No more heroes {please}

That’s it.  A single reference to [IT] heroes.  No more – because I didn’t count how many times that word was used at the 2008 Global Launch event today but I certainly didn’t have enough fingers and toes to keep a tally – and now I’m tired of hearing it.

Although those of us at the UK launch had already heard from a variety of Microsoft executives (including Microsoft UK Managing Director, Gordon Frazer, and Microsoft’s General Manager for the Server and Tools Division, Larry Orecklin) and customers, the highlight was the satellite link-up to the US launch event with Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer.Steve Ballmer at the Microsoft 2008 Global Launch  Unfortunately, before we got to hear the big man speak, we had to listen to the warm-up act – Tom Brokaw, who it would seem is a well-known television presenter in the States, but totally unknown over here.  He waffled on for a few minutes with the basic premise being that we are in a transformational age in the history of our world and that the definition of our time and generation comes from unsung heroes (damn, that’s the second time I’ve used the word) – not celebrities.

So.  Windows Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2008.  Three new products – one released last year, one earlier this month, and another due later in 2008 in Microsoft’s largest ever launch event with 275,000 people expected to attend events across the globe and another million online at the virtual launch experience website.  Ballmer described them as "The most significant [products] in Microsoft’s history" and "enablers to facilitate the maximum impact that our industry can have".  But what does that mean for you and I – the people that Microsoft likes to refer to with the H word who implement their technology in order to execute this change on an unsuspecting world?

I’ve written plenty here before about Windows Server 2008, but the 2008 global launch wave is about more than just Windows.  For years now, Microsoft has been telling us about dynamic IT and over the last few years we have seen many products that can help to deliver that vision.  The 2008 global launch wave is built around four areas:

  1. A secure and trusted foundation.
  2. Virtualisation.
  3. Web and developer productivity.
  4. Business intelligence (and user experience).

So, taking each of these one at a time, what do the 2008 products offer?

A secure and trusted foundation

Security and reliability are always touted as benefits for the latest version of any product, but in the case of Windows Server there are some real benefits.  The Server Core installation option results in a smaller codebase, meaning a reduced attack surface.  The modular design of IIS (and indeed the role-based architecture for Windows Server) means that only those components that are required are installed. Read-only domain controllers allow for secure deployment of directory servers in branch office situations that previously would have been a major security risk.

Availability is increased with enhancements to failover clustering (including new cluster validation tools), SQL data mirroring and the new resource governor functionality in SQL Server 2008 which allows resources to be allocated to specific workloads.

On the compliance and governance front, there is network access protection, federated rights management, and transparent SQL data encryption.

Microsoft is also keen to point out that their database platform has seen significantly fewer critical vulnerabilities in recent history than Oracle.

Finally, although not strictly security-related, Microsoft cites 40% of data centre costs relating to power and that Windows Server 2008 consumes 10% less power than previous versions of Windows Server, when running the same workload.

Virtualisation

Microsoft’s view on virtualisation is broader than just server virtualisation, encompassing not just the new Hyper-V role that will ship within 180 days of Windows Server 2008 release but also profile virtualisation (document redirection and offline files), client virtualisation (Vista Enterprise Centralised Desktop), application virtualisation (formerly SoftGrid) and presentation virtualisation (Terminal Services RemoteApp), all managed in one integrated, unified manner with System Center.

As for VMware‘s dominance of the server virtualisation space – I asked Larry Orecklin how Microsoft would combat customer perceptions around Microsoft’s lack of maturity in this space. His response was that "the proof is in the pudding" and that many customers are running Hyper-V in beta with positive feedback on performance, scalability and ease of use.  Microsoft UK Server Director, Bruce Lynn added that Hyper-V is actually the tenth virtualisation product that Microsoft has brought to market.

In Steve Ballmer’s keynote, he commented that [customers] have told Microsoft that virtualisation is too hard and too expensive – so Microsoft wants to "democratise virtualisation" – to switch from the current situation where less than 10% of servers are virtualised to a world where 90% are.  Their vision is for a scalable and performant hypervisor-based virtualisation platform, with minimal footprint, interoperability with competitive platforms, and integrated management tools.

Web and developer productivity

At the core of Windows Server 2008 is IIS 7.0 but Visual Studio extends the vision for developer productivity when creating rich web applications including support for AJAX, JavaScript IntelliSense, XAML, LINQ, entity-level data access and multi-targeting.

From a platform perspective, there are improvements around shared configuration, administrative delegation and scalability.

Combined with Silverlight for a rich user experience and Expression Blend (for designers to interact with developers on the same code), Microsoft believes that their platform is enabling customers to provide better performance, improved usability and a better experience for web-based applications.  It all looks good to me, but I’m yet to be convinced by Silverlight, or for that matter Adobe AIR – this all seems to me like a return to the days when every site had a Shockwave/Flash intro page and I’m like to see a greater emphasis on web standards.  Still, at least IIS has new support for running PHP without impacting on performance now – and Visual Studio includes improved CSS styling support.

Business intelligence

Ballmer highlighted that business intelligence (BI) is about letting users engage with applications – providing not just presentation but insight – getting at the data to provide business value.  Excel is still the most popular business intelligence tool, but combined with other products (e.g. SharePoint and PerformancePoint), the Microsoft BI story is strengthened.

