Thursday, March 8, 2012

Windows Server 8, Microsoft's Attempt at a New Server Paradigm

Article first published as Windows Server 8, Microsoft's Attempt at a New Server Paradigm on Technorati.

Server operating system releases rarely garner much excitement outside of IT circles.  They are the necessary evil coordinating all or our messaging, file handling and online services vital for networked world.  Even if you don't spend your days in a cube for a living and prefer to store your files in the cloud there is a server somewhere making it all possible.

As such they tend to not be very sexy.  In the case of Microsoft, most server operating systems appear on the surface at least to be a stripped down purpose built version of their desktop counterparts.   At their core they are with some important differences..  The primary differentiation is that they've been optimized for better storage, memory handling and security.

Which leads us to the latest offering from Microsoft, Windows Server 8. 

Windows Server 8 Beta was released to the public on March 1st, 2012, one day after the Windows 8 consumer preview.  Hardware requirements are as follows:

Processor - Minimum: 1.4 GHz 64bit processor

Memory - Minimum: 512 MB RAM

Available Disk Space - Minimum: 32 GB

Optical Drive DVD-ROM drive

Display and Peripherals - Super VGA (800 x 600) or higher-resolution monitor


 Microsoft Mouse or other compatible pointing device

Upgrade paths from Server 2008 R2 are supported with other versions of  Server 2008 allowed for the Beta release.  Microsoft makes available a 64Bit ISO and a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) file as the installation media options.   The VHD option assumes at least Server 2003 and Microsoft Virtual server 2005 (Hyper-V).  VMWARE test installations would likely be better served by mounting the ISO as the install medium for a new VM.

As with all Beta installs, Server 8 should only be deployed in a test environment as there is no installation roll-back functionality.

There are two installation options, Server core which offers little more than a powershell window and a GUI version which adds a system manager applet similar (if not a bit gaudy) to the Server 2008 system manager.  In my use the Server Manager is functional but counterintuitive due to the haphazard  organization of the applets.  As an aside it's not very attractive either, looking much like one of those bad Powerpoint slides we've all had to suffer in a sales meeting.

Microsoft has stated that they want to move away from GUI administration tools on the actual server and instead manage server resources remotely.  That would explain the prominence of powershell and the GUI as a now secondary option for installation.

Microsoft has also touted is Hyper-V version 3.0 as a real challenger to the virtualization space currently dominated by VMWARE.  The new virtualization framework touts better support for more physical CPUs, larger storage volumes and larger RAM sizes.  Improvements in SAN performance are also claimed utilizing ODX (offloaded data transfer) which basically sends commands to the SAN directly instead of attempting to read and write data as though the storage were local.  Hyper V virtual machines are also said to support up to four virtual Fiber channel Host Bus Adapters.

Improvements to Hyper-V may be of most interest to IT departments with complex Hyper-V deployments who will appreciate support built into the management GUI.   Hyper -V also supports a new feature called  Hyper-V Replica which can be thought of as a kind of VM failover mechanism utilizing two Hyper-V VM's that are constantly kept updated. 

Improvements in Microsoft's Web Server, IIS and Remote Desktop services (Terminal Services) are also included with this latest release but what may be most striking has little to do with the dry technical stuff.  Server 8, like it's desktop cousin, has inherited the Metro Tile interface.

You'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between Microsoft Server desktops at a glance from Windows 2000 on.  Aside from tweaks to the start button they generally don't include the flash of their desktop counterparts and as such are fairly plain.

Not so with Server 8.  The Metro Tile interface has replaced the Start button/menu and includes tiles to manage the basic functions of the server.  Additional administrative tiles are available by enabling the option giving you access to most of the familiar tools any Windows admin would recognize. 

At first blush this seems like a pointless addition and more than one IT peer has balked at it especially in light of Microsoft's desire to move away from graphical interfaces.  Take a moment to consider the minimalist strategy Microsoft is now promoting, however and it makes sense. 

The desktop in Windows 8 is little more than a convenience primarily existing for backward compatibility for applications that require it.  Desktop  based applications can create a tile in Metro but will launch on the desktop instead of directly from Metro.

With the Metro tiles, senior administrators now have more control over the level of administration they allow to junior staff.  With virtually all aspects of the operating system controllable via Group policy it's not inconceivable to lock junior IT staff into only those functions they need to have with no opportunity to circumvent their limited access. 

Microsoft has not yet set a release date for Server 8 but it's likely that it will be within a few months of the desktop OS release.  Does that mean that Server 8 will replace current installations overnight?  That's unlikely considering that many companies are only now moving to Server 2008 R2 as legacy applications catch up to embrace 64 bit platforms.  In my own experience, there's generally a 2 year lag before a new server operating system starts to gain significant market share over its predecessors.  The most likely driver will be the improved virtualization for companies looking to move from VMWARE and improved resource and access management functionality.

Time will tell if Server 8 is embraced as many IT organizations chose to ignore the last Microsoft server  release,  For many IT organizations Server 2008 offered no real advantage over Server 2003 other than better 64 bit hardware support.  Many organizations also choose to skip versions which may translate into better adoption of the new server OS for IT organizations still using Server 2003. 

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