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Microsoft showcases Windows Server 8 with new sense of purpose

Ed Scannell

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Enterprise IT managers can expect dramatic changes to come with Microsoft’s next generation Windows Server operating system.

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At the BUILD developer conference here this week, Microsoft demonstrated a pre-beta version of its upcoming Windows Server 8, with 300 new features that include significant improvements to system-level virtualization, along with a raft of virtualized networking, storage and management capabilities.

These new technologies infused into the upcoming version appear to be a major step to better position it for the cloud era which will see Microsoft simultaneously taking on a multi-front war with archrivals including VMware, EMC, IBM and Red Hat.

“Before, Windows was seen as an OS for one server and its devices, but now we want the perception to be it is good for lots of servers and devices connected to them, physical or virtual, on premise or off,” said Jeffrey Snover, lead architect of Windows Server at Microsoft.

Cloud computing and mobile devices

Windows Server 8, which Microsoft began developing even before it shipped Windows Server 2008 R2 in the fall of 2009, has four core concepts: the ability to allow IT shops to  more easily build a private cloud that offers public cloud services; continuously available cloud services along with the ability to manage those services across multiple servers from a single server; to enable a  more modern corporate work style involving many different mobile devices; and the ability to run any application from any cloud.

Microsoft has strengthened the product’s technical capabilities. Version 8 can support 160 logical processors, up to 2 TB of RAM, 32 virtual processors, and 512 GB of memory that can be dedicated for networking.

Some longtime Windows watchers were impressed by advances in the new server design. “Windows Server has never felt more like a mainframe, more like a solid, enterprise-ready, professional platform,” said Mark Minasi, an author and Windows expert. “Even if I never spend a second on Azure, I'll soon reap many of the benefits in the form of stuff-we-learned-running-Azure that they back-ported into Server.”

“Server 8 feels like its real name is "Azure Foundation Server 1.0" or something like that, and it makes me wonder if Azure and Windows Server might not merge back together in Windows 9, 10 or whatever,” he added.

The next generation server is still a work in progress. With continued interaction with developers and users, Microsoft could add even more features, company officials said. So far Microsoft has spent $10 million to round up 6,000 statements from 200 customers about what they wanted to see in the product. It has also surveyed more than 26,000 customers.

“IT pros said they spent too much time upgrading and maintaining software and wanted a server to deliver continuous services,” said Bill Laing, corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft’s server and cloud division. ”They wanted better automation to manage multiple servers from a single server. They wanted more people to connect to services, but they also wanted IT have better control over issues compliance and governance.”

In pre-briefings, some analysts were impressed with the volume of features and technologies expected to be in Windows Server 8, many of which are tightly integrated and work in concert. Microsoft executives said the company took more time to plan the process of developing the release. For example, Mike Neil, the general manager of Windows Server 8, said Microsoft looked at how to get hardware makers to deliver something that resulted in a better user experience.

Windows Server 8 look and usability  

Version 8 sports a new Server Manager dashboard with a tiled interface designed to make it easier to locate features and functions that tell administrators what processes are going on in not just in one server’s environment, but in all servers attached to it.

“We have designed it to be more of a multi-machine experience where it is possible to view with is going on with running services on several machines as well as aggregate information about those services. This will also offer better management,” Snover said.

Paradoxically, while improving Windows Server’s graphical shell Microsoft also significantly improved Server Core, bringing up to 2,300 the number of commands users can execute from the command line.  Company executives said they believe Server Core eventually could become the preferred way to execute commands and deploy functions across multiple machines.

“The real world is intrinsically messy but PowerShell can transform this messy world into one that is more task oriented with production semantics. PowerShell is now a command prompt on top of a huge management automation engine,” Snover said.


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