Windows Server 2008: Windows also rises

While Vista crashed and burned, Microsoft's new server OS became the upgrade Windows shops can't refuse

We suppose it happens in families too, where one twin seems charmed from the start while the other lives under a shadow. Certainly that's the case with Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista, the one almost universally heralded and the other widely snubbed. Still, isn't it odd? How do two operating systems, born together and sharing so much DNA, arrive to such different fates?

According to InfoWorld Test Center's Tom Yager, the reason is simple: Microsoft got it right when it listened to the customer and got it wrong when it didn't. Windows Server 2008 is everything that IT buyers asked for, while Vista is the product of an older Microsoft design paradigm: "You'll know what you want when we show it to you."

Alas, business customers who had been happy with the trim and trusty Windows XP largely rejected the fatter, slower, bothersome Vista. So far, it doesn't look as if Windows 7 will offer much different.

So while Vista has lived under a cloud and taken a backseat to Windows XP among IT shops (and to Windows 7 in Redmond), Windows Server 2008 has been widely praised as a mature and polished Linux killer and a no-brainer upgrade from Windows Server 2003. J. Peter Bruzzese, InfoWorld's Enterprise Windows blogger, minced no words: "You must move to Windows Server 2008."

The advances beyond Windows Server 2003 seem too numerous to count. At the top of Bruzzese's list are BitLocker drive encryption, an improved firewall (that automatically configures for server roles), Address Space Load Randomization (another security enhancement), and a rewritten networking stack -- all of which Vista shares, by the way. The new networking stack makes a case for hitching Windows Vista to Windows Server 2008's wagon: Network I/O tests of Windows Server 2008 show a significant speed advantage for Vista over XP clients, especially under heavy loads.

Windows Server 2008's ability to offload TCP/IP processing to supporting network interface cards is another way to reap big performance gains. Other advances improve availability and lighten the server admin's load. Multipath I/O lets you configure a redundant path to storage to guard against hardware failure. Self-healing NTFS repairs file system corruption in the background, without interrupting service. Restartable Active Directory Domain Services allow other services (DNS, DHCP, WINS) to continue while AD is restored. Read Only Domain Controllers, which cache only local users' credentials, bolster security at branch offices.

Other improvements benefit end users. The new Terminal Services Gateway, for example, connects clients via an HTTPS tunnel, simplifying access for users (no VPN required to skirt firewalls that block Terminal Services ports) while providing full security and auditing. The supporting Remote Desktop Client (version 6.x) is bundled with Vista, but also downloadable for XP.

Improving on the server roles introduced in Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008's trimness and modularity make it both the host with the most and the perfect guest. Server Core, the stripped-down, command-line-driven install that minimizes the resource footprint (and attack surface) for server roles such as DNS, DHCP, file serving, and virtualization, also makes a light and friendly guest on virtualization hosts -- the perfect partner to Hyper-V, the modern, kernel-level hypervisor that shipped in beta preview with Windows Server 2008 and turned 1.0 in July.

The combination of Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager, Microsoft's tool for managing multiple virtualization hosts and their guests, fall well short of industry-leading VMware Infrastructure 3 in both guest support and manageability. Despite the current limitations (no live VM migration, limited support for Linux guests), Hyper-V has enough of the right stuff for many Windows shops.

As the Test Center's Tom Yager pointed out in his Windows Server 2008 review, Microsoft's relaxed licensing terms, which allow you to use a single Windows Server 2008 license to host as many virtual Windows guests as you want, will make VMware and Xen-based alternatives a very hard sell in Windows shops. Friendly licensing (including temporary and single-user CALs), and friendly administration, should make Small Business Server 2008 just as compelling for small shops.

Windows Server 2008 beats Windows Server 2003 in features, performance, stability, and manageability. For an adventurous few, it also beats Windows Vista as a workstation OS. The future for Windows Server 2008 could hardly be rosier -- a stark contrast to its underachieving desktop twin.

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