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Windows Server certifications retirement plan a blow to admins

This latest decision by Microsoft to drop the MCSA, MCSD and MCSE certifications is another step to push customers toward the cloud, but it's not an option for many in IT.

If you're a Windows admin, then you might still be reeling from the recent certification news from Microsoft.

It had been more than a year since the Windows Server 2019 release with no sign of a certification when Microsoft announced it was retiring the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) certifications on June 30 -- then consequently pushed out to Jan. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic -- with no plans for Windows Server 2019 certifications before that deadline. In a blog released Feb. 27, the company said, "Windows Server 2019 and SQL Server 2019 content will be included in role-based certifications on an as-needed basis for certain job roles in the Azure Apps & Infrastructure and Data & AI solution areas."

This is going to be painful for server admins who have relied on Windows Server certifications to help validate their knowledge and skills in the data center. These accreditations just went extinct in favor of the Azure-based certifications. This decision aligns with Microsoft's marketing strategy to put the cloud in the spotlight and shift on-premises workloads to the background.

The problem: Not every customer has moved to Azure. With a little digging, it's easy to find that many companies still have a substantial number of Windows Server workloads that remain in the data center and are most likely not going to budge anytime soon. Microsoft is notoriously guarded with how many Windows Server deployments exist on premises, but a company vice president said there were about 24 million Windows Server 2008 instances, which represented about 60% of the total Windows Server deployments at the company's Inspire event in July 2019.

If you're a Windows admin, then you should feel some anger, as well as concern, with this move. Despite the hype, not everything can be put in a container and into the cloud. The effort to redesign applications for this type of virtualization is not as simple as running an installation wizard. And these workloads often require a lot more resources than expected.

Administrators need to evolve and adapt with the times

Windows Server won't be going anywhere soon, but how it is used and supported has changed. For example, it's not as efficient to investigate an issue and try to troubleshoot it. It's easier to redeploy the server with the application rather than try to correct the problem. In distributed application design, there is less focus on correction in favor of replacement for both speed and reliability.

The same holds true with infrastructure components such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, DNS and Active Directory. It's not ideal to simply replace these, but with solid VM templates and some scripting, the process is quick and relatively painless. This method is related to the loss of these Windows Server certifications. If it's easier to replace, then why focus on the repair aspect? Without the need for troubleshooting, why have a certification?

This might be a bit disturbing for some admins who don't use the "pets versus cattle" model, but virtualization and templates make this a viable option. However, just because something can be done doesn't mean it will work in every situation. The application still needs to support this type of arrangement, and that process has been pretty slow in coming. Applications used in manufacturing, computer-aided design, electronic health record systems and education systems will have difficulty moving to a cloud-based version due to the difficulties with shifting the data away from the data center as well as the loss of customization offered by the on-premises version. Also, a move to Azure or quick replacement won't work for companies that use on-premise resources due to regulations or preference.

While Microsoft sells and supports its on-premises products of Windows Server 2019 and Exchange Server 2019, it is doing its best to bury them in the product stack so only a Google search will unearth them. It's difficult to see, but these products are a shrinking island. They might not go away completely, but the footprint will be a shadow of what it once was. In the world of IT, nothing ever goes away as quickly or cleanly as a vendor might hope -- and Windows Server is no exception.

By necessity, the Azure certifications will be where most in IT now focus their attention. However, many companies still have legacy Windows Server workloads on site, and many of them will need to migrate to 2019. If you're an expert in Windows Server technology, then you need to state that on your resume and, in the absence of an official certification, be prepared to cite specific examples that show your proficiency when you apply.

What you can do in the absence of Windows Server certifications

Microsoft, not its customers, should be carrying the torch for Windows Server 2019. But it's clear the company has moved on -- and I think that is a huge mistake. Microsoft education and certification are driven by its marketing and sales groups. This move doesn't just water down some of the premier industry certifications, it lowers their relevance since they no longer cover all aspects of the core products.

Remember that you're not the only one who sees what Microsoft is doing with Windows Server; IT managers and staff also see this trend. Don't be surprised when these skills sets remain in demand. This could open a few more doors if you're looking for that new opportunity, provided you can work to self-validate some of your supposedly outdated skills. You only have to look at the computer language of COBOL and continued livelihood of the mainframe to see there are jobs to support these legacy technologies that pay exceptionally well for those who know it. It's too bad Microsoft chose to alienate an entire group of IT professionals in favor of a marketing strategy.

You should never say never to a cloud migration, but it won't happen overnight. You shouldn't walk away from Server 2019, despite what the marketing machine says you need to do. You should look at Azure certifications and put in effort to expand your skills portfolio, but don't ignore your core skill sets.

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