Windows 7, More Than Just a Name Change
Take the naming of its newly unveiled products, for example.
You'd imagine the successor to Server 2008, due out in two years time, might have be called Server 2010. But it's not. Instead the company has opted for Server 2008 R2, to drive home the fact that this is a minor release with a few enhancements to Server 2008 rather than a whole new OS. No real surprises there: This is right in line with the company's minor/major release cycle.
Some of the features of Server 2008 R2 are available only to clients machines running the next version of Microsoft's client OS which, Microsoft says, has the same core (whatever that means). Since Vista is to Server 2008 what the new desktop OS will be to Server 2008 R2, it would be fair to guess that it would be called Vista R2. But it's not.
Clearly, Microsoft thinks the Vista brand is a disaster. Instead, the company has opted for the name Windows 7. This new name suggests Windows 7 is a major release (just as Vista was), but at the same time Microsoft is going to great lengths to stress that applications and hardware compatible with Vista should run on Windows 7. So it's really only a minor major release in many respects.
The interesting thing is that the Vista brand is mud only in the consumer market place. The OS is aimed at both the consumer and the enterprise. And although most enterprises would probably be reassured by a product called Vista R2 (like Vista, only more mature and with most of the bugs ironed out), Joe Consumer would run a mile ("oh no, not more of that same rotten Vista OS I've been hearing about"). It's hard to chose who to please with the new name, but clearly the consumer's impression won out.
Still, the upshot of it all is that an OS called Windows 7 will be available soon late next year according to the latest speculation while Server 2008 R2 is slated for 2010. If and when they are both adopted in the enterprise, perhaps in 2011, Microsoft promises a few real enterprise benefits. What they are is also quite revealing.
One of the most interesting ones is DirectAccess. This feature apparently uses Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol to send traffic from a remote client through an SSL channel to a DirectAccess server via port 443. Essentially, it's a way to connect client machines to the corporate network securely using any Internet connection without the need for an unwieldy VPN solution. End users hate VPNs, especially when they don't work, which all too often seems to be most of the time. So if DirectAccess works as it's meant to (and that's a big if at this stage, I'll grant you), it's likely to be popular. But from the administrator's point of view, its likely to be even more popular. As long as a client machine is connected to the Internet, a corporate admin can reach in and carry out software updates or update Group Policy settings. How end users who need access to the corporate network occasionally using their own computers at home will feel about having administrators interfere with their property when they are online remains to be seen.
End users in branch offices using Windows 7 also stand to benefit from BranchCache, a new feature that allows corporate data to be cached (either on an R2 server or a Windows 7 client) locally to speed up access to it while still ensuring that the data is the most up to date available.
Microsoft touts other Better Together features too, such as better power management and presentation virtualization.
As far as Server R2 itself is concerned, one thing that's new is it is available in only 64-bit. It also scales further, supporting up to of 256 logical processors, compared to just 64 on Server 2008.
There are also changes in Hyper-V, Microsoft's virtualization system. There was great disappointment when Microsoft revealed Hyper-V in Server 2008 wouldn't include an equivalent feature to VMware's VMotion, which enables virtual machines (VMs) to be moved without interruption. Hyper-V's Quick Migration, which allowed VMs to be moved only after they had been paused, was close, but the absence of a true VMotion equivalent was a show stopper as far as many enterprises considering Hyper-V were concerned. But R2 will include a version of Hyper-V with a VMotion equivalent called Live Migration, which will at least put Hyper-V in the same ballpark as VMware.
What do these features reveal about Microsoft's thinking?
DirectAccess suggests Microsoft thinks remote work is becoming increasingly important, as is the management of remote workers' devices to help maintain security.
Catching up with VMware also seems to be a priority the introduction of Live Migration shows Microsoft will give potential users anything they demand to get them to use the product.
Increased scalability shows Microsoft is keeping a wary eye on the Linux distros, which are grabbing an increasing share of corporate data center spending.
And what's to be made of all the features in R2 that work only with Windows 7? Restricting server features to Windows 7 users is certainly an effective way of encouraging server customers to upgrade their desktops from XP. Or is Microsoft the teensiest bit worried about competition on the desktop from the open source crowd? Features like this could be an effective way of tying the desktop to the server and ensuring customers don't consider moving their desktops to Linux.
Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.