Need to Know: September 2010

By the time you read this, Microsoft will have hosted its annual Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), which is being held this July in Washington D.C. The nation's capital will be roasting thanks to summer heat wave. Does Microsoft have any product announcements to match?

Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 Update

I've written a bit about Service Pack 1 (SP1) for both Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7, and how the release provide major functional updates to Server, but mostly just hot-fix rollups on the client. But the biggest news for SP1, perhaps, may be the timing. Though Microsoft originally planned to deliver SP1 in October 2010--or one year after the general availability of both affected products--an interoperability glitch on Server has caused a delay. And it's a major delay: Now SP1 will ship in early 2011, possibly as late as April 2011.

Curious about why such a minor issue could cause such a delay, my sources told me that it was mostly a timing issue, and that any push past October would necessitate an early 2011 release at best, because of TechEd: Europe in November and normal business slowdowns in December. But I suspect there might be something a bit more calculated in the delay. Microsoft is trying to push the notion that its corporate customers do not need to wait for SP1 before deploying Windows 7 in particular, and by delaying SP1, the software giant is sending a further signal that there's no good reason to wait. According to what I've seen, however, corporate adoption of Windows 7 is proceeding very slowly. Not quite the snail's pace that dogged Windows Vista, but slowly. (Consumer uptick on Windows 7 is at a record pace, thankfully for Microsoft.)

Meanwhile, I've been surprised to discover that corporate uptick on Microsoft's Windows Server products is even slower. The vast majority of Windows Server installs worldwide is of the 32-bit 2003 version, not Windows Server 2008 or R2. In fact, many customers are actually exercising their downgrade rights to install Windows Server 2003 today because, get this, they have concerns about 32-bit software compatibility. This tells me that there is a huge disconnect out there when it comes to customers understanding where modern Windows Server versions are in terms of compatibility and capabilities. There is a huge difference between the 2003 and 2008/R2 variants of Windows Server and I'm confused why more than a small percentage of customers would choose older, less capable, and less efficient (and thus, ultimately more expensive) systems over something superior.

Windows 8

It's time to start the conversation around Windows 8. According to my sources at the software giant, we can expect the first private beta of Windows 8 in mid-2011, less than a year from now. That feature-complete version of the product will be followed by a public beta in the second half of 2011, and then the final release in the first half of 2012. Microsoft plans to deliver Windows 8 to customers in mid-2012, about two years from now. The goal is to make the holiday selling season, something it was unable to do with Windows 7.

Between then and now, of course, Microsoft has Windows 7 to sell and it plans to offer interim updates to that product through such things as Windows Live Essentials 2011 (currently in public beta) and Internet Explorer 9 (which could possibly hit Beta 1, a public release, by the time you read this). IE 9 will also be included in Windows 8 and, given the schedule, you can expect a Windows Live Essentials 2012 to ship concurrently with Windows 8, or soon thereafter.

Of course, people want to know about Windows 8 and what features Microsoft will include. But Microsoft's Windows Division, led by Steven Sinofsky, is more interested in making sure it can deliver what features it does promise. So the plan was to hold off on announcing anything until the first, mid-2011 beta.

One can only imagine their surprise then, when internal Microsoft documents pertaining to Windows 8 leaked online in mid-2010. And while none of the content of these documents constitutes a promise about which features will be included in Windows 8, they do provide an interesting look at which features Microsoft is currently considering. They include an online apps store called the Windows Store, a new application model that will combine the best of high-end Windows capabilities with web technologies to create "tailored web applications," support for new and advanced digital media functionality, an improved backup utility, dramatically faster, appliance-like startup/shutdown/resume/start times, integrated support for location and other sensors, and more.

It's early days yet, so let's not get too excited. But when you consider which technologies did and did not gain traction over the past few Windows releases, I think these directions for Windows 8 make plenty of sense. I'm eager to find out more.

Small Business Server vNext

One of the most frequently-asked questions I get these days is about Small Business Server and whether Microsoft plans to release a version based on Windows Server 2008 R2. I've been sitting on this information for months, almost bursting at the seams to explain what's happening. And now, finally, I can do so. Yes, Virginia, Microsoft is indeed developing an R2-based version of Small Business Server (SBS). In fact, they're building two.

The first, currently just codenamed Windows Small Business Server "7" (since Windows Server 2008 R2 is the server version of Windows 7), will be a traditional SBS offering. That is, it will come in a couple of SKUs (stock keeping units, or product editions) and will provide traditional, on-premise server products as per earlier versions. No surprise here: You'll get Windows Server 2008 R2, Exchange Server 2010, SQL Server 2008 R2, and so on.

