What Windows 8 Portends for MSPs – Part 1

Since Microsoft’s release of the Windows 8 consumer preview on February 29th, and then the beta of the next generation of Windows Server (currently being called Windows Server 8) the next day, the tech press has been abuzz with info and opinions regarding the new operating systems. But how will the changes to the UI, the new Metro app platform, and new features in the OS affect MSPs?  That’s what we’re going to look at in this article.

I’ve had a chance to work quite a bit with the Windows 8 CP, and after going through a bit of a learning curve, I like it. The tile-based Metro UI is different. The “hot corners,” charms bar and other new ways of doing things take some getting used to. You can navigate it with a mouse and keyboard (and there are new keyboard shortcuts that help with that) but in my experience it works best with touchscreens and/or multiple monitors.

Figure 1:  My Windows 8 client Start Screen, customized to organize access to both Metro apps and traditional applications

The desktop is still there, minus (for now at least) the Start button/menu. “Legacy” applications run fine there. With multiple monitors, you can have the new Start Screen on one monitor and the traditional desktop on another. Of course, the UI is optimized for tablets and other touchable devices.

There seems little doubt that touch is the future of client-side computing, and that goes for MSP customers and their users as well. And that means service providers will need to adapt to that changing environment.

The most obvious step is that you’ll need to start planning to offer the software that connects to your service in the form of Metro style apps. Sure, traditional programs will still run, but as users become more accustomed to the simplicity of the new apps, they’ll begin to expect and then demand this type of interface. You’ll also be able to take advantage of the “live tile” feature to provide your customers with constantly updated information about the service right on their desktops. The apps will need to be designed to be fast and fluid, optimized to run in full screen, and able to work both with touch and with traditional mouse/keyboard input, without frustrating the user in either case.

This means you need to hire or contract with developers who know how to work with the new WinRT development platform, or your in-house programmers will need to get up to speed on the new API, which replaces the venerable Win32 environment. Another alternative is to offer your services through a web portal, in which case HTML 5 will be an important skill.

What about the server side? Will you be upgrading your own servers to the new OS? In Windows Server 8, Metro is there, but unlikely to be the UI of choice. It’s likely that many admins will continue to use the desktop interface, but Microsoft encourages you to use the Server Core installation for its added security, and PowerShell as the primary means of configuration and administration. As client interaction becomes more graphical than ever, server admin returns to the dark days of DOS where the command line was king. The good news is that you can switch from GUI to Core without reinstalling the OS.

In graphical mode, most server administration is done through the Server Manager app, which has been completely redesigned.

Figure 2: Server Manager in Windows 8 is the main app for admins

Windows Server 8 includes a number of new features that MSPs can take advantage of to provide their customers with a better experience while reducing their own management overhead, and I’ll go into detail about those in a later article.

Since Windows 8 is all about making cloud connectivity easier and more seamless, and since managed services are increasingly all about the cloud, a general move toward the new OS should benefit both MSPs and their customers – but it’s not likely to be a completely painless migration.

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