SQL Server 2008 is at the core of the BI platform providing highly performant and scalable support for data warehousing with intelligence for both structured and unstructured data.  SQL Server reporting services integrates with Office applications and the ability to store spatial data opens new possibilities for data-driven applications (e.g. the combination of non-relational data and BI data to provide location awareness).

Putting it all together

So, that’s the marketing message – but what does this mean in practice?  Microsoft used a fictitious coffee company to illustrate what could be done with their technology but I was interested to hear what some of their TAP customers had been up to.  Here in the UK there were a number of presentations from well-known organisations that have used 2008 launch wave products to solve specific business issues.

easyJet have carried out a proof of concept that they hope to develop into an improved travel portal for their customers.  As a low-fares airline, you might expect anything more than the most basic website to be an expensive extravagance but far from it – 98% of easyJet’s customers book via the web, and if the conversion rate could be increased by 1% then that translates into £17m of revenue each year.

The easyJet proof of concept uses a Silverlight and AJAX front end to access Microsoft .NET 3.5 web services and SQL Server 2008.  Taking a starting point of, for example, London Luton, a user can select a date and see the lowest prices to all available destinations on a map.  Clicking through to a destination reveals a Microsoft Virtual Earth map with points of interest within a particular radius.  Streaming video is added to the mix, along with the ability to view hotel details using TripAdvisor and book online.

The proof of concept went from design to completion in just 6 weeks.  Windows Server 2008 provided IIS 7.0 with its modular design and simplified configuration.  SQL Server 2008 allowed the use of geospatial data.  And Visual Studio 2008 enhanced developer productivity, team collaboration and the overall user experience.

Next up was McLaren Electronic Systems, using SQL Server 2008 to store telemetry data transmitted in real time from Formula 1 racing cars.  With microwave signals bouncing off objects and data arriving out of sequence, the filestream feature allows data to be streamed into a relational database for fast access.  Tests have shown that for files above 2MB this technology will out-perform a traditional file system.  Formula 1 may sound a little specialised to relate to everyday business but as McLaren explained, a Formula 1 team will typically generate 3TB of data in a season.  That’s a similar volume to a financial services company, or a warehousing and logistics operation – so the technology is equally applicable to many market sectors.

The John Lewis Partnership is using Windows Server 2008 for its branch office infrastructure.  Having rolled out Windows Server 2003, they would like to reduce the number of servers (and the carbon footprint of their IT operations) at the same time as doubling the number of stores.  Security is another major consideration, with the possibility of data corruption if power is removed from a server and a security breach if a directory server is compromised.

By switching branch servers to Windows Server 2008 read-only domain controllers (DCs), John Lewis can combine the DCs with other branch office functions (print, DHCP, System Center Configuration Manager and Operations Manager) to remove one server from every store.  The reduction in replication traffic (AD replication is all one-way from the centre to the RODCs) allows for a reduction in data centre DCs too.  Windows Server 2008 also facilitates improved failover between data centres in a disaster recover scenario.  Other Windows Server technologies of interest to John Lewis include Server Core, 64-bit scalability and clustering.

The University of Cambridge is making use of the ability to store spatial data in SQL Server 2008 to apply modern computing to the investigation of 200 year-old theories on evolution.  And Visual Studio 2008 allowed the construction of the associated application in just 5 days.  As Professor John Parker and his self-confessed "database geek" sidekick, Dr Mark Whitehorn explained, technologies such as this are "allowing the scientific community to wake up to business intelligence".

Finally, the Rural Payments Agency (the UK government agency responsible for paying agricultural subsidies) is using Microsoft Application Virtualization and Terminal Services to provide an ultra-thin client desktop to resolve application conflicts and allow users to work from any desk.

Roadmap

Microsoft never tells us a great deal about the roadmap (at least not past the next year or so) but the 2008 launch wave includes a few more products yet.  Visual Studio 2008 and Windows Server 2008 have already shipped.  SQL Server 2008 will be available in the third quarter of 2008 (with a community technology preview today) and the Hyper-V role for Windows Server will ship within 180 days of Windows Server (although I have heard rumours it may be a lot closer than that).  In the summer we will see a new release of Windows Small Business Server as well as a new product for SMEs – Windows Essential Business Server – and, at the other end of the computing spectrum, Windows High Performance Computing Server.  Finally, a new version of Silverlight will ship at some point this year.

Summary

I may not be a fan of the HEROES happen {here} theme but that’s just marketing – I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Windows Server 2008 is a great product.  I don’t have the same depth of experience to comment on Visual Studio or SQL Server but the customer presentations that I heard today add credence to Microsoft’s own scenario for a dynamic, agile, IT infrastructure to reduce the demands for maintenance of the infrastructure and drive out innovation to support the demands of modern business. 

Mark Wilson {United Kingdom}

5 thoughts on “No more heroes {please}


  1. Hi Mark, it was good to meet you at the launch. I agree, the US broadcast was great though it was not well attended. Thanks for the detailed write-up; I’ve linked to it on my blog.

    Tim


  2. Glad you like it Michael. Personally, I can’t read the title without thinking of the 1970s song by the Stranglers…

    As for scapegoats, one of my colleagues once referred to a particularly high profile project as having the potential to “make me a god or bury me forever”. Like you say, you can be a hero but it’s all too easy to fall from grace too and sometimes that’s not your fault!

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