Microsoft's 'intelligent cloud' starts to take shape

New containers and new versions of Windows Server, Azure Stack, SCCM, Windows Update, and Exchange lay the groundwork

Cloud code data.
Credit: Shutterstock

"Mobile first, cloud first" continues to be Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's primary message, and he repeated it this week at this year's Ignite conference (the former TechEd). But he added a new twist: The "intelligent cloud," which Microsoft defines as "the back-end infrastructure that drives all of your enterprise mobility."

At Ignite, Microsoft announced upgrades to its core server products to support that vision: Windows Server 2016, System Center 2016, and SQL Server 2016. Although it'll continue to be available in on-premises versions, Microsoft is emphasizing its cloud availability, using its reputation for stability to bolster the reliability claim for its cloud-based infrastructure.

Microsoft knows that most IT organizations will not go straight from on-premises deployments to cloud ones, but instead will move gradually through a hybrid cloud approach. Thus, many of Microsoft's new-version products focused on that hybrid, "intelligent" cloud approach.

Windows Server 2016 (a preview version is now available) has a new feature called Nano Server that's a headless, super-slimmed-down version of the Windows Server designed to support cloud OS infrastructure and "born-in-the-cloud applications and containers." Claimed to be one-twentieth the size of Server Core, Microsoft called Nano Server "the future of Windows Server." Nano Servers will ultimately be managed through a remote GUI using Core PowerShell.

Microsoft also announced the release of Azure Stack for private clouds, which lets enterprise admins bring Azure application and deployment features to on-premises data centers. It will help provision and deploy in-house virtual machines and services. Using Azure Stack, you can deploy traditional server applications like SQL, Exchange, and SharePoint to allow for self-serve provisioning.

Linux-based Docker containers have gotten tons of attention in the last year, so it should surprise no one that Microsoft has applied the same principles to Windows, providing Windows Server 2016 containers and Hyper-V containers. Microsoft says Windows Server containers will "provide applications an isolated, portable, and resource-controlled operating environment." Ultimately, these let developers release code in an isolated container that doesn't affect code running in other containers, so it cannot affect other programs running on the same system (in their own containers) or affect the core system in any way.

Hyper-V containers work exactly the same way, as an alternative deployment option (within Hyper-V instead of directly from Windows Server, which further isolates the container.

One benefit to running servers and solutions in the cloud is the ability to analyze that data with the greater resources the cloud can summon. To that end, Microsoft unveiled Advanced Threat Analytics, a data analysis tool designed to identify suspicious user and device activity, such as if Joe logs into his PC in Chicago and then 30 minutes later logs into a PC in North Korea. ATA also watches for known threats like pass-the-hash/ticket hacks. These kinds of in-cloud analysis are one reason Microsoft uses the term "intelligent cloud."

System Center Configuration Manager for managing Windows 10 has also been made available in technical preview, although SCCM 2012 R2 will also be updated to work with Windows 10. Microsoft also announced the cloud-based Operations Management Suite (OMS) to extend System Center across various hybrid clouds (including Azure and Amazon Web Services).

The cloud wasn't the only thing on Microsoft's agenda. It also demonstrated new Windows 10 features (which is shaping up to be better than Windows 7 and less hated than Windows 8). Microsoft also announced Windows Update for Business as a way to let administrators better control when updates take place, set distribution rings for updates based on which systems should be updated first, and enable peer-to-peer delivery for poorly connected branch offices.

Microsoft also revealed more details on Exchange 2016 and the corresponding Office 2016 client (available in public preview). I'll cover these in detail in a future post, but I'll share one tidbit now on the Exchange 2016 architecture: The Mailbox and Client Access server roles have been merged back together, providing for a multirole, server deployment.

It's very clear that, although Microsoft isn't abandoning its on-premises server offerings, it is growing its line of cloud offerings in an attempt to dominate the cloud.

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