Windows Server 2016

Lawrence Strauss of Strauss and Strauss

This is an exciting time in business computing. We’ve witnessed dramatically new improvements in systems, architecture, storage, and networking. Windows Server 2016 offers the promise of helping organizations deal with all these rapid changes within the entirely familiar Windows environment.

Windows Server 2016 (expect a fall release [as of this writing Windows Server 2016 is in Technical Preview 4]) represents developments that ensure stability and easy adaptability to provide a software environment able to help organizations weather the pace of change. Stability is achieved by delivering increased ways of isolating data on your servers and in the Cloud. Easy adaptability comes from moving more and more functionality to the Cloud, where both software and its underlying hardware can continue to develop; your organization sees only the benefits of these changes, not the costly interruptions.

Today’s Windows Server is a Swiss army knife that has the ability to run millions of different applications, which is where the problem lies: The base operating system (OS) continues to grow in size and complexity. (The overhead of a traditional Windows Server providing a single-core service is staggering: Simple features, such as DNS or DHCP, require a 20GB server installation.)

Windows Server Core, a full Windows Server OS without the GUI, was first introduced with Windows Server 2008 and helped address this issue. Now, Nano Server is the next step in the evolution toward a small-footprint base OS.

Nano Server is possibly the most revolutionary element of this Windows Server release. As its name indicates, Nano Server is a very lightweight OS that can host applications built on frameworks like .Net, or Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtual machines.

Nano Server is made for remote management with scripting automation through small pieces of modular code, rather than by traditional GUI OS management techniques. It is managed by PowerShell. Nano Server is incredibly efficient in that it shrinks the OS footprint by 93 percent, the number of patches and maintenance by 92 percent, and the number of reboots by 80 percent. These efficiencies make it ideal for Cloud-based implementations.

Microsoft’s Nano Server is a unique departure for Microsoft and, according to the company, the future of the Windows Server platform. Linux has a head start with its microservices journey but Microsoft has shown an uncanny ability to turn on a dime when needed. If Microsoft can find the balancing point between the agile, quick, streamlined, container platforms that are still versatile enough to support the gigantic Windows developer community, all while allowing balanced administration, Nano Server could be a game changer. While this all sounds like a lot to balance (and it is), let’s not forget the improvements Microsoft made with Server Core from Windows Server 2008 to Windows Server 2012, which put Windows Server Core 2012 into the enterprise with the proper balance between performance, versatility, and managerial features. Nano Server looks to be that evolutionary and revolutionary step for Windows Server.

It is very unlikely that Nano Server will replace the traditional server OS overnight; Microsoft is still working on tools for the administrator to support it. (Windows Server Core 2008 suffered slow deployment due to the lack of remote tools for the administrator, a problem that was addressed in Windows Server 2012.) The other challenge will be developing applications for the Nano Server. (Since these containers do not run a full installation of the .Net Framework, it will require developers to redesign at least part of their applications to take advantage of the .Net core framework.) While this may seem troubling, streamlining the server to focus only on exactly what it needs to do is ideal in today’s world, where a system administrator’s time is so heavily focused on administration duties, such as patching and security hardening.

The ideal target with Nano Server is the infrastructure of native, Cloud-based applications. The small footprint in disk space and code help to make the Nano Server a platform that should require little patching or maintenance – making it ideal for Cloud-based environments.

The Nano Server isn’t Microsoft starting over – but it is pretty close. Without the traditional .Net Framework, remote management is needed. Even many of the traditional hooks that allow servers with graphical user interfaces to perform remote management are missing.

Moving toward miniaturization, while based on the Microsoft server platform, has much of the interface, application stack, and traditional .Net framework removed. The Nano Server becomes a lightweight host for Hyper-V VMs or applications designed to run on the .Net Core framework.

The other important functions for Nano Server are in Hyper-V and scale-out file-server roles. Both of these roles fit very well within Azure and the Cloud-based strategy that Microsoft is moving forward with.

The Hyper-V role should be of particular interest to many administrators looking to use Hyper-V as an alternative to VMware. While Nano Server is still not as streamlined as VMware’s ESXi, it is a great step in the right direction and an improvement over Windows Server Core. However, the unique thing about Nano Server is that it can run on bare metal, as a virtual machine, or even as a container, something VMware’s ESXi cannot do, giving the developer and administrator the ultimate in flexibility.

Windows Server 2016 also offers robust support for containers and virtualization. Containers are isolated sections of data that can host applications, including the OS software needed to run those applications. This allows software requiring different operating systems to easily coexist on the same server. Windows Server 2016 supports open-source Docker containers that offer the promise of a more efficient, lightweight approach to application deployment than most organizations are currently implementing.

Unlike virtual machines (VMs), however, containers still expose the underlying operating-system version and capabilities. New Hyper-V Containers, however, offer a blend of features from Hyper-V virtual machines and Windows Containers. Like a VM, Hyper-V Containers provide isolation from the underlying operating system, but like a container it uses a filesystem for deploying single apps. The benefits to organizations of this isolation include increased security, the ability to address problems without having them affect other operations, and an increase in the number of entirely independent functionality handled on the same architecture; additionally in DevOps situations, everyone involved has the exact same conditions in which to write, test, and use.

To aid in disaster recovery and to speed failover, Microsoft has introduced Storage Replica, which gives you the ability to replicate entire volumes at the block level in either synchronous or asynchronous modes.

Storage Spaces Direct is an advancement over Storage Spaces’ high availability, storage-management software. Storage Spaces Direct gives you the ability to build a highly available storage system using only directly attached disks on each node. Also Storage Spaces Direct enables organizations to make use of new hardware like NVMe (NVM Express) SSDs and older HDDs; locally accessible node storage can be used as shared storage.

The Resilient File System (ReFS) is another feature that was introduced with Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. Designed from the beginning to be more resistant to corruption than its predecessor, ReFS brings many advantages to the NTFS on-disk format. Microsoft has elevated both the usefulness and the importance of ReFS in Windows Server 2016 TP2 by making it the preferred file system for Hyper-V workloads.

This has huge performance implications for Hyper-V. For starters, you should see new virtual machines with a fixed-size VHDX created almost as fast as you hit return. The same advantages apply to creating checkpoint files and to merging VHDX files created when you make a backup. These capabilities resemble what ODX (Offloaded Data Transfers) can do on larger storage appliances. One point you need to keep in mind is that ReFS allocates the storage for these operations without initializing it, meaning there could be residual data left over from previous files.

With Windows Server 2016, your organization gets the functionality to build a Cloud infrastructure and to run a self-service, high-density Cloud. In microservices implementation, Nano Server, dramatically cuts the weight of OS services and is, per Microsoft, the future of the Windows Server platform. Containerization and improved virtualization allow you to create protected environments making issues easy to address. There’s a lot in this important, evolutionary step for Windows Server.

Microsoft’s focus on delivering a hybrid Cloud platform is clearly dictating the direction it’s taking in Windows Server 2016. Improvements to Hyper-V mean it’s easier to host and manage virtual machines as you upgrade your host environment, while PowerShell takes center stage with the arrival of the headless Nano Server option.