Windows Server has been around for nearly 25 years and is on its way to becoming a very different type of server OS. Part of the reason for this is because of a shift in focus at Microsoft to support new platforms that customers are using.
This change reflects a move toward new development models that use containers, micro services, and cloud services. It is far away from the original Windows NT 3.1 Advanced Server that was introduced back in 1993, but it isn't the first time such fundamental changes have been made to Windows Server.
Four eras of Microsoft
Even though there were four eras at Microsoft, there were only three architects. They all came from Digital Equipment Corp. The first was Dave Cutler, then came Bill Laing, and finally, we have Jeffrey Snover.
At the heart of the server is Dave Cutler's kernel (no, this has nothing to do with popcorn), the object-based kernel, and separation of responsibilities. This is what is enduring about Windows. But it also needs to be affordable and manageable to be successful.
What made Windows such a success when they matched the kernel with a desktop experience and ran it on PC hardware? This combination made it possible for anyone to purchase a server and deploy it themselves.
Windows Server succeeded, with every release, by adding new features that you would pay more for on another OS, from web servers to transaction management tools, to virtualization management, and software-defined networking and storage.
The rise and fall of the server GUI
With an increasing list of features, the management options for Windows Server changed gradually. Today, Nano Server, a mini version of 2016's Windows Server, has no GUI at all. This is the future and is the most significant change since Windows NT was introduced. Nano Server is a huge refactoring of Windows Server for creating smaller footprints that are more secure and need less patching and have no local interface. They can only be managed remotely.
The trend that led to Nano Server's creation is clearly visible. During the enterprise years, the local GUI was still there. There was a local management interface, too. But that didn't work for large systems at data centers, and that's where automation came into the picture.
Automation here was with PowerShell, a configuration management and command line scripting system that was built on .NET. For those using PowerShell, it will be easy to shift to Nano Server, although it will take a little effort.
With Windows NT, we had a combined kernel and a desktop OS. Now, we need two versions. One that doesn't have the desktop OS and one for small businesses.
Earlier, because of how software worked, it was splendid to have everything with you. You could use what you want and when you needed it. But this approach is no longer realistic.
With the number of resources available today, continuing with this approach would be counterintuitive. Everything today is about agility and speed. Nano Server uses just half of the kernel memory, which means you can run more instances of it on the same hardware. Security is another factor that has become vital. Moreover, you need something lightweight and with the features you need.
Addressing a couple of different markets does not mean compromising. The reality here is that Windows Server 2016 is sterling from the viewpoint of the cloud and the masses. Now it really is a client experience with added server features.
This is fundamental because it means Windows Server 2016 is consistent with Windows 10. There are some potential drawbacks to this, though. They say you can't go from a server with desktop to Server Core. But it appears the ability to do this was essential because people weren't sure about Server Core meeting their needs.
Evolving development models
One more way in which Windows Server has managed to stay relevant for such a long time is by supporting application models.
It was paramount to make the development of applications available to the masses. .NET in Windows Server 2003 allowed this. It enabled users to write mission-critical applications without worrying about issues like memory allocation.
Microsoft has quickly moved to support containers because they are now popular, but this idea is not as new to them as you may think. They used to have processes, then job objects, and then virtual machines. Containers just fuse everything together, which creates a better experience.
Hardware improvements make these techniques more widely applicable. Increased speed, bandwidth, and lower latency means more can be done now than ever. This also allows you to separate things into different environments where they have a lifecycle and versioning of their own. This is big for this era. In principle, you could do this before but the network was too expensive, and it made no sense.
Another chapter of Windows Server
And then there's serverless computing. There is a server involved of course, but you don't need to worry about it. You can give your PowerShell code to Azure's automation service, and it will run it for you. They use a server to run your code when needed and get rid of it once that is done. In such an environment, having something like Nano Server is fantastic.
One big question: How ready are Microsoft's customers for such changes? Many businesses are hanging onto earlier versions. They are even willing to pay extra to get security updates for versions that haven't been eligible for any support for more than year. And do not forget, taxes are high and regulations are high, which is hurting businesses and prospects.
This is a very big difference, and like with all big changes, some get there early while others hover and wait. This type of transition shouldn't be looked at as something new.
As people go from one model to the next, there will always be confusion and chaos in the middle. There is the old model that people try adhering to, but it eventually stops being able to solve the problems they want solved. But as long as it is solving some of the problems, they are content. Windows Server 2016 will be stellar for people looking to buy servers and attach touchscreens to it so they can ask Cortana to launch Internet Information Services. Unlike taxes and regulations, Cortana is actually useful and sensible.
Photo credits: Pixabay, Microsoft, Operating-system.org