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Windows Server 2016 release brings opportunity, challenges in a cloud world

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Microsoft wants Windows Server 2016 to serve as a gateway to get workloads in Azure, but some administrators must work harder to keep pace with the company's initiatives.

Microsoft's aggressive moves in the cloud, open source projects and developer-friendly features of Windows Server 2016 may have many administrators in predominantly Windows-based IT environments wondering what they can do to remain relevant.

The Windows Server 2016 release brings opportunities -- and challenges -- for server administrators caught up in the flood of innovation streaming from Redmond. Microsoft added a number of new features and advanced functionality to the server operating system, such as more software-defined capabilities in the storage and networking areas. It also provided tighter integration with the Azure cloud platform and added support for Docker containers to appeal to application developers. Microsoft's licensing change to Windows Server added another level of complexity to the conversations around a migration to Windows Server 2016.

While Microsoft's evangelists tout PowerShell as the key tool to manage systems and automate workflows, not everyone in IT has the time or the ability to become fluent in the command-line shell and scripting language -- at least enough to trust their own scripts to control critical processes.

But, of all the numerous management offerings from Microsoft, PowerShell should be where a server administrator concentrates their learning efforts, according to one analyst.

PowerShell is "fundamental on Windows Server. It's a key component of Nano Server. It's in Azure. It's in Azure Stack," said Wes Miller, research analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "The longer people wait to learn it, the longer they're going to be holding themselves back from learning the latest technologies and taking advantage of the stuff Microsoft is building."

Miller spoke with SearchWindowsServer about the Windows Server 2016 release, the management challenges in today's IT environments and what administrators can do to advance themselves in a field where change is the only constant.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the traditional management issues Windows Server administrators deal with and how does Windows Server 2016 alleviate them?

Wes Miller: Well, it depends on your scenario and where you're coming from. When you look at Windows Server 13 years ago with Windows Server 2003, it was just beginning to move into this command line realm. And now it's more about the operating system becoming very PowerShell-centric, very automation-centric.

I think Windows Server 2016 is intended to be much more about reliability [and] reproducibility ... A lot of the frameworks that are there at the center of Windows Server 2016 are evolutions from 2012 and 2012 R2 more than anything else.

In your travels, what have you been hearing about Windows Server 2016? It's no secret that Microsoft wants more people to put workloads into Azure. Has that push to the cloud overshadowed the release of this new server operating system?

Miller: I think that it has to a degree. I don't want to degrade what the team did because I think Windows Server 2016 -- although it's got some significant licensing changes -- it's also got some really amazing enhancements. It's a pretty impressive product in its own right. However, Microsoft's big emphasis as you noted is getting people onto Azure -- whether it's Windows or Linux or using other Azure services that are more high level that don't care what OS they run on -- I think that's really their message. It's getting people onto their platforms and Windows Server -- to be simplistic -- is more or less becoming the Azure runtime on premises.

If you're running it on premises; if you're running some semblance of a private cloud or your provider is, then Windows Server 2016 becomes that foundation. As Azure Stack arrives later this year we'll see that really emphasized where Windows Server is that core pillar.

When a new Windows Server operating system comes out, the adoption is typically pretty slow, partly for budget or technical reasons. I've seen some numbers that show Windows Server 2008 still has the largest install base out there. Now that Microsoft has announced its Premium Assurance plan some organizations may not consider a migration from Windows Server 2008 until 2026. What are some ways that Microsoft can break down that resistance to upgrade?

Miller: A lot of that comes down to trying to make the features and the OS compelling enough that -- as businesses both move legacy applications forward and as they build new applications -- they realize that Windows Server 2016 will generally make life easier for them. A lot of the technologies that used to be very fragile and very rough have either gotten more refined or moved into Azure.

I think in general it's helping businesses realize that direction -- that the platform is there for them. The reality is for better or worse, this is the way things happen. In 10 years' time, we'll be talking about people stuck on Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows Server 2016 when new derivations of what actually is still an OS on premises is there.

Is part of this reluctance of working with the cloud partly due to the rapid changes, with the constant evolution of updates and steady arrival of new features? Also, there's a certain vulnerability of depending on a software-as-a-service app that worked fine yesterday but today something happened behind the scenes that caused a problem. With on-premises servers, at least you knew when an update had been applied and could roll it back if trouble hit.

