Windows Datacenter Program Overhauled

Microsoft's Windows Datacenter Server has been about more than technology features since its launch in late 2000. Fittingly, the tightly controlled support program that makes Datacenter Server so different from other Microsoft server operating systems is getting a complete overhaul for the Windows Server 2003 launch. Microsoft unveiled details of the program Wednesday, including the new name, the "Windows Datacenter High Availability Program."

Microsoft launched Windows 2000 Datacenter Server along with the Windows Datacenter Program in September 2000, about six months after the launch of the other versions of Windows 2000. In addition to being far more scalable than any previous Microsoft server operating system, Datacenter was only sold by OEMs as part of complete, Microsoft-approved configurations. Each OEM had to offer 24x7 support for Datacenter and all the system components under the Windows Datacenter Program.

The approach was designed to provide standardized, stable configurations and to overcome data-center administrators' mistrust of Microsoft by having enterprise-trusted partners such as Compaq, IBM and Unisys sell the platform. The Datacenter Program also created a single point of contact for a customer in case of a problem anywhere in the configuration, from storage subsystem to operating system. The one-call approach is important for Microsoft in its efforts to use Datacenter Server to go after business traditionally won by Unix vendors, who typically provide a complete stack.

"We've had time to evaluate what's working well. It's culminated in an update to the Datacenter Program," says Bob Ellsworth, a director in the Windows product management group who has responsibility for Microsoft's high-end server operating systems and technologies. "What we've got is even a tighter embracement of that single call, single provider."

When Windows Server 2003 ships on April 24, several changes will go into effect with the Windows Datacenter Program.

  • The program will be called the "Windows Datacenter High Availability Program."
  • The process for OEMs to resolve customer problems and get quick fix engineering work from Microsoft on Datacenter Server, known as the Joint Support Queue, is being changed into a more regimented program known as the High Availability Resolution Queue.
  • Requirements that OEMs recertify their Datacenter Server-based systems in a 14-day stress test will be waived for more minor component changes. In those cases, a special 1-day stress test will be allowed for requalification.
  • The support program is being broadened beyond the system OEMs to include straight service providers.
  • Microsoft's support organization will also step in and begin offering direct service for Datacenter.
  • New services are being built into the program, including pre-installation assessments of customers.
  • For customers who don't have a need for high availability on their Datacenter Server-based systems, Microsoft will begin allowing customers to use basic support instances and credit card payment support for problems with Datacenter Server.

    Officials with Unisys Corp., Microsoft's most visible Datacenter Program partner, applauded Microsoft's changes. "This is good for everybody. It's good for the OEMs. It's good for the clients. It's good for Microsoft," said Mark Feverston, vice president of enterprise services at Unisys.

    Feverston said the elimination of the 14-day stress test for every component change will help Unisys be more responsive to customers. In the past it could take Unisys 30-45 days to turn around a customer request for a minor change in their configuration, due to the 14-day stress test requirement. "Now, it allows us to take a product that's already been qualified on someone else's [Datacenter Server] platform [for the shorter qualification test]."

    One reason for the changes from the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server-era Joint Support Queue to the new High Availability Resolution Queue also relates to customer responsiveness, according to Microsoft's Ellsworth. Well-meaning OEM engineers had on occasion held onto customer problems for days or weeks at a time, thinking they were just around the corner from finding a solution, he said. The new program involves time triggers for serious problems to be escalated to Microsoft.

    Another unintended consequence of the old program is being addressed in broadening the support providers to include non-OEMs. Microsoft is in talks with big players like EDS and CSC, but the issue also addresses the regional subcontractors some of the OEMs had used under the old program in areas where they didn't have a support presence.

    "The problem we have is there's no obligation that the third-party has to Microsoft. They have an obligation to the OEM," Ellsworth said. Now the OEMs no longer have the right to subcontract to a support provider. Instead, the OEMs can nominate the support provider for the program. At that point the support provider must sign a contract with Microsoft, must be a Microsoft Gold Partner and must guarantee 99.9 percent uptime to Datacenter program customers, among other requirements.

    There are 10 OEM partners that belong to the current Windows Datacenter Program. Ellsworth said he doesn't expect the new program to add more than a dozen partners to that.

    Microsoft is getting some of its own "skin in the game," as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer so colorfully puts it, by offering a direct support package under the Windows Datacenter High Availability Program.

    Some companies that already had major support contracts with Microsoft that included several permanent Microsoft consultants onsite had asked Microsoft to support their Datacenter Server installations, according to Ellsworth.

    "Definitely the OEMs questioned whether Microsoft would try to underbid them to get those customers. In reality, we'd much prefer that our partners provide that support," Ellsworth said. To add weight to those words, Microsoft will only provide direct Datacenter High Availability Program support to customers who pay the high price of having at least one Microsoft Technical Account Manager onsite. "I would be surprised if there will be more than 20 or 30 customers in the first six months," Ellsworth said.

    For customers who don't have high-availability requirements for their Datacenter Servers, such as those running pilot or development systems, basic support will be available from Microsoft for the first time in the Windows Server 2003 timeframe.

    "We're just opening it up to offer standard support for Datacenter," said Ellsworth. "We're ensuring that customers aren't forced to do High Availability support where it's not required."

  • About the Author

    Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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