First published on CloudBlogs on Mar, 04 2009

[Recently Ken Pan did an interview for the Chinese Configuration Manager R&D Team Blog .  Our team members Jae Kim and Yumin Guo have graciously provided us with the English translation of an excerpt of that interview.  The entire interview in Chinese can be read here .]

Ken Pan is the driving force behind the System Center Configuration Manager team. As the Principal Product Unit Manager, he is responsible for all engineering and product development functions associated with the product.

In December 2008, on one of his frequent trips to the Configuration Manager R&D team in Shanghai, we took the opportunity to chat with Ken about the past, present, and future of Configuration Manager.

Question: SMS (Systems Management Server) was a new product in 1992.  What was the initial motivation for Microsoft to create this product?

Answer: In the very beginning, SMS was not an independent product.  In 1992, to promote Windows NT 3.1, a program manager in the Windows team had an idea to add a new feature to manage hardware assets, like hard disks, memory and etc., for computers in a domain.  When the idea was demonstrated to a group of high-level managers, the managers found that it could be a better idea to create an independent product.  That was the birth of SMS 1.0.  However, during the product's infancy, the management team debated between keeping it as an independent product and merging it as a feature of Windows NT.  The discussion repeatedly resurfaced every six months until the annual revenue of SMS 2.0 reached $100 million.

Question: SMS 2003 was a significant release.  Revenue started to really take off at this point.  What were the key success factors behind this?

Answer: Actually, the first breakthrough happened when we released SMS 2.0.  At that time, most companies around the world encountered the Y2K scare. To address the looming problem, a lot of companies purchased SMS 2.0.  Our product played a critical role to help those companies to avert disaster and ultimately realize huge cost savings.  After deploying the product, they discovered that it also had much more useful functionality that improves IT management efficiencies.  Since then, SMS has gradually been acknowledged as a critical piece of their IT management priorities by our customers and has become increasingly more popular.

For SMS 2003, the main reason behind the breakthrough was the success of software updates management.  At that time, software viruses and worms were a big threat to IT security. Ensuring that every computer in the enterprise had the latest available patch became an important responsibility of IT professionals.  WSUS (Windows Software Update Service) did not exist yet, so due to the software updates management capability in SMS 2003 it became the first choice of IT managers in the fight against software viruses and worms.

When we develop our product, customer requirements are always our top priority.  We listen to what they say, understand their pain points, and think from their perspective when making decisions.  By following these simple guiding principles, we're able to satisfy the most important requirements of our customers when releasing each version of our product.  Solving the potentially costly Y2K issue, providing software updates management in SMS 2003, and introducing the popular OSD (operating system deployment) feature in Configuration Manager 2007 all contributed to continued success of the product.

Question: Can you tell us what the market share looked like with each of our releases?

Answer: Prior to the release of SMS 2.0, various competing products existed but no dominant player existed in the market.  By the time SMS 2003 was released, the market was eventually dominated by few products such as SMS 2003, Altiris and LanDesk.

Question: What exciting features can customers expect in the next release of Configuration Manager?

Answer: In the next generation of Configuration Manager "User Centric" will be the principal theme.  IT Administrators used to distribute software, apply software updates based on computers, while employees are likely to have several computers or mobile devices for their work.  The new challenge for IT administrators is to build an infrastructure so that users can work on any of their computers or from anywhere to easily get the applications they need to do their job.  The next version of Configuration Manager will help administrators to handle these challenges.

Question: How do you think the current economic downturn will impact Configuration Manager in the market?

Answer: There is a positive side and negative side.  On the positive side, more and more customers will think of saving costs, which is one of the benefits of our product.  On the negative side, customers may reduce their budget for upgrading to new operating systems.  This will slow down the uptake of the new version of Configuration Manager.  If we combine both the positive and negative, the overall result may not be significantly impacted but we'll have to wait for precise data to see the real effects.

Question: A consistent brand is important to have.  So why did we change the brand of our product when going from SMS 2003 to System Center Configuration Manager 2007?

Answer: After becoming a part of the System Center brand, it would have been clumsy to say "System Center System Management Server," so we changed the name.  Creating a unified brand which consists of a number of products is helpful to revenue and image building.  Microsoft Office is the most successful example.

Question: Let's change gears a little.  You've spent your entire career at Microsoft during which you have worked on the same product the entire time.  Could you share with us both the highest and lowest moments of your career?

Answer: Most of time it is enjoyable.  This job gives me a lot of enjoyment.  The most disappointing moment was when we released SMS 2.0.  Back then, our quality control standards were not as good as they are today.  It wasn't until SMS 2.0 SP2 released that we had achieved the kind of quality that our customers expect from us.  Our team worked around the clock to test and fix the bugs.  In the peak period, hundreds of testers sat in a hall to manually test our product.  After that, we continuously improved our process by increasing the percentage of automation test.

Question: With such a long history in the same group, could you share with us any interesting tidbits that many customers would not be aware of?

Answer: Numbers can be interesting.  Let's take a look at the following numbers.

  • We stored all binaries of SMS 1.0 onto 7 floppies. This was considered large software at that time. Currently, we cannot expect to store the newest version even on a DVD. :)
  • At the very beginning of the product, the whole team consisted of only 5-6 people. Now, we have almost 200 people combined between our R&D teams in Redmond and Shanghai.

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