Microsoft Ignite: The beginning of the end for Windows Server?


When I visit conferences such as Microsoft Ignite I often choose sessions because of the speakers. However I also ensure I attend a number of sessions covering new and updated technology, the things I see as game changers. The technologies I focused on were Azure, in particular Azure Active Directory and a couple of more general Windows Server sessions. Here’s my main takeaways and personal opinion how the development of these technologies will change the look of IT and in particular Windows Server as we know it today.

I primarily work with organisations for whom the public cloud is a viable option. The majority of our customers are already using Office 365, however there are still many organisations who are cloud adverse and hence Azure hasn’t been a viable option. At Ignite there were three new or recently announced products/features discussed that I believe will transform Microsoft centric IT environments over the next few years. They are:

  • Azure Stack
  • Nano Server
  • Azure AD Join

What is Azure Stack?

Azure Stack enables the IaaS and PaaS features available on Microsoft’s public cloud to be made available on premises. Having a consistent platform between public and private cloud will make it easier for organisations to deploy and move applications between the two environments.

There is a blog post here that does a good job of explaining more: http://www.danielstechblog.de/what-is-azure-stack/

What is Nano Server?

Nano Server has been driven by Microsoft’s need to reduce the footprints of servers running in their Microsoft Azure public cloud. The key facts from Microsoft’s announcement of Nano Server here http://blogs.technet.com/b/windowsserver/archive/2015/04/08/microsoft-announces-nano-server-for-modern-apps-and-cloud.aspx are:

Nano Server focuses on two scenarios:

  • Born-in-the-cloud applications – support for multiple programming languages and runtimes. (e.g. C#, Java, Node.js, Python, etc.) running in containers, virtual machines, or on physical servers.
  • Microsoft Cloud Platform infrastructure – support for compute clusters running Hyper-V and storage clusters running Scale-out File Server.

Nano Server will allow customers to install just the components they require and nothing more. The initial results are promising.  Based on the current builds, compared to Server, Nano Server has:

  • 93 percent lower VHD size
  • 92 percent fewer critical bulletins
  • 80 percent fewer reboots

I see Nano Server as a leap on from what Microsoft have already done with Server Core. Server Administrators cannot continue to ignore that servers without a local GUI are the right choice for future.

What is Azure Active Directory Domain Join?

The last session I attended at Ignite was all about Azure AD Domain Join (https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Ignite/2015/BRK3332). This is a feature that I have been waiting for since Azure AD was announced. Azure AD Domain Join allows computers running Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise to be “joined” to Azure AD. Users can then log onto their device using their Azure AD Work Account. Speakers at Ignite kept pointing out that if you have Office 365 you already have an Azure AD.

It’s important to note that Azure AD doesn’t provide the much of the functionality offered by traditional Windows Server Domain Controllers. At the moment the technology seems to be intended for remote workers and small businesses. I discussed potential future developments with Microsoft staff and it seems they are testing the water at this stage to see what the uptake is and will then decide a way forward. I also heard it Azure AD Domain Join described as a “breakthrough” and “turning point”, so I believe it is more than just testing the water.

How will these technologies change the future?

With the announcement of Azure Stack and Nano Server, Microsoft are opening up technologies developed for the public cloud for use on premises. I have been wondering for a while to what extent Microsoft will make its Public cloud features available on premises, but it does seem their availability is extending. This is in line with their “mobile first, cloud first” strategy. Let’s think about a selection of the technologies that are now available from Microsoft as a cloud offering that have previously been solely offered in with a dependency on Windows Server:

Traditional Windows Server Offering Microsoft’s Cloud Offering
Application Servers (IIS) Azure App Services
Exchange Server, SharePoint, Lync Office 365
Domain Controllers Azure AD
SQL Servers SQL Azure
Remote Desktop Services Azure RemoteApp
Backup Azure Backup Services
Device Management and Security Compliance (SCCM, NPS) Intune

If with time Microsoft continue to remove the barriers to public cloud adoption combined with increasing the availability of Microsoft Azure features on premise what will the future role of Windows Server be? Yes it will exist, but not as we know it. I envisage that IT environments will move to a mixture of Microsoft Azure Stack (running on technologies such as Nano Server) to run on premise applications and then other services will be provided by the Microsoft Azure public cloud. All this will be administered via web portals, with no more traditional graphical user interfaces.

How long until we see the end of Windows Server?

Maybe 5 years, 10 years? Or maybe even next week…

For smaller organisations who have already committed to Office 365 the release of Azure AD Join means that Window Server may in reality no longer be a requirement. Devices can be joined to Azure AD and managed using Intune. The only sticking points come with line of business applications that are not yet available as a hosted service.

In enterprise environments it will obviously take much longer, here’s what I see as key requirements before the end of Windows Server is actually a reality:

Group Policy

Azure AD and Intune do not offer Group Policy functionality. Intune offers a limited set of features to control and customise devices but without Group Policy as we know it I can’t see the requirement for Domain Controllers going away. While at Ignite I went to a session on Group Policy (https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Ignite/2015/BRK3304) in which PolicyPak Cloud Edition (http://www.policypak.com/products/policypak-suite-cloud-edition.html) was demonstrated. I have yet to try this out myself but it definitely seems like it could be an interim solution.

I don’t expect it to be too long before Microsoft comes up with a solution to allow Group Policy to be deployed, either via Azure AD, or it may be something more similar to Group Policy is integrated into Intune.

More Microsoft Azure features available on Azure Stack

Many organisations still have barriers preventing them from moving to the public cloud. If Microsoft continue to expand their offer of existing public cloud features as part Azure Stack I can see Windows Server disappearing faster than we may expect. The availability of SaaS features such as Azure AD on Azure Stack would accelerate the process. To remove Windows Server from the organisations who cannot touch the public cloud Microsoft would need to bring services such as Exchange Online to the on premise Azure offering. As they already have them running on Azure I don’t expect that to be a long way off.

Software Applications

The majority of organisations rely on applications developed by 3rd party software vendors and also internal development teams. These applications are likely to have a dependency on Windows Server. These applications will need migrating to an Azure PaaS compatible format and rather than integrating with Windows Server Active Directory they will need to utilise Azure AD. It’s possible an organisation could push forward and complete migrations over a relatively short period of time, but in reality it’s going to be a fair number of years before we see the end of Windows Server as we know it…

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