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What is the future of Windows Server?

At its annual Ignite event, Microsoft presented a number of features that give an insight into its strategy

Microsoft wants to be seen as the company with seamless integration between on-premise Windows servers and the cloud. It is now taking on VMware and Amazon Web Services (AWS) directly with its approach, called Azure Stack.

During the Ignite conference, Microsoft revealed new Windows Server and cloud features, alongside a host of cloud-related enhancements.

As Computer Weekly has reported previously, Azure Stack systems from Dell EMC, HPE and Lenovo are now shipping. This is Microsoft’s attempt to bridge the on-premise and Azure worlds with an on-premise operating system and software stack that replicates its own public Azure cloud.

In Microsoft’s latest quarterly financial results, CEO Satya Nadella said: “Azure Stack extends Azure to enable developers to build and deploy applications the same way whether they run on the intelligent cloud or at the intelligent edge, so customers can meet any regulatory requirement and bring cloud applications to remote or disconnected locations like cruise ships or oil rigs.”

The key part of his message is about deployment. In a blog describing Azure Stack, Mark Jewett, director of product marketing, cloud platform at Microsoft, wrote: “It enables a consistent development experience for cloud-native and traditional applications, with the flexibility to deploy in the cloud, on-premise, or at the edge.”

To provide consistency from an IT management perspective, Microsoft is working on browser-based server management via Project Honolulu, now in technical preview.

Project Honolulu supports server administrators in situations where a server application is installed somewhere on the corporate network, or even on a client PC, for remote administration via a web browser. The server administrator needs to install agents on the servers or virtual machines (VMs) to manage.

A key feature is that a user can connect with alternate credentials, so it is now possible to manage servers that are not domain joined or for which the current user account does not have admin rights. The underlying protocols are remote PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).

The scope of Project Honolulu is greater than that of the existing desktop Server Manager application. Extensions include a file explorer, registry editor, process viewer and more. This will be a free add-on for Server 2012 and higher.

Browsers key for hybrid management

Looking ahead, browser-based management is likely to be the norm for Windows Server. It fits better with servers that have no desktop GUI, and integrates with the Azure portal for VMs in Microsoft’s cloud.

When will there be a new Windows Server release? Microsoft did not reveal a date, but said there will be a new long-term servicing release every two or three years. This suggests there should be a release of Windows Server in 2018 or 2019.

In the meantime, customers with Software Assurance can opt for quicker updates via a semi-annual channel.

These releases do not have a desktop GUI, but bring new features to Windows Server Core and Nano Server.

The new release at Ignite, Windows Server 1709, includes the Windows Subsystem for Linux (as seen on Windows 10) as well as support for Linux containers with Hyper-V isolation. These semi-annual releases are only supported for 18 months.

Read more about Windows Server and Azure

Another key Windows Server announcement made by Microsoft at Ignite is an enhanced Azure Security Center to bridge cloud and on-premise Windows server security.

This was originally a service for monitoring the health and security of Azure VMs, but is now extended to on-premise servers as well, via a downloaded agent. Essentially, the same agent is used by Operations Management Suite (OMS) in System Center. Microsoft provides a dashboard for monitoring patch status, security threats, unexpected activity and other key indicators. Administrators can also create custom alerts, whitelist which applications are allowed to run, control when remote desktop access is allowed, and more. The cost is $15 per node per month.

Consistency is also becoming part of Microsoft’s approach to its file system.

The final Windows Server enhancement demonstrated at Ignite was Azure File Sync, which is now in preview. This appears to be Microsoft’s attempt to take on Box and DropBox. Azure File Sync effectively enables users to connect to folders on Windows Server, including on-premise servers, where the storage is actually on Azure. These folders can then be further shared to users on the local network.

Also, multiple servers in different locations can share the same folders. Azure File Sync caches files locally, for fast access even over poor connections. Support for sparse files means that files download on-demand.

Microsoft offers various levels of redundancy on Azure, a trade-off between resilience and cost. Security attributes are preserved. There are some complications in the details, such as avoiding anti-virus applications that force all the files to download locally, but in principle the service is an easy way to extend storage to the cloud while preserving the performance of local file shares.

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