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The significance of Windows Server in a changing IT landscape

Windows Server was once a dominant force in the IT landscape, but is now fighting for market share as more and more companies move to the cloud.

Not so long ago, servers were used within companies to offer access to all kinds of back-office services such as email, file storage, databases and more. Novell Inc. started office automation – kind of --  and was wiped in the mid-1990s by Windows, which ruled the average small to mid-size company data center. The world has changed since then and Microsoft is trying to regain that standing.

Many services have moved to the cloud in the last decade. Data centers have reduced drastically in size and those tasks that previously were used on office servers are now hosted by cloud providers. And Windows servers have been suffering because of that.

The traditional installed base of Windows servers has become smaller and smaller, and Linux has become the leading operating system to provide services that are hosted in cloud environments. Windows servers have had to adopt a new role, and Windows Server 2012 R2 comes with important improvements that are trying to give Windows a place in the new IT landscape.

The role of Active Directory

One of the strong points of Windows is Active Directory, which provides Kerberos-based authentication services that can be used by Office users and much more. If the role of Windows is becoming less significant in office automation, it sure isn't because of Active Directory. Even in a landscape where many services are hosted in cloud environments, Active Directory is still used as a centralized authentication and authorization platform. And if in the cloud solutions like Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Exchange Online are used, there's still a very good reason to keep using Active Directory. But the reality is that not everyone is using Office and Exchange anymore. Numerous companies have migrated to cloud office and mail applications that are provided by other players, such as Google.

Windows needed to drive their market in a new direction, now that Microsoft has decided to offer future Exchange versions in a cloud-only version, and many services -- such as databases -- have already migrated to a hosted version or to a Linux server with a much lower cost of ownership. And this new direction is trying to host alternatives to many cloud services on a trusted in-house Windows server: Think of Work Folders, for instance. This, with OneDrive for Business, is an alternative to Dropbox, which offers a solution to share files in a way where security can be controlled completely in-company.

A new feature is storage tiering, which allows administrators to manage storage in a more efficient way. Even if this feature is innovative, it still focuses on old markets where companies used Windows servers to store files -- who is still doing that? Nice feature, but storage happens on SAN filers that in many cases have taken over much functionality of the Windows server.

Moving into mobile device management

Another interesting direction that Microsoft has taken is the integration of Mobile Device Management into 2012 R2. Windows offers options to manage these devices as well; the question, though, is if that's not an enhancement that is coming too late.

Of much more interest are the enhancements that Microsoft has applied to Hyper-V, which makes Windows a more efficient platform to run virtual machines. According to Microsoft , Hyper-V has a current market share of 30.6%. Still less than the 52.4% of market share that is held by VMware, but Windows Hyper-V is rising.

The big challenge that Microsoft Windows Server still has is that it's a generic server solution trying to offer many features used to fix different problems. The last decade of IT developments has seen the rise of many specialized solutions that are offered from a cloud environment, which allows companies to realize serious cost reductions on their IT infrastructures. These companies aren't looking for one-size fits all solutions as offered by Microsoft Windows Server anymore.  With the downfall of the corporate server, the glory days of Windows Servers are over as well, and Microsoft isn't going to stop that by releasing yet newer versions with many new features.

This was last published in October 2014

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