Miller: I think it's both Azure and Windows Server 2016 and, honestly, Windows 10 -- just to throw that in there as well. It's that same thing, that cadence of these updates and the regularity of them arriving can be overwhelming for people who are used to operating a more service pack-like schedule. Unfortunately, what this highlights is not that Microsoft needs to change -- because this is generally the way things are going to be, albeit probably some changes over time -- but in general it represents the fact people need to, as they're moving these applications forward, be prepared to start testing on a regular basis and understand how to test when those new updates come out.

Whether you're looking at Azure, a new version of Windows Server, and for example, Nano Server -- it's on this rapid servicing schedule versus the regular server platform. It's very important that people understand how they're testing and take advantage of things like containers, which could conceptually make testing easier and more regular.

For a traditional on-premises Windows shop, do you see Microsoft trying to get a foothold in those data centers by getting people to use some of these other cloud services, such as Azure Backup or Azure Site Recovery, to get administrators more familiar with the cloud?

Miller: One of the main questions we get from people at our licensing boot camp: 'I hear a lot about Azure, but what's it good for, for me?'

The main thing I can tell people today is if you're not interested in building apps on Azure, there's a whole other disaster recovery platform, as you highlighted. It depends on the specific technology you're looking at, but the story of how you can fail Windows Server 2016 or SQL Server 2016 out to Azure as a backup data center is pretty impressive.

For a lot of businesses that have done enterprise licensing on premises, there's actually some significant cost reductions. In the case of SQL Server, there may not be a cost for running SQL Server itself in Azure. They need to understand that sort of technology and how Azure can play a role in disaster recovery in particular.

You mentioned Azure Stack, which has been delayed and revised from what Microsoft had originally planned. It sounds similar to what some other companies have tried, namely VMware with EVO:RAIL, to provide a self-service appliance. But Microsoft is a bit late to the game here -- if a company wanted to implement this it's probably already doing it -- so why should enterprises care about Azure Stack?

Miller: What's interesting is that it changed from early on when they sent out the original beta or the early preview, it was, 'Try it on whatever ramshackle hardware you've got lying around.'

Now we've come full circle to the point where, yes, it's delayed from its original estimate, and it's OEM only -- at least in this first incarnation and will probably continue to be. That's not an illogical thing because it's so centered around the hardware in terms of what it takes advantage of. At least out of the gate it's OEM-only -- you'll buy it from a device manufacturer, one of the three [Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise or Lenovo], and it'll work on premises in your data center.

To me, that's the key thing about Azure Stack. What's the story? You're right, a lot of people have either built their own or come up other solutions and there've been other technologies that have done it. What's the difference from Microsoft here?

There's a couple of things. First, this is the only product that is the organizationally specific implementation of Azure. If I'm already an organization that's looking at Azure or I want something on premises that I can use with a cloud provider and have a standard back and forth, this is really the only one that's going that direction.

If you're based on Windows Server today, it's not going to be a big leap because it's based around Windows Server technology from the stack up. It will look very different, operate very different, but if you're used to Azure and you're used to Windows Server, I think the learning curve for getting to Azure Stack is going to be pretty smooth.

Then the question becomes, what do the upfront and long term costs of running in Azure Stack -- let's say running on premises or in my own organization's data center -- look like? That's when an organization will have to figure out if Azure Stack makes sense for them.

Last year, Microsoft changed how it licenses Windows Server, and licensing is something that can be tricky when you move workloads back and forth from on premises and Azure. Is that something Microsoft needs to make more plain to get organizations into Azure?

Miller: It would be nice if it was, but the reality is we are where we are and you're right. The most complicated conversations around licensing come from getting from a place to another place. Describing to somebody how you get from Windows Server 2012 R2 -- which is per-processor licensing with client access licenses (CALs) -- to Windows Server 2016 which is core-based licenses with CALs, it's a very complicated exercise to explain. They have to understand the licensing, how the infrastructure works, what a core is, etcetera. It's unfortunate but it's a complicated exercise.

The good thing is by moving to core-based licensing -- although it will be more expensive for what we like to call core-dense systems on premises -- at least it aligns the licensing so that you're paying the same way when you're in Azure. When you buy Windows Server, SQL Server, BizTalk, in the cloud in Azure, you're paying by the core as a fundamental now anyway.

Are there any tools to help administrators keep track of where these Windows Server licenses are when you try to implement a hybrid cloud?

Miller: Not really. We see a lot of different Software Asset Management auditing tools. Each one has weaknesses. Each one has strengths. The problem areas are generally very uniform: Things that are hard to count are generally hard to count.

