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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.

Microsoft has moved quickly to support containers in Windows Server and Azure as they’ve become popular, but Snover notes that the idea of containerization isn’t as new to Windows as you might think. “Think of it less as ‘we didn’t have it and now we do’ and more as a linear scale. We used to have processes, then we had job objects, which did some resource management, then we had virtual machines, which did namespace isolation. Containers really fuse these things together and put a better user experience on top. Windows Server containers are a great improvement to our job object with better resource management and basically a namespace switch in the OS that gives you that isolation.”

Hardware improvements have made these techniques much more widely applicable, Snover says. “The increased networking bandwidth, speed and lower latency mean now I can do with protocols things that I could only ever do in the past with DLL calls — and because of that I can now separate things into their own environment, where they have their own versioning and their own lifecycle. That's the big thing of this era. In principle you could always do that, but the network was just so expensive that it made no sense — or you had to work at really high levels of abstraction.”

Then there’s the emerging idea of “serverless computing” (like Azure Functions and AWS Lambda). “Of course there's a server there, but you don’t have to worry about it. The Azure Automation service has been doing this for a while: Give us your PowerShell code and we’ll run your code. You don’t have to worry about the server and setting it up, we handle that. The way we do that, there is no server but when your code runs, we fire up a server and put your code on it and run it. And when your code's done, then we throw that server away. And by the way, in that environment, having a very small, very lightweight, very fast server [like Nano Server] is very important.”

The question with all of this is, how ready are Microsoft’s business customers for these changes? After all, enough businesses are still hanging on to older versions of Windows Server that Microsoft attributes some of the recent growth in its enterprise service revenue to “customer demand for Windows Server 2003 end of support agreements.” That means those businesses are paying extra to get security updates for a version of the OS that hasn’t been eligible for support for a year.

“It is a big difference,” Snover admits. “And with any big change, there are people who get there early, there are people who wait and hover, and there are people who hang on for dear life to where they are.” But he points out that this kind of transition is nothing new.


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