Need to Know: August 2010

While the summer is usually a quiet time in the PC and electronics industries, Microsoft holds its annual TechEd Conference at this time of year, and there's always a lot of good product and technology information coming out of the show. Here's what you need to know about the news from TechEd 2010.

Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 SP1 Public Beta

By the end of July 2010, Microsoft will deliver a public beta version of Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7. The company says it will use feedback from the beta to determine the final release schedule, but I expect to see it hit in Q2 2011.

As we previously discussed, SP1 adds almost no new functionality to Windows 7 beyond a Remote Desktop update. But it represents a major functional update to Windows Server 2008 R2, with support for new features like Hyper-V Dynamic Memory and RemoteFX. Not previously discussed is another new feature, RemoteFX USB Devices, which provides better USB device redirection over RDP than the shipping version of Server 2008 R2. Now, you'll be able to use virtually any USB device transparently over RDP, including such previously unsupported device types as scanners, all-in-one printers, web cameras, VoIP phones and headsets, and biometric devices. It's a major improvement for you VDI fans.

And since I knew you were just thinking about this, yes, the Dynamic Memory feature from SP1 is being added to Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 as well. And if you're using System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, you can expect an update this year to support Dynamic Memory as well.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead with Windows Server

Speaking of Windows Server, you can expect some big changes around naming and branding when the next version of Windows Server hits in 2012. Microsoft is dropping the major/minor release cadence silliness, and dropping the even sillier R2 naming scheme in the process. Instead, Windows client and server releases will be developed and released in lockstep going forward, starting with vNext, as they call it internally.

Think about this for a second. Windows Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 were developed on the same codebase, so they were updated together with a Service Pack 2 (SP2) release that applied to both and was Vista's second SP, but Server 2008's first. Meanwhile, Windows 7 (a major release) and Windows Server 2008 R2 (a minor release) were developed on the same codebase, and will be serviced together starting with SP1. These two product generations--Vista/Server 2008 and 7/Server 2008 R2--are incompatible from a servicing perspective. And Microsoft tells me it has no plans at all for a Vista/Server 2008 SP3 release. I have to think a rollup will happen eventually, however.

Of course, there are even bigger problems facing some Windows Server users. Windows 2000 will have hit EOL ("end of life") by the time you read this, meaning that it has exited the support lifecycle. So unless you're an enterprise that doesn't mind paying for security updates, this OS is dead in the water. And while Windows 2000 Server usage is down to the single digits, these machines are still out there.

Windows Server 2003 is even worse. This OS represents about 50 percent of the installed base and it will hit extended support in July 2010. That means that the majority of Microsoft's server customers have just five years to move off of this aging platform and onto something more modern. The big issue with Server 2003--and as it turns out, Server 2008--is 32-bit application compatibility. In fact, the number one reason that Server 2008 R2 customers exercise their downgrade rights is to install a 32-bit version of Server 2008. Server 2008 R2, as you know, is 64-bit only, and there's an entire generation of 32-bit in-house and line of business (LOB) apps that need to be updated or replaced, and from what I can see, few are moving to do so with any alacrity.

"Windows Server 2003 is a power hungry, non-virtualized, x86 world," Microsoft product manager Ward Ralston told me recently. "It's the classic server sprawl problem. Newer versions of Windows Server are just so much more efficient." Exactly right. Get busy, people. If you're on Windows Server 2003, it's time to start planning a migration today.

Small Business Server "7" and "Aurora"

I get a lot of questions about Small Business Server (SBS) what Microsoft's plans are around the next version of the product. This month, I'm happy to be able to finally report on what's happening. Microsoft will follow-up the current SBS version, SBS 2008, with two products, each of which serves a particular need. The first, currently codenamed SBS "7", will be a traditional SBS product update and will offer, as before, on premise versions of Windows Server (2008 R2), Exchange 2010, WSUS, and so on.

The other product is, perhaps, much more interesting. Currently codenamed SBS "Aurora", this SBS version is based on the same codebase as Windows Home Server "Vail" and assumes that your email and other services will be hosted in the cloud. It's aimed at small businesses, can create but not join domains, and offers only very simplified on-site management tools. But it has a super-simple interface and works with the WHS-based Drive Extender technologies to consolidate all attached storage as a single block of storage. Good-bye, drive letters.

I'll be writing more about Aurora soon. This is a product that could transform the small business market.