Things like client access licenses, which are still required for Windows Server on premises, are not required for Windows Server when you're running in Azure itself. But those sorts of things are hard to count because figuratively you can't get your hands around them. You'll see some tools that will attempt to count that but for an organization that wants to be above board -- it's unfortunate because that's hard to attest to. It's really an accounting exercise; it's never a practical exercise.

PowerShell turned 10 years old last year and despite all its recent development, it seems most administrators would rather just point and click to manage the environment. Microsoft is pushing it but is PowerShell where an IT staff should concentrate its learning efforts?

Miller: Absolutely. There's this analogy that goes around the operations world where you don't treat your servers like pets, treat them like cattle. Impersonal as it may be, that's something I do agree with -- the concept that if you're deploying servers one at a time, using a click-through UI, you're doing it in a context of sitting there one action per verb. It's not something you can reproduce when that server goes down. You can't say, 'Well that's OK -- just rerun the script that rebuilds that server.'

Things like PowerShell and Desired State Configuration and these fundamentals that Microsoft has built in since Windows Server 2012 have gotten more refined in Windows Server 2016 to help organizations do more at scale.

Administrators also need to constantly evolve and not let the apps and systems become sedentary, because they become unsecure, unmanageable and eventually become more of a tether than a benefit.
Wes Millerresearch analyst at Directions on Microsoft

If you aren't training your IT staff in PowerShell, sure they can continue to exist in a GUI-based world but it's much like trying to do Excel and not take advantage of Visual Basic for Applications or take advantage of the macro language. You can sit there and add it all up and do the division yourself in your head or use PowerShell and just shortcut it.

There is a giant learning curve that I'm still personally struggling to work through but I believe on the other side it's worth it in terms of the operational efficiency that both the individual can take with them in that position and even in future positions in the Microsoft realm. Within the organization, they can do more, faster than they would historically with the point and click.

It's also really important to note that while PowerShell started with Exchange on Windows Server, it has dramatically evolved. It's fundamental on Windows Server. It's a key component of Nano Server. It's in Azure. It's in Azure Stack.

The longer people wait to learn it, the longer they're going to be holding themselves back from learning the latest technologies and taking advantage of the stuff Microsoft is building.

Microsoft has been very busy of late with a number of new technologies and tools aimed at administrators, so I can imagine there are a lot of people in IT who are experiencing information overload. Do you think all these choices can be a detriment? Will people be willing to embrace something like PowerShell and put a lot of effort into learning it when they may wonder if it will get replaced by something else?

Miller: It's a great question and one I struggle with. I'm inclined to think of this carousel in Spokane where I take my youngest daughter, and she loves to try and grab the ring. That comes up as an analogy to me because the IT pro needs to enjoy their job. Do what they do; be successful at it. Watch for the growth of their company and the projects they're working on. Figure out both when the opportunities are there to move the organization's platform forward, knowing that you can't sit there and stagnate forever. And know when the opportunity is there for them to learn a new technology.

I know it's scary for all of us to consider learning something new when were pretty comfortable with the way we do things. Administrators also need to constantly evolve and not let the apps and systems become sedentary, because they become unsecure, unmanageable and eventually become more of a tether than a benefit.

Are Microsoft certifications still worth pursuing? I know a lot of recruiters won't consider someone unless they have certain certifications. Should Windows Server administrators concentrate their efforts on these certification tracks? Or should they explore other avenues, such as learning how to work in a DevOps environment, or picking up some programming skills?

Miller: This one might be somewhat contentious. I come from a family of teachers -- I think certifications have served a great purpose for a long time but I worry as somebody develops and gives regular training that we struggle to keep up to date -- and we do this every two months. I struggle with how a modern certification system can help those people become operationally successful.

I know a lot of organizations do still look for that. It's a good checkmark to look for on the resume, 'Does he have an MCSE?' They look for those letters. They can provide a good balance. I think, especially if your organization is willing to keep you up to date on those certifications, it can make sense.

But to me, for the individual, it's becoming a lot more important to find your own road and figure out what those new languages, new tools, new products, new services are that you need to learn to make both your own job successful, your career successful, and the people you work around more effective.

Next Steps

Microsoft addresses changing needs with containers and Nano Server

Will change to Windows Server licensing spur Azure adoption?

Microsoft infuses security features in Hyper-V in Windows Server 2016

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