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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.

“That is the heart of Microsoft,” Snover says. “First we take what used to be only available to princes and high priests and we make those things available to everyone because they can be run by everyone; we simplify things so they can be run by everyone. And then we run them at economics that mean they can be afforded by everyone.”

The rise and fall of the GUI

Alongside the ever-increasing list of features, the management options of Windows Server gradually changed, to the point where Nano Server, a minimal version of Windows Server 2016, has no graphical interface at all. Snover calls this the future of Windows Server and says it’s “by far the most important, most significant change in Windows Server since we came out with Windows NT.” Nano Server is a ‘major refactoring’ of Windows Server to create a smaller footprint that’s more secure and needs much less patching, and has no local interface at all – you can manage it only remotely.

If you look back, you can see the trend that led to Nano Server, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. “In the enterprise era of Windows Server, we still had the local GUI,” Snover notes. “You just did it remotely with RDP. You still had a local management interface, we just remoted the GUI stack. But that wasn't going to work for large systems for data centers, so we had had to switch to automation.”

That automation was based on PowerShell, a command line scripting and configuration management system built on .NET that Snover helped to design. If you’re used to using PowerShell, moving to Nano Server will be less painful, but even so, it will take some effort to get there. Snover says Microsoft realized during the development of Windows Server 2016 that automation isn’t the right answer for every business.

Snover jokes that “architecture is the art of deciding when one thing should be two and two things should be one,” but behind the joke is a serious point about the different roles that Windows Server needs to perform.

Jeffrey Snover
flickr/Microsoft PDCJeffrey Snover participates in a PDC panel discussion in 2009

“Back in the Windows NT days, we had one thing. We had this great combined kernel and desktop operating system. Now what we need is two things. We need that first thing for small businesses, for people who don’t have the skills to run very large systems. But then we also need a version that doesn't have that desktop operating system. That's the version that the big enterprises, the clouds and these new born-in-the-cloud applications need, something that has that great kernel and then has as many features as they need, and no more.”


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