What's next for Windows Server and beyond?

While details on the next release of Windows Server have already started to trickle out, it could be the last traditional server OS from Microsoft before the cloud takes over.

You can tell spring is in the air -- the milder days and nights, the pollen, and a seasonal curiosity about what the future holds.

Well, maybe that last one is just me, but it's no coincidence that the arrival of spring marks, more or less, the midpoint between the launch of Windows Server 2008 R2 and the next big release for Windows Server; at least according to Microsoft's server roadmap, which has been publically announced many times at various conferences.

So this seems like a good time to take a step back and look at what's next for Windows, both on the server and the platform in general.

Windows 8 Server (or Windows Server 2011)

The next major release of Windows Server is expected in the ensuing 18 to 24 months.

We do know a little bit about the company's current plans for this "v.Next" release based on various job postings from the Microsoft career site. Specifically, new features appear to be centered on:

  • cluster support

  • support for one-way replication

  • a reworking of the core engine to "provide dramatic performance improvements"

  • file access in branch offices (these features of supposedly "revolutionary")

In this age of big data centers and environmental concerns, it 's safe to bet that Windows Server v.Next will include optimizations to use less power, park more hardware components when not in use (core parking on a processor is already supported in Windows Server 2008 R2), and emphasize a reduction in the "grid load" from clients. How? By moving more intelligent functions to a server. Enhancements to Remote Desktop Services, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) components, and so on would all speak to that goal.

Separately, we might expect that the void between the home-user networks (served by Windows Home Server) and up to 50-user small business networks (served by Small Business Server) might be filled with a revision of Windows Server 2008 Foundation. Expect this Foundation SKU to include tighter integration with Microsoft's cloud services, such as Live Mesh, the Windows Live Wave, and both Exchange Online and SharePoint Online (the company's hosted options).

The overall platform

There will almost certainly be a Windows 8 Server, no matter what it's eventually called. But beyond that the roadmap is muddier, and Microsoft's vision across the company as a whole may or may not mesh well with its server business, depending on your point of view.

It's clear from Microsoft's latest actions and products that it eyes a move toward increasing the occurrences and workloads of cloud computing in enterprises large and small. You might be familiar with [Microsoft chief software architect] Ray Ozzie's "three screens and a cloud" idea: "So, moving forward, again I believe that the world some number of years from now in terms of how we consume IT is really shifting from a machine-centric viewpoint, to what we refer to as 'three screens and a cloud' -- the phone, the PC and the TV ultimately, and how we deliver value to them [via the cloud]."

Microsoft is also playing with deploying services accessible from anywhere via Windows Azure. It's not difficult to imagine that, in time, most of the local functions a Windows server provides could be hosted within a cloud-like infrastructure -- either a global cloud that's accessible to anyone (which evokes sort of a "DirectAccess version two" mindset) or through a private cloud. Why does a branch office need a server at all if it could eventually go out to an Azure-based private cloud, host within a datacenter local to the office, and still have everything managed centrally policy-wise by an enterprise IT team? With this model, you get the control of owning your own infrastructure without having to deal with the headaches of hardware.

On one hand, even if you're betting a platform on a cloud infrastructure, you still need a solid operating system with appropriate functionality and features to host that cloud. Windows Server can fit that bill -- and in some cases already does. On the other hand, is Microsoft making the server irrelevant to all but the largest enterprises? Does Windows Server as a product name and SKU have a long life ahead of it?

Only time will tell. We'll see where we are next spring.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker. He speaks around the world on topics including networking, security and Windows administration.

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