The architectural foundation for the next 20 years? Microsoft aims (very, very) high...

There's confidence, and then there's hyperbole. When Microsoft suggests that its latest release is a 20 year paradigm-creator, which one is it?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wants to take the benefits of cloud services beyond wealthy societies

Credit: Microsoft

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft is credited with making the observation that in the tech industry we overestimate what we can achieve in one year, but underestimate what we can achieve in 10 years. I was reminded of that quote when talking with Jeffrey Snover, Microsoft technical fellow and lead Windows Server/System Center architect, in the run up to a big product release out of Redmond. Snover was nothing if not confident, suggesting that this release will set the stage for the next 20 years of application development. That is a massive suggestion to make, so what is it that Microsoft is so bullish about?

The company has released the latest technical previews of Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016. Between the two tools, Microsoft wants to ramp up the speed at which modern data centers can meet the needs of their stakeholders. Specific developments include:

  • Application platform features, including new capabilities for Nano Server, Windows Server Containers updates and -- new in this release -- Hyper-V Containers.
  • Software-defined data center capabilities, across storage, networking and compute.
  • New security features help address evolving threats and new threat vectors.
  • Enhanced management and monitoring capabilities.

Diving into some of the intricacies, Microsoft is introducing Hyper-V containers, which offer regular container flexibility, with a higher degree of isolation. A container-optimized version of Hyper-V, this will appeal to those wary of container security issues. Nano Servers, a previously announced micro server approach, is a foundational element of Windows Server 2016 and now supports Desired State Configuration, a way of assigning deployment and management constructs to Nano Servers (think Chef/Puppet for a Nano Server paradigm).

Microsoft is also delivering more in the software-defined data center space with Hyper-V nested virtualization, more networking options and more storage flexibility. Security enhancements are also a part of this release. In the management side of things, System Center 2016 combines with Microsoft Operations Management Suite to provide an integrated view across any cloud, any operating system, from infrastructure to applications.

All of this could (and, likely, does) sound like humdrum technical announcements. What is it that makes Microsoft so bullish about this being truly transformational? It all comes down to IT's demand for more agility and speed. Tying that core demand in with product development sees Microsoft posit that:

"Doing more with less has been a theme for IT for years. The name of the game today is speed. The move to the cloud-first world is about getting ahead of the competition. New apps and new features for apps drive business value, and that application-centric mindset means that you need to think differently about how your data center stands up to the need for speed. With Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016, our approach is to bring cloud-born technologies to the traditional data center, so that you can make the most of the resources you have today while bringing innovation to your customers."

So it's all about letting traditional IT groups act more like the webscale or cloud-native companies we've come to know and love. But within the context of their existing data center footprint. Kind of a "better together" approach. Which makes sense, but it strikes me that inflating this to be a once in a generation time for enterprise IT is a case of gilding the lily.

Snover's perspective is that some enterprises are too focused on app delivery models, rather than the underlying foundation and architecture that support app development and delivery across the datacenter and into the cloud. The new products are, in his mind, a way to deliver speed and flexibility, within the constraints of control and security. Snover was pretty quick to jump to "shadow IT", that bogey monster of the IT world, as a key concern for enterprise IT and articulated what he sees as "drama" that emanate from applications.

The thinking goes that while smart developers are quick to pick up new application models, those models may not have the right underpinnings, they might lack the correct architectural foundation and, therefore, might indeed speed development, but potentially in a high-risk way. 

I put it to Snover that the "20 year" messaging was an impossible dream in such a fast moving IT environment. He, naturally, didn't concur, suggesting that this focus on the core and foundation, as opposed to the faster moving ephemeral layer, means that there is a great chance that the technology foundations could indeed be meaningful over that sort of a time period.

Which kind of takes me to my criticism for what Microsoft is saying here. It seems to me that the most agile of organizations today, those that are built in a cloud and mobile first way, focus on those so-called ephemeral layers. Quite rightly, those companies have seen infrastructure simply as a utility, and have abstracted it away as critical, but not a differentiator. On top of that is where the magic happens, at the application and services layers.

Now, of course, Microsoft would tell us that it is only through a flexible yet robust foundational layer that the more rapidly moving parts on top can have any hope of being stable and performant, and this is a perspective that I can agree with. But it still leaves the fact that increasingly the foundational layer is unimportant and that organizations will use whatever meets their needs -- physical, virtualized, containerized or whatever. Increasingly it feels like Microsoft is trying to justify a foundational infrastructure layer in and of itself, as the deliverer of stability and robustness. That is a position that will become increasingly difficult to maintain as organizations take advantage of the myriad new approaches that are coming.

I'm sure this is an exciting product release for IT pros all around the world. But for the developers, those who are really putting a dent into the universe, it might just be a little bit... Meh!

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