Microsoft’s platform play hits big time

Microsoft’s platform play hits big time

With each new release of Microsoft’s server operating system, pundits are moved to declare that this one is the first Windows truly suited to the enterprise. And it is especially tempting to hang that tag on Windows Server 2003.

Windows crossed the enterprise line back in the mid-1990s with the release of Windows NT Option Pack 4, when Microsoft started bundling business essentials such as Web, object, transaction, and messaging services into the foundation OS. Windows made the leap from file/print server to robust application platform. Developers went nuts over Visual Studio, especially Visual Basic and Active Server Pages, assuring Windows’ ascent into the world of business server computing.

No software product spends as much time in development as an operating system. The market hasn’t seen a fresh edition of Windows Server in nearly four years, and the enterprise market has changed substantially in terms of customer expectations, economic viability, and competitors’ strategies. The present reality is not what Microsoft had in mind when it put its next-generation server platform on the drawing board.

Even so, the technology Microsoft pulled together for Windows Server 2003 is its best effort by far, an uncannily good fit for the myriad challenges modern IT organizations face. It is, in the best sense, a total solution in a box.

In the lab, installed on an Intel Corp. dual Xeon reference platform and on a Newisys Inc. dual Opteron machine, the new Windows server clearly outclassed Windows 2000. At the core level, hyperthreading on the Xeon and nonuniform memory access (NUMA) on Opteron boost baseline performance noticeably and smooth task-switching.

Refinements to disk I/O and SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) scaling can be seen especially clearly in SQL Server 2000 and Terminal Services.

Lights-out management hardware in both servers was enabled automatically during the installation. Experienced Windows admins will find “secure by default” a pain in the neck at first, but no one can argue against the necessity of having Windows Server 2003 install in a locked-down state.

Of course the cost, bizarre licensing terms, forced migration, and confusing packaging will turn many companies away. But if a decision could be made on purely technical grounds, Windows Server 2003 would be an unquestionably worthwhile investment.

Platform or OS?

Since Microsoft made the strategic decision to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the box with their OS — only hardcore Windows developers realize how much standard functionality Windows 2000 Server contains — competing vendors have alternately mimicked and derided the all-inclusive platform approach.

For example, the only way Sun could construct a competitive platform was to combine Solaris with J2EE. Sun undertook that decision grudgingly, after years of berating Microsoft for failing to see the wisdom of separating the OS from the application platform. Sun’s Solaris/J2EE combination is now bundled with their server hardware.

But Sun remains defiant. When Sun refers to the “Java platform,” it is claiming that the OS is irrelevant. That may be a bit too convenient to be taken seriously — if Sun can get the market to agree with that assertion, Microsoft won’t be able to make money from Windows. Nonetheless, J2EE does run atop many different operating systems, including Windows. It abstracts system services so that programmers can code mostly without regard for the underlying OS. J2EE implements its own stack of network and data-handling services to smooth out the differences between various OSes’ standard facilities.

In contrast, Microsoft binds its enterprise application platform so tightly to Windows that it would be a monstrous task to pry the two apart. Developers and administrators like the way the Windows OS, its standard services, the Win32 API, the .Net framework, and the combined administrative tools fit together. Windows Server 2003 bolsters, fills out, and integrates the pieces of Windows so thoroughly that no one can argue convincingly for breaking the components apart.

2X or Bust

Work on the core Windows OS was effectively completed with Windows 2000. So this time around the effort focused on fine tuning performance, removing limitations, cleaning up inefficient code, closing security holes, and making the whole 2003 package easier to manage.

Microsoft’s internal rallying cry on Windows Server 2003 performance and capacity was “2X or bust!” That was a lot to ask, and it took a long time to achieve it. But the development teams banded together and somehow they did make key Windows features and services run twice as fast or handle twice as many connections as Windows 2000.

The extent to which Microsoft pulled this off, or at least came close, is amazing. There are massive performance and capacity gains in so many areas — HTTP transactions, file services, terminal services, Active Directory, Media Services — that it’s fair to say Microsoft’s developers hit their targets across the board.

Still, Microsoft’s inclusive platform approach would fall flat if its OS and services improvements weren’t apparent in third-party applications. A massive boost to Windows’ scale-up (increasing compute capacity by adding CPUs to a multiprocessor server) efficiency finally removes the shortcoming Windows has always suffered in systems with four or more processors.

The new OS significantly enhances all server-hosted applications. For apps using HTTP as a transport (especially browser-based clients), kernel-level HTTP caching and connection management improve speed and stability transparently. Software written with rich interfaces — whether they be written with Win32 or .Net — can be hosted by Terminal Services and run efficiently on everything from Mac and Linux desktops to Windows thin clients.

One major change that debuts in Windows Server 2003, although it won’t be apparent to most customers, is Microsoft’s adaptation of Windows to a 64-bit processor. Windows NT ran on several high-performance alternatives to Intel’s x86 architecture, including Alpha and Power. These ports were discarded when Microsoft moved to Windows 2000. Now Microsoft is inching its way back into 64-bit computing.

Microsoft announced that the retail release of Windows Server 2003 would include support for Intel’s Itanium and Itanium 2 processors. That’s a boon for Intel and primary partner HP, which plans to roll out a broad line of Itanium 2-based servers in mid-2003. Lining up Windows support for that processor was crucial to HP’s timetable.

To achieve Itanium compatibility, Microsoft had to scan its entire collection of Windows code looking for portions that weren’t “64-bit clean.” Microsoft has also committed to porting 64-bit Windows to AMD’s Opteron CPU, with a beta release slated for this summer. Windows is a true platform, with an application layer that’s acutely aware of the specific OS. But Microsoft has proved with Windows Server 2003 that it can dramatically rework its underlying OS without disrupting existing application-layer software.

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