Of course, I've complained that Microsoft's adherence to this old school product type has blinded it to the needs of its smaller customers, and its Essential Business Server (EBS) product line, basically an upscale version of SBS for the midmarket, was unceremoniously killed after less than a year of availability because of this disconnect between the software giant and its customers' needs. But they're listening. And SBS will ship in a second product type, codenamed "Aurora," that is much closer to how I envisioned future SBS versions.

So instead of begin a traditional SBS offering, Aurora is what Microsoft calls a "Solution Server." It's based on the R2 codebase, yes, but doesn't offer any on-premise server tools beyond networking, security, and storage. Mostly, it's about hooking into cloud services, and when you consider that Microsoft offers stellar hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Communications Server, and more, this strategy starts to really make sense.

While Microsoft's product plans are still in flux, the company sees Aurora as a solution for the very smallest small businesses, those with up to 25 PCs. (SBS "7" serves up to 75 PCs.) In fact, they're going to market it as "a super simple server for the very small business." You can install local servers on Aurora, but none of the traditional SBS servers come with the product. If you're familiar with the next version of Windows Home Server, codenamed Vail, then it may help to think of Aurora as a small business, domain-based version of that product. That is, it is super-simple, offers automated PC backups (both image-based and traditional file backups), and sits largely unattended in a back room somewhere.

Aurora servers cannot join an existing domain, but you can create a domain. It utilizes the Drive Extender technology from WHS "Vail," so you can simply add drives and configure them to join a single, huge storage space that is unencumbered by drive letters or any of the complexity from RAID or related technologies. (SBS "7" will not include Drive Extender. But I've been told that future versions of Windows Server, as well as Windows 8, will include Drive Extender.)

Aurora will be sold and serviced primarily through Microsoft's partners, so expect some announcements around this product at the WPC this year.

Windows InTune Updates

When Microsoft started pushing cloud-based versions of its classic server products as hosted services, the company logically started with core products such as Exchange and SharePoint. And of course it create a new cloud platform in Windows Azure. Over time, of course, the company needed to turn its attention to other types of solutions. And if Windows InTune is any indication, its push into cloud-based management is off to an excellent start.

We discussed Windows InTune previously. It's aimed at the mid-market, is only semi-managed (in that it does not require Active Directory but respected Group Policy-based policies), and is based loosely on the company's traditional, on premise System Center offerings. InTune was made available, briefly, as a public beta a few months back but demand overwhelmed Microsoft's capacity and the program was quickly shut down. Well, good news if you missed out: A new round of public beta availability will be announced at the WPC in July.

Microsoft told me previously that it will deliver the final version of Windows InTune by April 2011. But I still have some questions, both around the target market (Why isn't this being offered to small businesses? It would be a great companion service for Aurora) and the pricing and licensing. Microsoft should reveal some new info about the latter at WPC as well. Stay tuned.

Layoffs

My sources at Microsoft tell me that the recent exodus of top-level management in the company's Entertainment and Devices division was involuntary--i.e. they were fired--and not voluntary, as press releases and public statements have suggested. The reason is simple: After beating Palm in the PDA and early smart phone markets, Microsoft got lazy, and Windows Mobile development ground to a halt. This provided Apple with the impetus to enter the market and, as we now know, come to dominate the consumer segment of that market.

The Microsoft response to the iPhone was so lackluster--nonexistent, really--that Windows Mobile has ceded market share to iPhone every year for three years in a row. So the management team was kicked out, huge portions of the Windows Mobile team were scattered to the wind, and a new team was put in place to develop the all-new Windows Phone, which should ship in October/November of this year.

Windows Phone is great. But it's coming to market years too late, and Microsoft's early release of the Windows Phone-esque KIN in May was such a disaster that the product line was killed a scant several weeks and less than 10,000 units sold into its life cycle.

These missteps make shareholders jittery. So in July, Microsoft will announce some layoffs to prove, in effect, that it's taking the situation seriously. But these layoffs won't be anything like the massive layoffs that Microsoft underwent a year ago when 5800 employees were let go. Instead, I'm told that the total number of people laid off this time around will number in the hundreds. And let's be clear: Microsoft's net employee count will continue to go up, since it's also still hiring at a rate of 1500 to 2000 new employees each month.

So is Microsoft really serious about correcting the mistakes that doomed its consumer efforts? Aside from the Xbox 360, which remains the company's only Apple-like product in terms of customer dedication, there's little evidence of that. If anything, Microsoft has only proven that it's not able to move as quickly as its nimble-footed competition. This, I think, is the biggest problem Microsoft will face in the years ahead.

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