HTML 5 and the Future

While HTML 5 is still years away from being ratified as an international standard, browsers makers are jumping all over this technology in increasingly frantic ways. The goal here is simple: HTML 5 is clearly the future of the web, and those with a stake in the market want to prove that their product is the vehicle that will get you there. Microsoft's response to HTML involves Internet Explorer 9--still no release date in sight, though I don't expect to see it until early 2011--which will include hardware acceleration of video and SVG graphics, as well as calls to the industry to rally around standards test that make sense. That last bit is important because today's web standards test seem designed to make IE fail.

But Microsoft isn't the first to step up to the HTML 5 challenge, not by a long shot, and by the time IE 9 does happen, it could be swamped by a field of competitors that have already well exceeded whatever HTML 5 compatibility that browser offers. It seems like every day the browser makers are talking up HTML 5, but two in particular, Apple and Google, have been rapidly shipping new products as well.

Apple's offering is, perhaps, less interesting, but Safari 5 does offer one IE 9 feature--hardware acceleration, even on Windows--and it is very aggressively adopting HTML 5 features, including full screen video, closed captioning for video, geolocation, and more. Safari 5 also, finally, offers an extensibility model, an area in which this browser has been lacking. I don't expect Safari to make much in the way of inroads in the Windows market, but then it's not wise to discount Apple. And Safari is certainly the overwhelming champion in the mobile space right now.

Google's latest browser, Chrome 5, also embraces HTML 5 more deeply, and Google has shipping Chrome updates at any amazing clip, so this will likely only accelerate in the future. Chrome 5 features a great extensions infrastructure, browser bookmarks and preferences sync, and should have an integrated version of Adobe Flash available by the time you read this. On the HTML front, it now supports many of the same HTML 5 features that Apple added to Safari 5. But given Chrome's even more hectic update schedule, this might ultimately prove to the be most popular browser for early adopters and those who like to use the latest, trendiest technologies.

Mozilla Firefox, of course, is still the alternative browser of choice, though it seems to have plateaued from a usage share perspective. Current versions of Firefox do support HTML video and audio, but not with the popular H.264 video and AAC audio formats, rendering the support somewhat less interesting. In fact, Mozilla has been moving pretty slowly, not just with HTML but in general, and its browser updates seem to be on an ever-slower schedule. I wouldn't be surprised to see Firefox begin a slow, gradual decline.

Communications Server "14"

Just a couple of years ago, Microsoft's unified communications (UC) vision was, well, more vision than reality. But with the release of Microsoft Communications Server (MCS) "14"--it still doesn't have a final branding--later this year, the vision is becoming reality. And that's especially true for those environments that can standardize on Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Office 2010 as well, given the deep hooks that tie each together.

MCS 14 provides real-time communications solutions around instant messaging (text, voice, and video), presence, and it does so via a tiered experience where you can locate a contact via presence information in the MCS client, in Outlook, in SharePoint, or in other areas, and the escalate the discussion to different conversation types, including a VoIP phone call. New to MCS 14 are enterprise skill searching, through integration with SharePoint 2010, and major improvements to the presence model so that MCS has an underlying understanding of where you are and thus exposes only those conversation types for your location.

Aside from branding, there are some other questions around scheduling and licensing. But Microsoft says you can expect a public preview release by the end of 2010.

Windows InTune

Thanks to the cloud computing phenomenon, Microsoft has scaled back its plans for on premise server products in small and medium-sized businesses and is focusing instead on delivering hosted services that make more sense for those environments. The most interesting, to me, and the one I think will have the broadest implications over time, is Windows InTune. This interesting service, currently aimed at midsized businesses, offloads system management to the cloud and provides a way to manage all of the PCs in your environment, remotely. That it does so outside of Active Directory will be controversial to some. But that's where this month's update comes in.

There are two bit of news up front. First, Microsoft's initial public beta offering of Windows InTune in April 2010 was, perhaps, too popular, and the company had to shut down the sign-up site very quickly. If you didn't get in, no worries, there should be a second, larger, public beta offering by the time you read this. Second, Microsoft is addressing the concerns of partners who will want to support their own customers using InTune by offering a partner dashboard interface so they can manage multiple sites more easily.

But I'm happy to report that Microsoft is now actively seeking to expand InTune both up and down in the marketplace, and will someday offer versions of the service for small businesses and to AD-wielding enterprises as well. And while the company is mum about how it will change InTune to accommodate AD, in the short term you can rest easy by understanding that AD-based policies will always supersede any InTune-specific policies, so it should be safe to use in smaller environments right from the get-go. Microsoft plans to deliver the initial InTune version in the first quarter of 2011.

An edited version of this article appeared in the August 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul