Evolution of the species

Evolution of the species

Once upon a time, the launch of a new Microsoft operating system was cause for some serious channel celebration. Regular, reliable, three-year replacement cycles were kept ticking over by Microsoft's regular output of ever more powerful, and memory hogging, operating systems. A software launch would have resellers rubbing their hands in glee, counting on a double spike in hardware sales and software upgrades.

These days, however, as vendors increasingly respond to our new found love affair with efficiency, less is more in IT land, and the link between hardware and software upgrades is long gone.

That's not to say the channel isn't excited about the release of Microsoft's Windows Server 2008. If resellers are to be believed, the new system is delivering a range of useful technologies which will prove popular among high-end corporates and SMBs alike.

However, even the most ardent supporters of Windows Server 2008 concede the new software in unlikely to lead to strong or sudden sales growth - if anything it might further accelerate the decline in server shipments. While the focus on efficiency is undoubtedly leading to dwindling hardware sales, there are still stacks of work and margin out there for resellers who get the services mix right.

NSW state manager for technology integrators Brennan IT, Chuong Mai-Viet, has been involved with test and production implementation of Window's Server 2008 throughout the beta and development process. He said his customers were happy with the results.

"On all fronts it offers better stability than Windows Server 2003, it offers Microsoft-support virtualization technology, from a support perspective it's extremely compelling, especially for the ease of management and administration perspective," he said. "But it's not going to be a major driver of growth in our business. What it will do is help us to consolidate our current business by addressing the problems they've been having."

According to Microsoft's Martin Gregory this is precisely what the software has been designed to achieve; improved stability, administration and security in keeping with market sentiment calling for efficiency improvements.

"We've worked around the technology to secure reliability and performance improvements, but the fundamentals haven't changed," he said. "We've been trying to put the burdens of administration, security and access management all onto the software, so IT professionals can spend more time working strategically, rather than just working on administration." Windows Server 2008 certainly has a couple of features network administrators have been dreaming about for years.

Virtualisation over easy

It's hard to turn around in a datacentre at present without encountering virtualised servers. With a single virtualised machine replacing up to 10 separate standalone servers, this is a technology which the IT sector is already enthusiastically embracing.

Reading the tea leaves, Microsoft's big coup with Windows Server 2008 was to integrate Hypervisor (Hyper-V) virtualisation architecture into the new server software, so as to simplify and streamline the adoption of virtualisation.

Describing it as the number one most important new feature Windows Server 2008 has to offer, director of technology integrator OSS Infotech, Dom Saini, said the decision to include Hyper-V technology will lead to rapid SMB uptake of virtualisation.

"Because virtualisation is built in, and provisioning of a new server is very easy, there is no need to buy a new server, new hardware and a separate operating system to begin getting the benefits from this technology," he said. "That makes it an automatic process."

And while virtualisation is already a firm feature in enterprise markets, many in the channel believe the integration of Hyper-V into Windows Server 2008 will prove to be the catalyst that finally draws the SMB market into the virtual world.

"It will be a big stimulation for that part of the industry that can't afford to experiment with the sorts of virtualization platforms that are currently available, but will be willing to use it if it is already a part of their server upgrade," Saini said. "Traditionally, it would take anywhere up to three weeks for a new server to be installed. Now if a department needs a new server for a particular reason, we can have the templates set up within the operating system, and start up within a matter of minutes."

Dimension Data's general manager of Microsoft solutions, David Hanrahan, said the Hyper-V technology would also streamline the management process for organizations that run a mixed environment of virtual and physical servers.

"People were getting a bit stuck switching between managing physical and virtual environments," he said. "Having the virtual machine manager integrated into the server software, and being able to manage both physical and virtual machines from a single configuration centre, has proved very interesting for many of our customers."

Automating security

Another serious draw card is the improved underlying security, and the automation of processes associated with implementing company-wide security standards. "A key driver is very much the security piece. With the Network Access Protection (NAP) technology, administrators can basically set up policies which require any machine attaching to the network to have a minimum patch and antivirus set up," Hanrahan said. "If the machine isn't sufficiently secure it isn't able to attach to the server."

To ensure this approach doesn't result in a sudden increase in angry calls to the IT desk, it is also possible to automate the upgrade process, enabling end-users to download and run the relevant security and patches before logging into the main server.

Security improvements have also focused on the hardware itself, locking down the physical unit so it can't be accessed even if it's stolen.

"This is the most secure Windows server system yet, the OS has been hardened to protect it against the failure of new technologies, and there are some mandatory security features which normal users just can't change," Saini said. "With local drive encryption, even if you get hold of the server itself, you can't plug it in anywhere else, even if the server is stolen the thieves can't get access to the data, it just won't work on another system."

A brand new administration

This latest Microsoft system has also automated and streamlined a number of administration features designed to take much of the drudgery out of managing IT infrastructure.

For smaller companies, the Microsoft Management Console offers a Server Manager feature which streamlines administration of a single server. More complex environments will benefit from Windows PowerShell, a command-line shell and scripting language which can automate all sorts of management tasks associated with Active Directory and Internet Information Services. Brennan IT's Mai-Viet said these PowerShell and related administration tools were proving a major attraction among IT professionals.

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