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Tech Watch: What to expect in future Windows Server 2012 versions

There will be major changes in future versions of Windows Server 2012, including Windows Server Blue. Spoiler alert: Get ready for a cloud OS.

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It may seem like just yesterday that Windows Server 2012 -- the latest incarnation of Microsoft's server platform -- emerged from Redmond, Wash. But work continues on the operating system, especially on how it plays in an ecosystem that looks vastly different from how it did 10 years ago.

Increasing integration with cloud platforms

To put it simply, the future of Windows Server 2012 is that it will become a cloud OS. The idea behind updates and service packs for future Windows Server 2012 versions is to put the OS on track to becoming the OS of choice for admins wishing to "cloudify" their IT infrastructure within data centers, either in a paid service or some combination of the two.

But what will that design goal look like?

Microsoft wants to enhance Windows Server's ability to extend the infrastructure of your network logically into the cloud. One of the big stories Microsoft would like to tell with future versions of Windows Server 2012 is a deeper integration between Windows Server and Windows Azure. You can already use Windows Azure alongside Hyper-V Replica to provide fault tolerance for virtualization workloads. Both small businesses and enterprises can take advantage of Windows Azure Online Backup to store copies of critical data in the cloud for further reduction of the risk of data loss. But Microsoft wants to take this even further by creating a platform that makes a hybrid public-private cloud even more of a reality.

This involves integrating infrastructure management tools within Windows Server 2012 and Windows Azure to allow your on-premises network to extend right into the Azure data center through Infrastructure as a Service features. This means you can create logical extensions to your network that physically reside in the hosted service but are touchable, manageable and configurable just as if they were under your own physical control. This is already possible with a limited number of specific data center routers and IPsec-based VPNs in specific scenarios. Watch for the company to extend this technology and create hooks for management -- via Server Manager, other in-the-box tools and System Center -- directly into the OS and remove any hardware dependencies.

Current and future versions of Windows Server 2012 will support the ability to move applications and workloads from on-premises servers to the cloud -- and back again. Some might recall Microsoft's ill-fated attempt to bring Azure-based appliances into the private data center. The idea was to allow companies to take advantage of some of the self-service, self-managing parts of Azure within a controlled environment and build applications that presumably could work in both places.

That effort was canceled in 2012, but work continues on making application and workload portability a bidirectional capability. This way, administrators can host applications where it makes sense: in-house during nonpeak seasons, on Windows Azure during special events that require scalability and massive load handling, and then back in-house to reduce costs when significant demand goes away.

The improvement is abstracting away all of the pieces -- the virtual machine, the database and the infrastructure -- and enabling the administrator to say, "Move our shopping cart system here." This will enable tremendous flexibility and be a key competitive differentiator for Microsoft between what you can do with Linux boxes and something like Amazon Web Services.

The distinction between Windows Server and applications that run on top of it may continue to blur. Let's continue with the abstraction theme for a bit and consider appliances. When you think of an IT appliance, you think of a device designed to perform a function -- to route traffic, to secure your endpoints, to handle phone trunking and so on. You don't necessarily think about what OS that appliance is running; it simply does a job. That sort of thinking may be coming to Windows Server in the form of prepackaged application workloads, especially with an eye toward workload portability between on-premises servers and the cloud.

What if you could set up in Azure a personally owned machine with a preconfigured copy of System Center? What about SQL Server? All of that would presumably run Windows Server, but you would not see that and you wouldn't be concerned with it. You get System Center, SQL Server or any other preconfigured application, and it just works because it's simpler, managed by someone else and potentially cheaper than rolling your own.

The Next Release: Windows Server Blue

A look at the future of Windows Server versions would be incomplete without a preview of its immediate next release. Sometime in the 2013 calendar year, a new version of Windows Server, codenamed "Blue," will be released. A number of reports indicate that, as of the time of publication, Windows Server Blue will be an annual update like its client brother, Windows 8.This is opposed to what has become the customary three-year annual release cycle Windows Server has followed for the past decade or so. The thinking is that cloud customers appreciate turning on new features and capabilities more rapidly than on-premises customers traditionally have.

The downsides of this approach? Management and training are two big holdups. With someone else handling the management aspect when using cloud services, customers are theoretically more tolerant and even more demanding of frequent updates.

Other interesting information is known about Windows Server Blue, including the following:

Many reports have surfaced noting the presence of things called BaseFS and Minkernel. Sandro Villinger of IT World pored through the leaked Windows Server Blue build and discovered references to both of these terms, neither of which were present in Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012.

Mary Jo Foley has sources reporting that MinKernel "is a minimal set of functionality that is shared across the different Windows kernels that run on x86, ARM, Windows Phone and Xbox. MinKernel is the one base-level implementation on top of which these platforms are built, the same way that BaseFS may be the base-level file system that is common across different platforms." MinKernel could well be the result of streamlining the Windows kernel that started with Windows 7 and has its goal somewhere in the much-rumored MinWin project.

So what are the payoffs? Higher quality drivers, better reliability at scale, faster performance, and reduced attack surfaces for those trying to take advantage of security vulnerabilities, appear to be the most notable benefits.

Look for a new design. The design might not necessarily be in Windows Server Blue (although it may happen on that timeframe), but perhaps in future major releases of the server product. There could be a design built for smaller displays, leveraging some of the UI work the company is doing to make Windows Blue work on smaller displays. Imagine a four-inch, touch-enabled display that hooks up right to server consoles or blade controllers and facilitates local troubleshooting via touch without requiring a keyboard-video-mouse connection. Even for servers without the GUI role installed on Windows Server 2012, this small display administration could be handy, particularly in large deployments.

The last word

While Windows Server 2012 is only about six months outside of its release to manufacturing, you might think Microsoft is taking a breath and looking at how Windows Server 2012 meets the marketplace's needs. But this isn't the case. Microsoft is actively working on building the OS as a cloud platform -- whether your cloud is hosted in someone else's data center or located right in your server closets. The message is clear: Windows Server is bringing the cloud to you in some form. Be ready.

About the author
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant, and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUSHardening WindowsUsing Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003, and Learning Windows Server 2003. Jonathan also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is president of 82 Ventures, based in North Carolina, and is currently an editor for Apress, a publishing company that specializes in books for programmers and IT professionals.

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