ServersWindows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack Shines While Silverlight Looks Hazy

Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack Shines While Silverlight Looks Hazy

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Back in the days of the Windows NT server OS, the release of a Microsoft OS service pack was the cue for great celebration and excitement in the tech community. Later, this changed to sighs of relief as service packs became vehicles for numerous bug fixes and security patches rather than new functionality.

Windows Server 2008 R2’s latest service pack adds appealing new features, including enhancements to desktop and server virtualization. In the developer corner, however, things are a bit dimmer with Microsoft expressing some confusing statement about the future of Silverlight at its Professional Developer’s Conference.

So when Microsoft unveiled the release candidates of its Service Pack 1s for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 the world wasn’t expecting much. And by and large, the world wasn’t disappointed, at least as far as Windows 7 is concerned: There is — by Microsoft’s own admission — very little of interest tucked away in Windows 7 SP1.

But when it comes to Windows Server 2008 R2, the new service pack is much more interesting, adding several appealing new features, including two that enhance desktop and server virtualization.

The first of these is dynamic memory, which is a new feature of Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization system. Essentially, it allows memory on a host machine running Hyper-V to be pooled and made available dynamically to guest machines running on the host. That means that as workloads on the guest machines change, more or less memory can be allocated to them as necessary, without any service interruption, so the available memory can be used more efficiently. (Without dynamic memory allocation you would need to reboot a virtual machine to change its memory allocation.) Of course, this assumes that the guest OS in question supports Hyper-V’s dynamic memory function — if not the machine is stuck with the memory allocation it has even if the host is running SP1. So far, the OSes that support dynamic memory are all Microsoft ones: Server 2008 and 2008 R2, Server 2003 and 2003 R2, and some premium versions of Vista and Windows 7.

Another interesting new feature introduced in Service Pack 1 is RemoteFX, a set of RDP technologies that Microsoft originally acquired — and has since developed — when it bought Calista Technologies in 2008. RemoteFX is designed to make the experience of using a virtual desktop (i.e., using a PC or some thin-client to access a desktop that is hosted remotely in a data center) more like using a PC running locally by bringing “rich” screen content — including Silverlight and Adobe Flash, the Windows Aero interface, 3D applications and full motion video, from the server. It also adds USB device support to virtual desktop computing devices, including support for USB drives and cameras. RemoteFX works with client devices running Windows 7 SP1.

There are also some obscure new features that may eventually appeal to a limited number of customers — things like adding support for IPv6 addresses wrapped in an IPv4 shell when using Microsoft’s VPN-like Direct Access technology with network load balancing, support for Managed Service Accounts in secure branch office scenarios, and enhancements to failover clustering with storage. Obscure, but useful none the less.

All in all, the release candidates of these services packs should have generated some positive news for Microsoft last week, but never underestimate the ability of the Redmond giant to shoot itself in the foot.

It managed to do this by plunging the future of its Silverlight technology into confusion at its Professional Developer’s Conference. Talking to ZDnet, Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s server and tools boss, said that the company’s strategy for Silverlight “has shifted,” stating that “Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone.” On his blog, Muglia spun this, saying that “this isn’t a negative statement, but rather, it’s a comment on how the industry has changed and how we’re adapting our Silverlight strategy to take advantage of that.” But he also said, “We’re working hard on the next release of Silverlight, and it will continue to be cross-browser and cross-platform, and run on Windows and Mac.”

That was the cue for plenty of angry and bewildered comments on the blog, such as this one: “Bob, your loyal base of MS fans will loath MS if you drop Silverlight after we have, in good faith, invested our futures in it. You need to seek help in properly articulating your commitment, if any, otherwise you solely have destroyed Silverlight’s potential as an enterprise solution platform.”

Why is this worth mentioning? After all, in the grand scale of things, a little confusion over Silverlight is hardly significant. The reason is that Microsoft is at a critical point in its evolution right now, and during the next few years it is going to have to adapt to a world of mobile devices and cloud computing that is very different from the desktop OS based world of the past decade or two. So while the service packs are very welcome and all that, the company is also going to need strong leadership and a clear message going forward.

Right now, it doesn’t seem to have either.

Paul Rubens is a 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.

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