It's not Vista: Windows Server 2008 gets nod from IT

It may look like Windows Vista. It shares the same code base as Vista. It even rolls in Vista's first Service Pack. But in terms of customer adoption plans, Windows Server 2008 is no Vista.

A new Computerworld survey shows that 63% of the 403 respondents plan to adopt Microsoft's new server operating system. (You can read more extensive survey results here.) This contrasts with the intention of some IT organizations to skip Vista entirely and move directly to Windows 7 on the desktop. According to an online survey of 372 IT professionals conducted by Sanford C. Bernstein in May, companies expect just 26% of their PCs to be running Vista by the beginning of 2011, down from an estimate of nearly 68% of computers based on a similar survey a year ago.

"I haven't seen any shadow of Vista being cast over Windows Server 2008," says John Enck, analyst at Gartner Inc. Most industry watchers, in fact, agree that deployment is not a matter of if, but when and where.

IT executives say that for the most part, Windows Server 2008's many new features won't compel them to change their normal refresh schedules to adopt it right away. "It's just an evolutionary step from Server 2003," says Rick Redman, senior IT analyst for the city of Amarillo, Texas.

Jim Thomas, director of IT operations at window manufacturer Pella Corp. in Pella, Iowa, says Microsoft's new virtualization hypervisor, Hyper-V, is interesting. But other than that, he says, there's "not a whole lot" that he finds compelling. And Hyper-V is too new and immature to warrant rushing ahead to convert his 425 Windows servers, he adds.

Overall, however, IT decision-makers give the operating system a qualified thumbs up and plan to move to it as part of the normal server refresh cycle, which typically ranges from three to five years. Some customers, for instance, phase in new servers by replacing one-third of their machines each year; others replace all of their servers at once.

"We're coming at it much more from a normal rollout of an operating system," says Bob Yale, IT principal at The Vanguard Group Inc. in Valley Forge, Pa. Vanguard has about 1,200 Windows servers, most of which are running Windows Server 2003.

Overall, 59% of Computerworld 's survey respondents who said they plan to adopt Windows Server 2008 (WS '08) expect to get started within the next 12 months. More than half -- 55% -- expect to complete the transition within two years. The highest level of interest came from respondents at midsize organizations with 100 to 1,000 employees; 69% of them said they expect to get started within the next 12 months.

Selective service

In most cases, the early adopters are deploying WS '08 selectively in a bid to leverage specific new features in the operating system. While more than half of respondents in our survey said they will follow the usual upgrade schedule, about one in four said they will accelerate adoption for some applications. One in three respondents said that their organizations have a business need for a new feature in WS '08.

Mike Moore, IT principal at Vanguard, says his company has implemented a few WS '08 machines where the new features filled a business need. For instance, Vanguard has servers in place that leverage WS '08's new Network Access Protection (NAP) features. "We'd like to extend that further with the more-granular policy servers that Windows Server 2008 provides," he says. But he doesn't expect to get serious about WS '08 rollouts until sometime in 2009.

Neither does the city of Amarillo's Redman, who says he'd like to see a base of documentation and best practices before moving forward. "The biggest problem is getting useful technical articles out of Microsoft that don't have a lot of marketing hype," he says.

But Ward Ralston, senior technical product manager for Windows Server 2008, argues that plenty of resources exist today. He points to the Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Solution Accelerator and to the Microsoft Web Deployment Tool for IIS as examples.

Redman expects to begin migrating to WS '08 within a year. For now, however, he'll stick with Server 2003 when the need for new servers arises. While it's not hard to install the new operating system, it's quite a bit of work to load the fixes and patches and deal with technical support, he says. "If this one is working, why break it? We have 1,500 other things to do," he notes.

Early adopter Pacific Coast Cos. in Cordova, Calif., upgraded three server-based applications to WS '08 while participating in Microsoft's beta program. The applications, which include an estimator, a design application and a quality-control application, are all hosted using Terminal Services and have been stable. Because they're critical, however, administrators perform a preventive reboot every month, just to be safe, says enterprise architect Matt Okuma. But he'd like to see the operating system season a bit before he migrates other applications. "Would I run an SAP portal on Server 2008 right now? Probably not," he says.

Like Vanguard, Pacific Coast plans to selectively deploy WS '08 as a replacement for third-party network access control products. "We don't want a fancy environment for network access protection. We just want to know when someone unauthorized has accessed our network," Okuma says.

His organization has also deployed Windows Server 2008's Terminal Services, with its ability to publish applications, as a replacement for his Citrix environment, which was hosted by a third party. The new setup saves on licensing and maintenance costs and performs better. "We've offloaded the cost and maintenance of Citrix. That's why we went to Server 2008," Okuma says. It was, he adds, a "no-brainer."

Broader deployments at Pacific Coast will likely start with Active Directory servers, but that's at least a year away. "We'll stick with Server 2003 in the interim," Okuma says.

Virtual possibilities

Hyper-V is probably the most talked about new feature in Server 2008. But with the hypervisor and management tools just emerging from beta, most organizations don't take Hyper-V seriously -- yet. "It's on our watch list, but not on the critical path to our virtualization strategy by any means," says Vanguard's Yale.

"Down the road, I think Microsoft will crush VMware, but they're far behind VMware at this point," says Okuma. He currently has 150 Windows servers, most of which are running virtualized Windows Server 2003 sessions on VMware products. Many of those virtual servers are "Tier 0" virtual machines, where server recovery would be time-consuming. "I would not move them to Hyper-V at this point," Okuma says.

