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Microsoft signals 'Cloud OS' ambitions with Windows Server 2012

With Windows Server 2012 out, Microsoft solidified its position as a cloud-oriented company. Experts wonder if the move will resonate with customers.

This is part two in the series looking at Microsoft's approach to promoting Windows Server 2012. Part one can be found here.

Among the building blocks stitched into Windows Server 2012, perhaps the most strategically important is Azure, the company's cloud computing platform designed for developing, deploying and managing cloud applications and services. Microsoft officials trotted out the Server/Azure product combination publicly for the first time at its Build conference last year.

That announcement stated that three of the four core concepts Azure is built upon are directly aimed at cloud users and developers: the ability to allow IT shops to build private clouds that offer public cloud services; the ability to offer continuously available cloud services along with the ability to manage those services across multiple servers from a single server; and the ability to run any application from any cloud.

While most corporate and third-party developers haven't registered many complaints about Azure as a development platform, few larger corporations have deployed the cloud environment for meaningful applications or services that reach down to internal users or out to their customers. For Windows Server 2012 to be more widely perceived as the cloud operating system that Microsoft wants it to be, the company must do a better job than it has so far in demonstrating that vision, some observers believe.

"When Microsoft says (Windows Server) 2012 is a cloud OS, they are referring to Hyper-V being more robust and how System Center can manage it an infrastructure-as-a-service manner so you can set up a cloud data center. But there is no real coherent cloud story other than saying that IaaS is the cloud," said Mark Eisenberg, a director with Fino Consulting, specialists in advising IT shops on cloud and mobile platforms. "I am still waiting for them to articulate this write-once and run-anywhere strategy for the cloud."

Even if Microsoft starts sending a clearer message about Server 2012 as a legitimate cloud OS, Eisenberg and others believe it will take corporate shops anywhere from six to 18 months to build a standard server image for Windows Server 2012 and its many built-in technologies.

"Generally what I see my shops do with server OSes is to start with the process of building a certified image and then stand all their new servers up against that image," Eisenberg said. "And then you have to get corporate and third-party developers to create applications that need Server 2012 in order to run, and so far Microsoft is doing a fairly atrocious job at that."

For Windows Server shops that have spent some time working with Azure on private or public cloud projects, the tighter coupling of Server 2012 with the recently technically improved Azure may hold some appeal. But the Windows Server 2012/Azure combination won't be so attractive to those who have yet to launch their first cloud projects, or those who have but are using non-Microsoft technologies.

"If you are an Azure user, there is a lot to like with all the good hooks in there for connecting up products and services, so there is a clear case for upgrading," said Jonathan Hassell, an IT consultant with 82 Ventures. "But if you are wondering what direction to go in, there isn't anything in Win Server 2012 that answers that question for you. People won't be saying, 'Thank God it's arrived so now we can go to the cloud.'"

Some users aren't necessarily focusing on reasons not to deploy Server 2012, but neither do they see a compelling reason to do so any time soon. They say they will likely roll it out when it is time to refresh its server hardware base.

"(Windows) Server 2012 looks solid and has more than enough new features or technologies to weigh, but I don't see anything that tells me I need to deploy this now," said Martin Kreig, a purchasing agent with a large transportation company in Jacksonville, Fla. "It looks like we can pretty much deploy this in the normal cycle, which means waiting for the first service pack."

Virtualization integration may offer a boost

Microsoft's kitchen sink approach may turn out to be a way to outflank the competition in jockeying for space in the data center, but there are substantial hurdles to overcome with customers that already have investments in virtualization infrastructure, such as VMware.

Key Windows Server features

Key new features in Windows Server 2012

  • PowerShell 3.0 new features include new cmdlets, bringing the total to 2,300 cmdlets.
  • Storage spaces: allows multiple drive types at different sizes to share one common storage pool
  • Hyper-V Replica: host-based replication, used for mission-critical applications

Key features in Windows Server 2008 R2

  • Hyper-V virtualization built-in
  • Server Core, using a minimal server interface
  • Overall security enhancements, including BitLocker

"I think Hyper-V has a bad rep, and a lot of people just aren't willing to try it," said Sean McDermott, CEO of Windward IT Solutions, an IT service management and systems engineering firm based in Herndon, Va. "The virtualization train left the station a long time ago so it's going to be tough to catch up."

However, Microsoft's move to link Hyper-V with System Center's management tools could help trigger a major migration to Windows Server 2012. "It'll be interesting if Microsoft can create its own 'event,'" McDermott said. "It's going to be a really interesting thing to watch. We're starting to work with how to build public and private clouds with Azure on one side and System Center on the other [along with] the ability to transparently move .NET code."

What might give the Standard version of Server 2012 a boost is Microsoft's decision to allow shops to deploy not just one, but two virtual instances of the operating system along with the physical copy. The company offered only one virtual instance with Windows Server 2008 R2. Some shops like the new licensing's financial and functional appeal.

"Win Server 2008 Standard offered you one plus one, but 2012 gives you two virtualization rights, which for me means I have a space to do Exchange and another to do SharePoint," said MVP user Bradley.

Whether the raft of new technologies in Server 2012 entices corporate IT shops sooner rather than later remains to be seen. But given the watershed moment Microsoft faces -- as it attempts the tricky business of ushering its corporate users from high-ticket server operating systems to cloud computing and low-end mobile devices -- sooner might be better.

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