We're expecting to hear the details about the Blue update of Windows Server 2012 that's proceeding in tandem with Windows 8.1 (as the Blue update of Windows 8 is now known) at Microsoft's TechEd in the first week of June.
We've heard little about this before, perhaps because Microsoft is keen to avoid the "wait till SP1" mantra that has dogged business attitudes to its operating system releases for so long.
With no leaks or rumours from the server division, we don't know much about what's coming. But corporate VP for Windows Server and System Center Brad Anderson has been promising "remarkable new capabilities and functionalities" at TechEd in his blog.
That was a surprise. From what corporate VP for Server and Cloud Bill Laing told us all the way back at Build in 2011 about how Windows Server 2012 was so carefully planned with so much customer feedback, we didn’t expect major changes.
"A server release is typically in the market for upwards of eight to ten years," Laing pointed out at the time. "Think about Windows Server 2003 — there is a still a large customer base using that. Windows Server 2000 we're starting to see pretty much drop off now. So when we design and plan a server release we're really looking at a five- to eight-year life cycle, so we've been trying to project forward what's going to happen in that time frame."
Microsoft spends a lot of time planning upfront, interviewing customers and capturing comments, plus looking at how server hardware will evolve. Out of this come the key areas that are the important pillars, which is how Microsoft groups features (instead of 500 unrelated features you get three or four major areas to concentrate on.)
One of those pillars is cloud and you can expect to hear Windows Server referred to as a cloud OS frequently at TechEd.
And it's also worth considering the relationship between Windows Server and Azure.
Azure has had a steady stream of improvements and new features over the past two years, including the cloud version of Active Directory. Many of these are features that are already in Windows Server, but certainly Blue will improve integration with the new Azure features and services.
The usual view is that server operating systems don't need frequent feature updates, because businesses don't want to keep changing their server setup. That makes keeping up to date with Azure perhaps the most important thing, along with including improvements that come from Azure; now that Microsoft is running hundreds of thousands of Windows Server systems night and day itself for Azure, it's going to find issues that need to be fixed.
Microsoft also needs to sell businesses on the idea of moving to Windows Server 2012 without making them thing they have to stop and wait to evaluate the Blue update before they can migrate.
It's a tricky balancing act. That may mean that the new capabilities and functions aren't necessarily in Windows Server itself.
We expect to see Microsoft do more with the impressive StorSimple cloud-integrated storage product it bought last year; integrating that more directly with other Microsoft tools and bringing out new hardware would be a major annoucement.
There could be new management options in System Center, a new release of the Windows Intune cloud management service, still more options in Azure — and better ways of turning all of that into cloud services that accelerate the shift of businesses from VMware to Hyper-V and Azure.
Windows Server itself might not change very much with Blue, but the offerings Microsoft layers on top of it probably will.
UPDATE: a few Microsoft people are teasing the TechEd sessions they'll be running. Brad Anderson says his keynote "will unveil a broad set of new capabilities across the full suite of Microsoft Cloud OS products and technologies." 'Father of PowerShell' Jeffrey Snover is tweeting about his 'super-secret' session on the 'next version' of PowerShell (which might be version 3.1 or 4.0). As we expected, some of the announcements will be for services running on Windows Server. Scott Schnoll of the Microsoft Exchange team says "we’re going to take the wraps off a range of new products and services at TechEd."