"In 12 to 18 months, [Microsoft] will give VMware a run for their money," says Gartner's Enck. He thinks Microsoft will push Hyper-V into the enterprise through aggressive licensing practices. "It is very good at using the Microsoft license as a tool to shift the base," he says.

VMware also faces a competitive challenge from Microsoft for IT organizations that use more than one hypervisor. The new version of System Center Virtual Machine Manager, which offers some of the same tools found in VMware's VirtualCenter, will support not only Hyper-V but VMware ESX hypervisors as well when it's released later this year. And support for Xen is planned, according to Microsoft. VMware supports only its own hypervisor.

Right now, management tools are the No. 1 issue when it comes to virtualization, according to IDC. Microsoft's offering is not nearly as complete as VMware's, says Amarillo's Redman. But as it matures and the number of virtual machines under management continues to grow, System Center Virtual Machine Manager's flexibility will be increasingly attractive.

For now, however, most large companies are already committed to VMware. While 62% of large-company respondents in the Computerworld survey said they were using VMware for virtualization, nearly half (45%) of small companies and 29% of midsize companies said they weren't using virtualization at all yet. Gartner estimates that the installed base for virtualization as a percentage of all servers in use is still somewhere around 10%. That leaves plenty of room for Microsoft to move in.

"We think Microsoft will get big chunks of the market" and push out competitors, Enck says, leaving the market with two dominant players: VMware and Microsoft.

Scott Zimmerman, CIO at CenterPoint Properties in Oakbrook, Ill., is using VMware to host six of the real estate development and management company's 25 Windows servers. Zimmerman says he's very interested possibly using Hyper-V. "Is it a viable substitute? We'll want to find out," he says.

The city of Amarillo, with 100 to 150 Windows servers, is just starting to look at virtualization, Redman says. He's interested in Hyper-V but wants to see a broad community of support surrounding it before he'll consider deployment. "With VMware, a lot of people can help," he says.

Chad Mawson, IT manager at law firm Woods & Aitken LLP in Lincoln, Neb. agrees. He says he's seen "bits and pieces" of information on Microsoft's virtualization technology but notes that "there doesn't seem to be any real community base."

Overcoming VMware's entrenched position and customer loyalty won't be easy. "We're probably going to stick with VMware unless there's a huge price differential," Mawson says, noting that his ESX virtual machines are "incredibly stable." VMware isn't cheap, but that doesn't keep him up at night. "We get a good value for our money," he says.

Better living through Active Directory

Active Directory and group policy are another area where users say even incremental improvements are welcome. Overall, however, the improvements in Active Directory, such as the new read-only domain controller and improved logging for change events, are minimal, says Gartner's Enck. More important improvements, including better integration with Lightweight Directory Services or non-Windows Kerberos implementations, aren't there yet.

Microsoft's Ralston counters that WS '08 includes more than 1,800 group policy settings that used to require the creation of custom scripts. "We closed the loop on all of those group policy features that were missing," he says. Microsoft also rolled in tools from its Desktop Standard acquisition, now called Group Policy Preferences, to automate the creation of group policies.

Woods & Aitken deployed a single instance of WS '08 for an Active Directory domain controller in a remote office that needed a new server. Mawson says the system is working fine, but he acknowledges that the deployment was a gamble. "It's more of a test in active use," he says. The enhanced group-policy management features are a step up, and Mawson intends to take full advantage of those features. He'll begin moving to WS '08 immediately but will only migrate as servers come up for their regular replacement, he says.

SEI Investments Co. found the new Active Directory features sufficient to upgrade some servers. "The improvements in the Active Directory services [and] fine-grained password policies are really compelling," says Michael Lebiedzinski, director of infrastructure for the company s Global Wealth Platform. "In the past, different password policies were a driver to separate domains," he says. While the ability to fine-tune password policies drove the firm's adoption of WS '08, enabling domain consolidation was a secondary benefit, he says.

Others say they like the improvements but are in no rush to upgrade servers. "We've had talks about upgrading our Active Directory, but what do we actually gain from it? The risk is higher to go to 2008 than to just stay with 2003 at this point," Okuma says.

Stripping down to the core

Server 2008 offers 19 role-based installations that strip down the operating system to only the components needed to perform a given function, such as DNS. "We removed everything that wasn't needed for those roles. No .Net Framework, no Media Player, not even a GUI," says Microsoft's Ralston.

Redman thinks that the Server Core roles such as Active Directory and DNS server configurations will be particularly useful for remote sites. "A stripped-down operating system has less of a footprint for viruses, etc.," he says. Still, he's not going to put them in ahead of the normal refresh cycle.

Some of the Server Core roles fall in areas where Linux has been a popular alternative, but Gartner's Enck doesn't think WS '08 is a Linux-killer. Server Core is limited to a few specific roles, making it less flexible than Linux, he says. And while Server Core versions are easier to administer and are more secure than full-blown Windows Server installations because of the smaller footprint, there's no clear cost benefit to moving off of Linux. However, Server Core could blunt further advances by Linux into the enterprise for those role-based services it does support, he says.

Internet Information Server

Internet Information Server 7, part of WS '08, offers more security features. Like the rest of the operating system, IIS has been componentized. There are more than 40 different pieces that can be installed to build a Web server, says Ralston. IIS 7 includes many security improvements, he adds. For example, a remote procedure call can't write to the registry or file system anymore because the security token for the account it runs under no longer has those privileges baked in.

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