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After 20 years of Windows Server, Microsoft looks to agile future

Mary Branscombe | July 29, 2016
Windows Server 2016 still comes with a traditional, graphical server interface, but that’s not the future for the server operating system, according to its chief architect.

Windows Server hasn’t quite reached its silver anniversary (the first version, Windows NT 3.1, shipped in July 1993, although it first saw the light of day in a demo in 1991). But 23 or 25 years later, depending on how you want to count, Windows Server is becoming a very different server operating system. Part of that is due to a new focus at Microsoft on supporting the platforms that customers want to use.

The change in focus at Microsoft reflects a move in the industry towards new development models that take advantage of cloud services, containers and microservices, a trend that Jeffrey Snover, lead architect for the Enterprise Cloud Group and the Microsoft Azure Stack, calls “born in the cloud.” It’s a long way from the first version of Windows NT that ran on a 486 processor, but it’s not the first time that Windows Server has changed so fundamentally.

In fact, Snover breaks down the history of Windows Server into four eras, based on the problems Microsoft was trying to solve at the time: “the server for the masses era, the enterprise era, the data center era and now the cloud era.”

Four eras, three architects

The three architects who designed Windows Server over the years all came to Microsoft from Digital Equipment Corp. “Dave Cutler was the first. He came in and gave us the great kernel that led us through the ‘server for the masses’ era. Then Bill Laing took over as chief architect; he was a big enterprise guy and he really took that enterprise approach to the server.”

David Cutler
Majorconfusion/wikimediacommons:David Cutler at work on Windows Azure

Both Cutler and Laing moved on to work on Azure, Snover says. “Then I took over as chief architect and focused on the management aspects of it and the cloud aspects of it.”

“At the heart of Windows Server is Dave Cutler’s great kernel, the object-based kernel and the separation of responsibilities. That's been the enduring thing, the heart and soul of Windows,” Snover says. But to be successful, it needed to be both manageable and affordable.

“The thing that made Windows so successful was matching that kernel with a great desktop experience and then running it on PC class hardware,” Snover says. “That combination meant that … now anybody could buy their own server, they could deploy their own server and they could run it. That really was the magic.”

Windows Server also succeeded, release after release, by adding features that you had to pay extra for on other operating systems, from transaction management tools and web servers, to software-defined storage and networking, and virtualization management.


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