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Windows Server 2016 changes prompt a new look at management

Microsoft caters to both traditional server admins and automation experts in Windows Server 2016, but there will come a time when IT won't have a management choice.

Microsoft wants more IT pros to get on board with its Azure platform and knows the fastest way to do that is through automation. The company took a subtle approach to engender a cloud mindset through various Windows Server 2016 changes -- but it might not be as flexible in the near future.

Microsoft encourages IT admins to develop policies and Desired State Configurations that manage servers as a collective. But it hasn't forgotten the legions of admins who spend their days -- and nights -- in the depths of the Microsoft Management Console. These IT workers are hands-on with each individual server. They perform manual configuration changes constantly and largely ignore anything with the suffix -aaS.

A shift in the server management mindset

With a few Windows Server 2016 changes to the server management model, Microsoft nudged administrators to look up from their individual servers and consider the infrastructure as a whole, not unlike a cloud provider.

In IT, there is a concerted effort to stop the micromanagement of individual servers. This trend is popularized by the pets vs. cattle analogy that contrasts how we care for our cats and dogs to the way commercial farmers manage a herd.

In IT, there is a concerted effort to stop the micromanagement of individual servers.

The new approach is to build identical servers and handle them as a collection. This approach is business-critical for web-scale companies that manage thousands of servers. They would face skyrocketing operations costs if they stuck with the old 1:100 admin-to-server ratio. If one server malfunctions, remove and replace it with another. Problem solved.

But for certain legacy shops, this approach to manage servers gets no traction. A midsize company might have a dozen servers, each with unique applications and possibly distinct OSes. When a server fails, a business crisis follows. The recovery process typically involves various backup media, coffee and swearing. Swap out the server? That's not an option.

Why bother building out a cattle infrastructure if server and application deployments are few and far between? And what if the staff skill sets align more closely with the features in Windows Server 2008 R2 than Windows Server 2016?

A threshold is implied here -- but not defined. The real question is: How big does an IT infrastructure need to be before a move from pets to cattle is a reasonable course of action? Do you go by the number of servers, applications or administrators -- or data centers? Is it a combination of these factors?

Server Manager's capabilities tempt admins

Between these two extremes, Microsoft positioned its Windows Server 2016 changes. The company must tread carefully to keep two sets of customers happy: the DevOps devotees with their cattle and the traditional server admins with their pets. Both groups represent much to Microsoft's future, despite what you might hear from the CALMS crowd.

Windows Server 2016 is a bridge to facilitate the transition from the traditional way to manage Windows servers to an automated model. Consider what you see when you first log in to a Windows Server 2016 system: the Server Manager dashboard. Here, the administrator decides to either use Server Manager and move one step closer to managing cattle -- or stick with the reliable Computer Management tool and keep shopping at the pet store.

Server Manager quickly and easily creates groups of servers based on a role or an application. With this tool, admins manage servers more efficiently and do not need to change connections. It's a shame this tool's functionality isn't more obvious; many server admins don't realize Server Manager makes it almost effortless to control multiple remote servers.

Windows Server 2016 is a single platform with multiple management points intended to seduce administrators away from the Computer Management console in favor of the sleeker Server Manager.

One step closer to cloud via PowerShell automation

It's impossible to talk about Windows Server 2016 changes without a look at PowerShell. Some describe it as a gateway drug that leads to a hardcore automation addiction and, eventually, the cloud.

Where Microsoft once gently encouraged admins to use PowerShell, it now strong-arms admins toward management via the command-line interface (CLI). Admins who don't pay close attention and click through the Windows Server 2016 installation options will find themselves staring at a blinking cursor of the PowerShell console instead of a desktop.

Microsoft's message is clear: PowerShell is the preferred method to manage Windows Server 2016. The GUI is a consolation prize for admins who continue to scoff at scripting.


An overview of the more cloud-friendly
features in Windows Server 2016

Here we are, with two sets of enthusiasts who aspire to apply their brand of management to the Windows world. There's no reaching across the aisle here. Ideologies are entrenched, and very few admins show any willingness to switch sides. The PowerShell crowd wants an OS designed around Windows Remote Management that doesn't need interactive control. The old school admin crowd wants Windows Server 2003 R2 but with a newer look.

Microsoft is smart to cater to both crowds with its Windows Server 2016 changes. DevOps and related methodologies are not evolutions of traditional server management -- they are an attempt to manage cloud-native applications at scale in a smart and efficient manner. Both techniques can coexist, and an OS vendor would be foolish to force an all-in-one approach.

Given the major shift in Microsoft's strategy since Satya Nadella's arrival and the breakneck pace at which Azure chases enterprise cloud customers, I expect future Windows Server releases to further blur the line between on premises and cloud and to make that pets vs. cattle decision for its users. We'll see PowerShell become the default method to manage servers, and administrators who currently jump through hoops to load the server GUI will finally cave to the CLI.

Next Steps

Windows Server 2016 brings new prospects to admins

Learn how PowerShell objects build an automation foundation

Enhancements in Windows Server 2016 steer IT to the cloud

This was last published in August 2017

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