Looking forward to Windows Server 2008: Part 1 (Server Core and Windows Server Virtualization)

Whilst the first two posts that I wrote for this blog were quite generic, discussing such items as web site security for banks and digital rights management, this time I’m going to take a look at the technology itself – including some of the stuff that excites me right now with Microsoft’s Windows Server System.

Many readers will be familiar with Windows XP or Windows Vista on their desktop but may not be aware that Windows Server operating systems also have a sizable chunk of the small and medium size server market.   This market is set to expand as more enterprises implement virtualisation technologies (running many small servers on one larger system, which may run Windows Server, Linux, or something more specialist like VMware ESX Server).

Like XP and Vista, Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server (both now defunct), Windows Server 2003 (and R2) and soon Windows Server 2008 have their roots in Windows NT (which itself has a lot in common with LAN Manager).  This is both a blessing and a curse as while the technology has been around for a few years now and is (by and large) rock solid, the need to retain backwards compatibility can also mean that new products struggle to balance security and reliability with legacy code.

Microsoft is often criticised for a perceived lack of system stability in Windows but it’s my experience that a well-managed Windows Server is a solid and reliable platform for business applications.  The key is to treat a Windows Server computer as if it were the corporate mainframe rather than adopting a   personal computer mentality for administration.  This means strict policies controlling the application of software updates and application installation as well as consideration as to which services are really required.

It’s this last point that is most crucial.  By not installing all of the available Windows components and by turning off non-essential services, it’s possible to reduce the attack surface for any would-be hacker.  A reduced attack surface not only means less chance of falling foul of an exploit but it also means less patches to deploy.  It’s with this in mind that Microsoft produced Windows Server Core – an installation option for the forthcoming Windows Server 2008 product (formerly codenamed Longhorn Server).

As the name suggests, Windows Server Core is a version of Windows with just the core operating system components and a selection of server roles available for installation (e.g. Active Directory domain controller, DHCP server, DNS server, web server, etc.).  Server Core doesn’t have a GUI as such and is entirely managed from a command prompt (or remotely using standard Windows management tools).  Even though some graphical utilities can be launched (like Notepad), there is no Start Menu, no Windows Explorer, no web browser and, crucially, a much smaller system footprint.  The idea is that core infrastructure and application servers can be run on a server core computer, either in branch office locations or within the corporate data centre and managed remotely.  And, because of the reduced footprint, system software updates should be less frequent, resulting in improved server uptime (as well as a lower risk of attack by a would-be hacker).

If Server Core is not exciting enough, then Windows Server Virtualization should be.  I mentioned virtualisation earlier and it has certainly become a hot topic this year.  For a while now, the market leader (at least in the enterprise space) has been VMware (and, as Tracey Caldwell noted a few weeks ago, VMware shares have been hot property), with their Player, Workstation, Server and ESX Server products.  Microsoft, Citrix (XenSource) and a number of smaller companies have provided some competition but Microsoft will up the ante with Windows Server Virtualization, which is expected to ship within 180 days of Windows Server 2008.  No longer running as a guest on a host operating system (as the current Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 and VMware Server products do), Windows Server Virtualization will directly compete with VMware ESX Server in the enterprise space, with a totally new architecture including a thin “hypervisor” layer facilitating direct access to virtualisation technology-enabled hardware and allowing near-native performance for many virtual machines on a single physical server.  Whilst Microsoft is targeting the server market with this product (they do not plan to include the features that would be required for a virtual desktop infrastructure, such as USB device support and sound capabilities) it will finally establish Microsoft as a serious player in the virtualisation space (even as the market leader within a couple of years).  Furthermore, Windows Server Virtualization will be available as a supported role on Windows Server Core; allowing for virtual machines to be run on an extremely reliable and secure platform.  From a management perspective there will be a new System Center product – Virtual Machine Manager, allowing for management of virtual machines across a number of Windows servers, including quick migration, templated VM deployment and conversion from physical and other virtual machine formats.

Windows Server Core and Windows Server Virtualization are just two of the major improvements in Windows Server 2008.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about some of the other new features that can be expected with this major new release.

Windows Server 2008 will be launched on 27 February 2008.  It seems unlikely that it will be available for purchase in stores at that time; however corporate users with volume license agreements should have access to the final code by then.  In the meantime, it’s worth checking out Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 website and the Windows Server UK User Group.

[This post originally appeared on the Seriosoft blog, under the pseudonym Mark James.]

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