Microsoft Introduces Windows Intune, Cloud IT Management

Microsoft announced the beta rollout of its Windows Intune, a cloud-based management system for IT administrators of midsize businesses, to 1,000 organizations. General release of Intune, which allows those administrators to monitor and update desktops and laptops within their network, is predicted by Microsoft to come within a year. In addition to cloud services and on-site PC management tools, Intune will include a Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade subscription.

Microsoft announced the beta rollout of its Windows Intune, a cloud-based management system for the IT administrators of midsize businesses, on April 19. Microsoft intends for Intune to give those administrators an enterprise-style level of control over a network, but with the reduced costs assumed to come with adopting a cloud infrastructure. Around 1,000 organizations will use the beta version of Intune for a month-long period; after that point, general release of the platform should come within a year.

In addition to cloud services, on-site PC management tools and added malware protection, Intune will include a Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade subscription, meaning in theory that a business could elect to switch its desktops and laptops over to the same operating system. However, Microsoft executives in a pre-briefing before the April 19 announcement declined to break down a pricing structure for Intune, making it difficult to determine whether electing to take that subscription will result in a lower per-seat cost for Windows 7 Enterprise than other potential purchasing strategies.

The Silverlight-built platform presents users with a dashboard that gives access, within a few clicks, to various windows monitoring the status and security of various PCs within a particular network. The Dashboard itself includes clickable elements such as System Status (with malware checks, software updates, etc.), Notice Board, and Tasks.

With the tools on-hand, an administrator could conceivably set an automatic antivirus policy, check on details such as whether all the PCs on the network are up-to-date on their software licenses, or diagnose and repair unbootable PCs through use of the Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset (DaRT) available to Windows Intune users; end-users, meanwhile, can click on an Intune dashboard icon to check on software updates or submit an alert to the IT help desk.

Although an increasing number of businesses rely on smartphones in order to conduct daily activities, the first version of Intune does not include a way to monitor smartphones on a business network in the same way as desktops or laptops. Nor does this first version include support for third-party applications that may be running on those PCs.

While the idea of leveraging the cloud for midsize businesses' IT administrators' use has apparently been drifting around Redmond for some time, the actual development of Intune is more recent, according to Microsoft executives. The offer of a Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade comes at a time when Microsoft has extended its Windows 7 Enterprise Trial program to Dec. 31, 2010.

While a company blog post stated that the extension was "due to popular demand," recent comments by Microsoft executives suggest that Windows 7 is experiencing a slower uptake among businesses than consumers. During a Jan. 28 earnings call, Bill Koefoed, Microsoft's general manager of investor relations, said that "weak business PC sales" were hampering the company's enterprise software sales despite "strong consumer demand for Windows 7 and PCs."

The 90-day trial edition of Windows 7 Enterprise is being offered in both 32- and 64-bit versions, and was originally released to assist IT administrators in testing applications, hardware and deployment strategies. Analytics company Net Applications found in January that Windows 7 averages a 7.57 share of the US. operating system market, compared to 66.15 percent for XP, 17.47 percent for Vista, 2.37 percent for Mac OS X, 1.80 percent for Mac OS X 10.6, and 1.02 percent for Linux.