Windows Server 8: The features that matter

Microsoft server and cloud expert Bill Laing explains how the new Windows Server 8 operating system will differ from its predecessors

With more than half of all servers now virtualised and with that trend set to continue, Microsoft has had to respond to that major change in its design of Windows Server 8.

The operating system handles its role as a host for virtual machines (VMs) as a VM itself, working with virtual storage — and on everything from budget small-business servers to massive high-performance computing clusters.

It can work as a standalone, in private clouds and as an adjunct to the public cloud.

With all those changes, the next Windows Server release will have to be distinct from previous server systems. Microsoft demonstrated the new version of Windows Server for the first time at its Build conference in Anaheim, California.

ZDNet UK caught up with Bill Laing, vice president of the server and cloud division, and quizzed him about Windows Server 8 and how the on-premise server operating system can stay relevant given the shift to tablets, web apps and cloud.

Q: This is the first time you're showing Windows Server 8. What are we seeing here and how finished is it?
A: This is pre-beta code for developers, for independent software and hardware vendors, and for system builders. It's not something to be broadly deployed.

The purpose is to get the rest of the ecosystem working on all the key pieces we need to finish the product, bringing together the hardware, the software, the different device drivers, and the new hardware-level support. We're not encouraging IT pros to deploy this code because we're not ready for that yet.

The reason we work with partners is to get things like antivirus and backup and drivers [ready] — all the infrastructure pieces that go with the release, that are part of building the package.

We'll certainly get IT pros to evaluate it and we will welcome the feedback but we're not encouraging wide deployment. We also have the TAP [Technology Adoption Program] where we work closely with companies of different sizes which are going to deploy the product.

We did a great deal of planning upfront, then we went into execution and now we're into the validation phase.

How closely is Windows 8 Server connected to Windows 8?
The planning was done jointly with the client team and some parts that we think of as server features are built organisationally in what would be the client team — for example, the datacentre networking is done in the team that does the TCP stack. We share a huge amount of code — we have a common kernel, we don't have a separate TCP stack.

We believe we've got the cloud platform for the future, both the public cloud and the ability to build private clouds.

And how closely is it connected to Azure?
We believe we've got the cloud platform for the future, both the public cloud and the ability to build private clouds.

I learned more about the Azure service running it in nine months than I did in nine years, and we're able to take that learning and deliver it to customers. With Azure, we'll talk more about integration as we roll out new Azure features over the next year. Network virtualisation is very compatible.

Why will customers install Windows Server 8? Is it an incremental upgrade where they want the improvements or is it more about enabling really different ways of doing enterprise IT?
I think it depends on the customer, on the workload and on your industry. If they're on a cloud path, if they want to build a private cloud, there will be significant number of reasons to move.

Tell us more about the cloud and the management features.
The feedback from IT pros was that they felt they spent too much time in management, integrating, upgrading servers, updating software. What could we do to help reduce that cost? They wanted better management and automation. They wanted to manage services not just servers. They wanted to manage multiple machines from a single machine.

We have multiple-machine functionality. With Server Manager you can sit at a single console and manage all the file services across servers in one place. You can create workflows that go across multiple servers. We've done a lot of work really taking PowerShell to the next level.

What we heard from customers was they want to move beyond just basic virtualisation. They've ended up with even more server sprawl than they started with because it's so easy to create those VMs. Customers wanted a way to think of this in a much more dynamic way. They want it to be scalable.

We have major innovations in...

...virtualisation, in networking, in the hypervisor with our virtual switch work. We can really simplify storage dramatically.

I have a server in my office that's got 10 drives, some with 500MB, some 3TB drives. Within one to two minutes, I can pool disparate drives into a single pool, I can create new volumes on top of this and create shares — and it's all done with the server management console. Data deduplication — all these things are built in.

So, these are the kind of features that have been reserved for enterprises with the budget and the expertise to take advantage of them?
We're taking what were traditional high-end features and enabling them on commodity hardware. We've taken high availability to a new price-point and ease of use.

You can manage these features with the skills people have. You can manage SMB [server message block] shares rather than having to know about SANs and LUN [logical unit number] masking. You'll see the ability to failover a running virtual machine hosted on an SMB share that's performing as if it were physically attached to another server, all without interruption.

With RDMA [remote direct memory access] offload, you can see better performance running off a share than from local attached storage. And you can orchestrate the patching and updating of a cluster without any downtime.

People have been saying, "Yes, I love this availability but I don't want to spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and hire in new expertise [to get it]". We're going to look to our hardware partners to help to deliver hardware at a new price-point.

There have been major changes on the desktop since the last version of Windows Server, with the rise of web apps and smartphones and tablets. How does Windows Server 8 keep up with that?
We all know that the workforce, the work style is changing. People work remotely, they work from home. People want to access resources with the technology that they're used to. People often own fancier technology than that available on their desktop. IT wants to enable employees to use their own technology but has issues with compliance and the governance of data and security.

The work style is changing. People work remotely, they work from home. People want to access resources with the technology that they're used to.

We're introducing the concept of claims-based access control. That makes it possible to search files and index them. Find the phrase "Microsoft confidential" and that file gets a new attribute to say only a full-time employee is able to open that file — and it's not done by an access-control group.

We're excited about this because maintaining these access control lists and mapping them across groups is very complex. Now you're able to base it on intent.

Also, there's a lot of evolution we're having with web and other technologies — PHP and Python support. We have a new version of IIS with support for HTML 5, support for WebSockets, which is a powerful way to build web apps.

Are most customers ready for these technologies now?
A server release is typically in the market for upwards of eight to 10 years. Think about Windows Server 2003. There is a still a large customer base using that. We're starting to see Windows Server 2000 drop off now. When we design and plan a server release, we're really looking at a five- to eight-year lifecycle, so we've been trying to project what's going to happen in that time frame.

So what new hardware technologies are going to be important for Windows Server systems?
I think we're in an interesting period of server innovation. We believe people will go to 10GB network infrastructure as the basic infrastructure for storage. Two years ago it wasn't necessarily obvious but we're seeing that.

People will go for scale-out commodity. It's the end of the big scale-up machines. There's been a lot of effort on scale-up, but I fundamentally believe people will buy many small machines, not a few large machines. And the cloud fundamentally changes the law of economic agility.


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