conference, a venue Microsoft used to unveil some impressive extensions to their Microsoft System Center family of products. The highlight was undoubtedly the new Cross Platform Extensions for Microsoft System Center 2007, which allows System Center to monitor and manage Linux, UNIX, HP-UX 11i, and Solaris 10 assets in a heterogeneous IT environment.

That announcement shed some additional light on the raft of agreements and patent-sharing agreements Microsoft made months ago with Novell, Sun, and other Linux/UNIX vendors. During the MMS keynote, Microsoft Senior Vice President of Server and Tools Bob Muglia stressed that these new extensions should help customers familiar with Microsoft’s Windows platform more easily administer heterogeneous IT environments. Muglia joked that he hoped the audience would choose to manage more Windows assets than non-Windows ones, but the message was clear: Microsoft customers requested the functionality, and Microsoft—in a move unthinkable just a few short years ago—was happy to oblige by adding heterogeneous platform management pieces to System Center.

The winged plastic pigs handed out at MMS and Interop were a particularly appropriate trade show giveaway, and helped serve as an obvious (and bright pink) physical manifestation of two important things: First, Microsoft has unarguably mellowed its stance when it comes to working with Linux and other non-Windows machines. And the second? That this often humorless (and hypercompetitive) software giant is finally developing a long-overdue sense of self-deprecating humor. Perhaps pigs did need to fly before someone could say that, and I have proof—I saw the winged swine with my own eyes.

To download the beta of Cross Platform Extensions, visit the System Center team blog.

Interop: Two-Factor Phone Security and Asset Tracking
While MMS was held at the Venetian, Interop occupied the Mandalay Bay convention hall at the other end of the Vegas strip. Interop was a much larger show than MMS, and the scope was much broader. (The press room at Interop was also bigger and had better food for the hungry flock of ill-tempered tech journalists, but I digress.)

The Interop expo was awash with vendors, but a few companies stood out. One was Ekahau, a small firm that provides Wi-Fi-based Real Time Location Systems (RTLS). Here’s how it works: You affix an Ekahau tag to a valuable asset (like an LCD projector), and the affixed tag begins broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal. An Ekahau RTLS agent installed on a PC within the enterprise continuously tracks the location of the tag, allowing IT admins to monitor the current location of those tags with Web-based management software. Ekahau Marketing Manager W. Judson Vaughn said that the healthcare industry was one of their biggest markets, as they tend to have very expensive, mission-critical mobile equipment that needs to be located quickly. It looks like an inexpensive way to keep a handle on the exploding number of portable devices IT pros are asked to maintain and manage.

Another intriguing product was PhoneFactor, a two-factor security solution from Positive Networks. The system consists of two parts: A software agent (installed on a host PC) that lets admins add users and change distribution lists, and an operational cell phone. Once the agent is installed and configured, users can log into their system using their standard username/password logon procedure. The user immediately receives a phone call from PhoneFactor, which requires the user to press the phone # key to confirm the authentication and complete the log-in process. It’s a simple, straightforward procedure that obviates the need for cumbersome and expensive security keys such as RSA SecureID. The basic PhoneFactor system is free, although Positive Networks does offer an enhanced version for enterprises that—for a nominal fee—offers integration with Windows Terminal Services, and support for VPNs, Outlook Web Access and single sign-on systems.