Microsoft has been hard at work developing the next iteration of its Microsoft Windows Server operating system. While there is yet to be a definitive release date for Microsoft Windows Server 2016, there have been a number of technical previews, and industry pundits say an official introduction can be expected around the third quarter. As Microsoft gears up for the first major release of its stalwart server operating system since 2012, channel partners can anticipate a number of significant features in the areas of security, virtualization, and cloud.
With momentum around Microsoft Windows Server 2016 continuing to build, keep in mind that “anything that Microsoft Server 2016 promises to have may change,” says Will Panek, an author and lead instructor for StormWind Studios, an online IT training company based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Nothing is official until the operating system hits the market.”
In terms of overall direction, “I believe that the OS is focused around the concept of a software-defined data center, Hyper-V, containers, and the security and management of VMs,” says Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent IT planning and information service. As such, he adds, “Most of the new features in the OS are limited to the Datacenter edition, rather than the Standard edition.”
Yet Panek believes that many of the more notable features—features that Microsoft has put forth in its technical previews and online collateral—will indeed be included in the initial release. Among the top features, says Panek, is the Nano Server. “Microsoft right now has Server Core, which is a stripped-down version of Windows Server 2012,” he explains. “Nano Server—basically a very minimal server installation—is going to take that further.”
Nano Server is so small that it does not have a user interface, and is instead designed to be managed remotely. “The cool thing is an instance of a Nano Server is not going to require more than 512MB of disk space or 256MB of memory,” Panek adds. This small overhead, a key characteristic of Nano Server, will be used primarily for virtualization. “Nano Server requires such a little piece of hard drive and RAM, so you can have more servers and each server can have its own features,” says Panek. This in turn will enable channel partners to build a bigger virtual infrastructure on the same number of physical machines than has been possible with Windows Server 2012.
As for security features, Microsoft has announced its intentions to continue taking a layered approach. Susan Bradley, a partner with TSH&B Inc., a business consulting firm in Fresno, Calif., expects Server 2016 to have beefed-up protection against advanced threats—in particular the stealthy “pass the hash” attacks that hackers perpetrate to steal credentials. When plugged into the cloud, “there will be better integration with Azure Active Directory,” Bradley says, “which in turn will enable credentials to be isolated in a separate virtualization environment.” In addition, Microsoft announced enhancements to better control privileged access and safeguard virtual machines in a multitenant environment.
As better integration with Azure suggests, the cloud figures prominently in Windows Server 2016. “Organizations will have the ability to build an entire network off-premise,” says Panek. “That means that you can have Active Directory and the cloud deliver all the software needed.” This capability is particularly relevant in a BYOD environment, as it will enable software to be loaded onto various devices easier. As Panek sees it, Server 2016 will offer more ability to deliver cloud-based services—a feature that can support channel partners’ efforts to provide managed services.
Channel partners looking to enhance managed services or provide hosted services—and thereby opt for the Datacenter edition of Windows Server 2016—will notice a change in licensing. Rather than charge per processor, Microsoft intends to charge per core—a practice that Panek says may increase costs for many since a single processor can include multiple cores. However, Bradley feels that the change in license structure will have a negligible effect on many smaller channel partners. “If thinking about upgrading, the new license structure won’t be a deal breaker,” she says.
As for when to upgrade, the sentiment among industry watchers is highly subjective—especially since Microsoft has yet to announce a definitive release date. Citing personal preference, Panek advises channel partners to wait several months before upgrading—a few months in the market is time enough to identify bugs and learn from any problems experienced by early adopters. In the interim between release and running in production, Panek’s advice for Windows Server 2016 is the same for any new software: “As with any new OS as soon as it is released, I load it into a virtual world so I can test and learn the system inside and out before I take it into a live environment,” he says.
The Upgrade Process
The actual upgrade process itself will also vary, depending on the starting point. “Microsoft has focused a lot on migration from earlier versions of the OS, in particular around migration of Hyper-V servers,” says Miller. “That said, the further back someone is migrating from, the more complex the migration will be.”
Panek contends that upgrading from 2012 or R2 will be fairly straightforward—simply load the new OS on top of the older version. Once migrated to 2016, Panek says that upgrades will be easier going forward; the addition of a network interface card or memory to a virtual machine no longer requires downtime. “With Server 2016, you can have live upgrades where changes can be made to networking, switches, and memory on a Hyper-V system without shutting the box down.” A similar upgrade capability will be possible with clusters as well.
Bradley says upgrades should be evaluated more holistically. “Look at support, the lifecycle aspects of the previous OS, as well as whether other vendors such as hardware providers support the new OS,” she says. “Look at the key line-of-business apps and requirements as well as the budget,” she adds. “If a company does not have Software Assurance—and won’t get automatic upgrades—money may be a decisive factor in timing.”