As important as Azure is, Windows Server will remain the backbone of enterprise IT for years to come.
The future of Microsoft's enterprise business is the cloud, or so we're told. But is it really? The cloud is obviously important, and will deliver significant revenue, but Microsoft's financial returns reveal that on-premises hardware is still significant and likely to remain so for a long time. If you listen to the Windows Server team, they're bullish about that future.
As Jeff Woolsey, the principal program manager for Microsoft's on-premises server products recently tweeted: "Yes, just like there's been a Windows Server release every 2-3 years for the last twenty years. SPOILER: There will be a Windows Server release after the next one too. DOUBLE SPOILER: There will be a Windows Server release after that next, next one too."
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On-premises servers are an important part of enterprise infrastructures: they provide file and networking support, they host line-of-business applications, they manage data. Even with workloads in the cloud there's always going to be a need to have some of these things close to your users, where network latency is an issue, where regulations demand tight control of data, and where software and hardware need tight integration. For now, and for a long time into the future, these are going to remain issues that make running your own servers essential.
Servicing Windows Server
Microsoft has two different servicing models for Windows Server. There's a Windows 10-like semi-annual channel (SAC) with two releases a year and a long-term servicing channel (LTSC) with releases on the old two- to three-year Windows Server cadence.
Both channels have their roles to play. SAC releases provide regular updates for container hosts and for what used to be Windows Server Core -- a command-line-driven version without a graphical user interface that's ideal for virtual machines.
Builds of the next major LTSC release are currently available to Windows Insiders, with the current releases focusing on file services. Microsoft recently began to migrate its customers to SMB 3, and the current test version adds new encryption features to help secure data as it flows between systems. The file system gets a makeover, adding new tools for syncing data with Azure and for handling storage migration to new installations, including Linux file hosts.
You can get a feel for what will be coming to Windows Server by looking at new members of the Azure Stack family, like Azure Stack HCI. Built on a Windows Server foundation, it shows how you will be able to build and run server clusters, using Windows Admin Center and technologies like Windows' implementation of Kubernetes. Microsoft is continuing to evolve its Hyper-V virtualisation layer, with its new OS-integrated VMs helping secure Windows and support new scenarios like Windows' own Linux subsystem.
That's not to say that future releases of Windows Server aren't going to be different from today's. We can guess that the platform will evolve relatively slowly, but that depends on the capabilities of server silicon and on the workloads that businesses plan to run.
Windows Admin Center: Decoupling administration from devices and releases
Hardware and software evolve, as does the underlying philosophy that drives tool development and encourages new ways of working. The rise of DevOps and of the observability model of software management are changing Windows Server, with much of its future in Windows Admin Center (WAC).
Bringing administration tools to a browser console is a significant move, as is a commitment to a regular update schedule. Decoupling management tooling from the underlying operating system is a big change for Microsoft, but it's one that allows Microsoft to migrate features from older management tools and to work with vendors to add new tooling to the console, bringing Microsoft and third-party management into a single, extensible pane of glass. You're not limited to running WAC on Windows Server -- it's ready for use on workstation PCs.
WAC is an important technology, as it allows you to manage across a fleet of servers without having to build custom PowerShell remoting scripts, taking advantage of the same Windows Management Interface APIs as PowerShell. With WAC you can employ user access controls to ensure that only the right people get access to the tools they need.
Microsoft's vision of the future is one where on-premises Windows Server works in conjunction with cloud computing in Azure. That can be standalone servers that occasionally connect to the cloud, and use Azure Active Directory for authentication in parallel with a local AD. Or it can be an extension of Azure into your data centre, using the Azure Portal and tools like Azure Arc to manage applications running on your hardware, with data stored in both your data centre and the cloud.
Speeding up files
All those scenarios mean moving lots of data around, and performance and security matter -- even if you're using a local server as a file share. Much of Microsoft's recent server work has been on improving and updating the familiar SMB protocols that are the foundation of much of Windows Server's file sharing.
At the heart of the updates to SMB are new file compression tools that will be in the next release of Windows Server and are supported in up-to-date installs of Windows Server 2019. Managed from Windows Admin Center, you now have a single place to work with compression and encryption, supporting features that used to be only accessible through PowerShell. Compression significantly reduces file copy times and is ideal for handling virtual machine migrations, or for quickly standing up new containers. It's often forgotten how fundamental the file system is, so big changes here affect much of what happens elsewhere in Windows Server.
At the same time, Microsoft is investigating how to improve SMB over the internet, using the QUIC protocol. Developed as the next version of HTTP, it's already supported by browsers like Chrome and Edge and most modern web servers. Using QUIC you can quickly stand up secure connections to remote servers, without having to run with the overhead of a VPN. Connections are over a standard TLS port 443 connection, so will work without needing to configure routers and firewalls, simplifying connectivity for PCs or for branch offices.
Microsoft is clearly working to deliver an on-premises Windows Server that runs as well as a virtual machine as a bare-metal install. With hybrid cloud technologies like the Azure Stack family a key element of its enterprise IT strategy, that's not surprising. Windows Server has long been a flexible server option -- ever since the launch of its clustering solution as an add-on for Windows NT Server 4.0.
Today's platform is the logical evolution of the NT family of servers, able to run all classes of workloads on all types of hardware. Windows Server might run on a NUC-class device alongside a NAS server under a desk, providing file storage for a home office, or it might be a whole cluster of virtual machines in a two-rack Azure Stack Hub stamp driving a multi-national SAP installation. Whatever it is, whatever it's running, one thing is clear: Windows Server is going to be in your data centre, on your premises, for a long time to come.
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