Can moving to an all-Microsoft environment save your business time, money and aggravation? More and more IT departments are saying yes.

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Written by: Brian Chee, Oliver Rist

Officials at the nation's largest organ donation agency LifeNet encounter true life-or-death decisions every day, and so view technology as simply a way to speed connections between organ recipients and donor families. This is why IT executives there have adopted an "all-Microsoft" approach, deciding to skip the laborious task of concocting a heterogeneous environment to accommodate desktop, server and mobile computing applications.

LifeNet is not alone. A growing number of organizations seem willing to run a pure Microsoft IT shop stacked with SQL and SharePoint servers, Exchange mail solutions, Office System packages for desktop applications and other Microsoft products, according to some industry analysts and integrators.

It's a strategy that obviously won't work for all enterprises, especially larger corporations bulked up through mergers and acquisitions and hence saddled with a variety of IT assets. However, for small to midsized organizations interested in simplicity, quick integration and reduced staff training time, an all-Microsoft approach may be best, says Mike Gilpin, vice president and research director at Forrester Research Inc.

"Some companies will be able to solve all or most of their IT problems with Microsoft technology and should probably consider going with all-Microsoft solutions," says Gilpin, though he readily acknowledges the natural reaction among IT decision makers to balk at over-reliance on a single vendor.

"Interestingly, you hear a lot about the risks of mono-culture. It's a subject on which many people tend to theorize. However, I have yet to see a business case that would demonstrate to me the sheer business value of taking a heterogeneous approach simply to avoid a mono-culture," Gilpin adds.

Sometimes Less Is More

LifeNet's business analysis favored a move away from heterogeneity. "We have nearly completed a conversion from a mixed Mac/PC to a Microsoft environment," says Steve Lenz, vice president of Information Systems for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based agency. "This has greatly reduced setup times and allowed for greater cross-training of staff."

LifeNet's infrastructure includes Microsoft's Dynamics GP 9.0 servers blended with .NET and SharePoint technologies. "Information freely flows throughout the company, improving business intelligence and enabling processes to be streamlined," Lenz adds.

Financial services firm MCG Capital Corp. also settled on an all-Microsoft strategy. The company has a small staff and outsources many of its utility functions, including backups and networking, according to Bob Grazioli, CTO of the Arlington, Va.-based company.

"Less complexity and more substance is the philosophy we like to stick to at MCG. Microsoft gives us that option," Grazioli says of MCG, which provides capital to help small to mid-sized companies grow. "Having systems that integrate with each other and that can be monitored and controlled from a single platform is priceless," he adds.

Brittenford Systems Inc., an IT consulting services firm and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, steered MCG Capital through its all-Microsoft decision. "Customers are open to solutions that achieve business objectives with stable solutions," says Ryan Risley, Brittenford's CTO.

Risley believes that the customers most interested in additional Microsoft infrastructure specific to business applications tend to be those who have many of the prerequisite requirements satisfied.

"Specifically, a pure Microsoft approach will appeal to companies running the most current Microsoft operating system, Office Suites and Service Packs, and those with a 'well-tuned' Active Directory, along with heavy investments in Exchange and SQL Server 2000 or higher lines," Risley says.

Numbers Growing

Another Gold Certified Partner, Ensim Corp., which supplies automation software for hosted IP and application services to many networking and telecommunications companies, has also seen an uptake in interest among customers in adopting an infrastructure composed solely of Microsoft solutions.

"There is a lot of interest in having an all-Microsoft platform — as long as the applications that sit on top can be from multiple solutions," notes Francois Depayras, vice president of sales and marketing.

Given the ability to layer new applications onto pure Microsoft platforms, larger enterprises might even consider an all-Microsoft approach, argues Risley. "Larger firms can benefit from business-ready licensing and application customizations that can be made to fit their business processes," he says.

Not so, counter Microsoft competitors. "Companies that are looking to reduce costs are often swayed by the licensing policy of Microsoft, which attempts to convince customers that their costs will be reduced if they go with a single vendor. This is often not the case," says Richard Bliss, vice president of marketing at GWAVA Inc., a service provider that caters to Novell Inc.'s GroupWise community of customers.

In fact, Microsoft customers are more likely to see price hikes after committing to licensing agreements. "Once Microsoft has the customer's business locked in, there is very little incentive on the part of Microsoft to keep lowering costs to keep the business. Quite the opposite is true. Now Microsoft has the ability to raise costs knowing that it is more expensive for the customer to make the break than to stay," he says.

The Downside of a Lock In

Locking into staunch licensing agreements and developing dependence on any one vendor has little appeal to mega-enterprises, says Forrester's Gilpin. There tends to be "an interesting dynamic" among large companies that want to avoid becoming too reliant on a single vendor and prefer to play vendors against each other, he says.

However, over-reliance on a single vendor is typically only one part of a major enterprise's reluctance to plunge headlong into an all-Windows environment. Some industry observers note that large IT shops tend to have big problems that need solving with technology, but feel Microsoft has not innovated to the level where it can adequately solve those problems.

"Big Wall Street companies and other large enterprises often have really complicated problems. It would prove too restrictive if there were only one available set of tools to solve those problems," explains Gilpin. "But a lot of companies are not like that. They don't have complicated technology problems and are not shaping their IT operations all the time," he adds

LifeNet certainly falls into the latter category. The agency is fairly unencumbered by demands to adopt the most advanced applications and is uninterested in dedicating IT staff to a single project. By using all Microsoft products, the company benefits from effective cross training while also being able to rotate staff among different jobs, preventing burn out.

Innovate Faster

Simplicity can come with some trade-offs. "One negative is that innovation can be slower when a single environment is used. However, most new functionality is [eventually] incorporated into Microsoft standard products," Gilpin says.

Indeed, competitors highlight innovation limits when a customer locks into an exclusively Microsoft arrangement. They are quick to point out that an all-Microsoft shop is slow to take advantage of rapid changes in the marketplace or emerging technologies.

"Linux is the perfect example. As more and more customers move to a lower-cost product like Linux, reliance on Microsoft becomes a burden, [because] a large amount of legacy infrastructure will not allow rapid response," says GWAVA's Bliss.

In the end, Microsoft is eager to enter exclusive arrangements with as many customers as possible but always keeps one eye on the bigger picture. "If Microsoft can replace everything else in the stack for the smaller customer, it will do everything in its power to do that," says Forrester's Gilpin. "But the way Microsoft thinks about this is in terms of maximizing Windows and Office revenues," he says, adding that this focus can often preclude a push for customer exclusivity.

For instance, Microsoft has worked with customers to integrate its own products with IBM's WebSphere application server infrastructure and solutions from other competitors, such as BEA Systems Inc. "Microsoft isn't in the business of building products to work on these platforms. But it does know that enterprise customers need solutions that are interoperable, and it is very focused on this," Gilpin says.