Windows Server 2012 R2: It's Azure Lite

Microsoft's newly updated server operating system and tools sport more of Azure's feature set, writ small for private clouds

If Microsoft wants Windows Server 2012 R2 to be any one thing, it's Windows Azure. And maybe vice versa, too.

That's the impression Microsoft is giving with the release of Windows Server 2012 R2, which arrives with the claim that the new Windows Server (and Windows Azure with it) will create what Microsoft describes as "the Cloud OS" and "the boundaryless data center."

Consider "Cloud OS" shorthand for Windows Server 2012 R2 in the data center, with Windows Azure out in the cloud -- and, most important, the performance and utility distinctions between them freely blurred. From the look of it, the new Windows Server 2012 R2 features -- including Hyper-V 2012 R2, the System Center management tools, and the new Windows Azure Pack -- are designed to make Windows Server a more cloud-oriented computing, storage, and networking fabric.

First, storage: When Windows Server 2012 introduced Storage Spaces, it wasn't hard to see how useful it was. It allowed you to create elastic storage pools out of most any kind of disks and even provision virtual volumes larger than you had physical space for at the time. Microsoft was aiming to make people less reliant on expensive, dedicated storage hardware.

R2 adds several more storage-related features that, again, might normally be seen only in dedicated storage appliances or as a proprietary cloud vendor's technology: Storage QoS, to ensure that VMs managed within Windows Server don't go over a given number of IOPS; Storage Tiering and Pinning, which allow commonly used data to be moved to devices that are faster; a write-back cache function that allows writes for one device to be cached on another device (such as an SSD); and so on.

By putting this stuff directly into the OS, Microsoft clearly intends to make it easier to build cloud infrastructures that run fast and well on existing hardware. What's less clear is how Microsoft's hardware and storage partners will feel about having some of their low-hanging fruit yanked down -- although it's entirely likely they will simply focus on moving further up their respective customer food chains.

Next, computing -- and with that, management of computing: Microsoft's tireless mantra with the new generation of Windows Server is how it's essentially a front end, in more ways than one, for Windows Azure. This is about more than having the same VM architecture in Azure as you do in Windows Server; it's about live-migrating from one's local cloud to Azure (or vice versa), or about using Windows Server as a giant management console for one's Azure products, or about having the same multitenant management capabilities in Windows Server as you do in Azure by way of the Windows Azure Pack.

Microsoft had no end of Windows Server features to announce in those veins -- all hinted at or discussed before, but taking on new significance in the light of the overall approach. Take live migration, for instance; Windows Server now supports high-speed live migration over RDMA-enabled 10Gb network adapters -- a function Microsoft calls SMB Direct, and which Microsoft claims can speed up live migration a full tenfold. Likewise, all the features that focus on VM versatility: exporting, cloning, and deduplication of running VMs (previously possible on only VMs that had been shut down); accessing VMs via Remote Desktop even when the VM has no live IP network connection; and sharing and live resizing of virtual hard disks.

The one big downside is it requires a high degree of commitment to Microsoft's way of doing things -- far more so than with, say, VMware's product line. But Microsoft clearly wants to make the rewards for such a high degree of commitment to be as enticing as possible.

Satya Nadella, executive vice president of cloud and enterprise at Microsoft, during a San Francisco media briefing yesterday, hinted at how providing these features essentially gave end-users that many more of Azure's features.

"You need to be able to take the same software you use to run your cloud [e.g., Microsoft's]," he said, "and make it available to others to run their cloud. That's what we're doing with our own products." Hence, terms like the "boundaryless data center," where you can "use both public and service provider clouds, as well as your own cloud, with no friction."

When asked how Microsoft's cloud robustness will stack up against the competition, Nadella replied: "Building a multitenant service with predictable SLA performance and delivery is the most challenging systems problem" (which Verizon Terremark also seems to have kept in mind with its cloud product that promises guaranteed performance). But he added, "Our diversity of first-party users prevents us from getting hijacked by one architectural pattern."

The word "diversity" is a tip-off: Microsoft doesn't want to attract just one kind of customer to either the new Windows Server or to Windows Azure. Rather, it wants the same breadth of customers that has used Windows Server generally. Whether or not the company will get those customers embracing and extending into Azure is another story -- but it is surely making a good case for Windows Server users to think about the server operating system and the Windows Azure cloud as joined at the hip.

This article, "Windows Server 2012 R2: It's Azure Lite," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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