The Rigor of Windows 8 Hardware Certification Requirements, and What Happened to Drive Extender in Windows 8

Last month, I discussed some alarming issues concerning Windows 8, Microsoft's curiously still-mysterious coming OS generation (see Windows 8 Worries” ). Since then, Microsoft has done an admirably lousy job of communicating its plans for Windows 8 to the public and ignoring pleas for it to fully reveal its plans.

In its final Consumer Electronics Show (CES) keynote address in January, for example, Microsoft didn't discuss any new information about Windows 8 at all, choosing instead to simply reiterate what it had revealed months early, in September 2011, when it delivered the Windows 8 Developer Preview.

The message here, it seems, is that Windows 8 is on a need-to-know basis. And those outside the Windows team simply don't need to know.

I disagree with this pretty strongly, as you might expect, and, in keeping with the name of this column, I intend to keep beating the drum for Windows 8 because, yes, you do need to know. Fortunately, a few nuggets of information have appeared since the last column, and they’re quite interesting indeed.

Windows 8 Storage Advances

One of the more exciting areas of improvement in Windows 8—and of course in Windows Server 8 as well—concerns storage. And in the past month, we've learned about some new and very interesting storage-related features for these OSs.

You might recall that Microsoft had previously created a technology called Drive Extender, which was designed to somewhat obviate the need for drive letters and to make storage available in flat pools that could be redundant—where crucial data was always copied to two physical disks—and easier to manage.

Drive Extender debuted in the original version of Windows Home Server (WHS) but was subsequently removed in WHS 2011, to the dismay of enthusiasts, when Microsoft discovered that it couldn't be fixed to work properly with the server apps that would run on top of WHS-based products such as Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials.

This was a problem because the original plan for Drive Extender was to move this technology to the mainstream Windows Server versions, then ultimately, to the Windows client too. Today, I can tell you that Drive Extender lives, sort of, as a new feature of Windows 8 and Windows Server 8 called Storage Spaces.

Thematically identical to Drive Extender but architecturally more modern, Storage Spaces lets you organize storage on physical disks in pools. These pools can use storage from any number of different sizes and types of disks, and expanding a storage pool is as simple as adding a new disk.

As with Drive Extender, Storage Spaces also provides redundancy, but you can configure that redundancy, through mirroring or parity, to occur across two or more disks (instead of Drive Extender’s two).

Storage Spaces can also work with virtualized storage, which is dynamic storage that’s contained in virtual hard disks (VHDs). Virtualized storage provides what Microsoft calls thin provisioning, since it allows an application to grab storage dynamically (i.e., the physical space used by the VHD grows only as it’s actually used) rather than grab all of the space it might typically need from the moment it runs.

It's unclear now how much usage this capability will get, however, given the amazingly cheap storage prices we're seeing these days.

But there's more. NTFS is being bolstered with support for very large capacity hard drives, which Microsoft defines as disks larger than 2.2TB, and the ability to use that space more efficiently through larger disk sector sizes. Some of this functionality will require newer PCs with Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) firmware instead of older and now obsolete BIOS firmware.

And Microsoft's not stopping with NTFS. In Windows Server 8 only, the company is introducing a new file system, called ReFS, for Resilient File System, that improves on NTFS in key ways. Most crucially, it includes anti–data-corruption capabilities, is optimized for high-end scaling needs, and, when used in tandem with Storage Spaces, can provide a full end-to-end resiliency architecture.

In keeping with previous file system evolutions, ReFS is aimed only at a single workload, file serving, and will improve over time. As such it comes with serious limitations in this first version, and it can’t be used on a server's boot partition or with removable media of any kind.

Microsoft expects to eventually deliver ReFS to the Windows client—though it didn't specify if this would occur through a Windows 8 service pack or other update, or via Windows 9—then allow it to be used as a boot volume.

Windows 8 Logo Certification Requirements

In December, Microsoft quietly published a set of Windows 8 hardware certification requirements aimed at PC makers and, of course, a new generation of ARM-based Windows 8 device makers as well.

These documents, which cover devices, filter drivers, and client and server systems, respectively, are a wellspring of interesting information. But it wasn't until a month after their release that anyone noticed.

Oddly enough, the open-source crowd noticed first, and what they found, predictably, then misrepresented, even more predictably, was a note about a supposed design goal of locking out Linux on ARM-based Windows 8 devices.

But rather than dwell on that, let's focus on the real news: some of the more interesting requirements that Microsoft is enforcing for hardware makers who want a certified-for-Windows-8 logo on their PCs and devices.

This information was first published by my Windows 8 Secrets coauthor Rafael Rivera on his Within Windows blog. And some of the requirements he discovered are pretty surprising. They include the following:

NFC. Windows 8 tablets and other touch-based devices that implement the emerging near field communication (NFC) technology must provide an obvious and visible touch point on the outside of the device.

This will make it easier for users to facilitate an NFC-based radio "conversation," if you will, which is basically a next-generation version of the infrared intra-device communications solutions we futzed with a decade ago. But NFC promises much grander possibilities than infrared, including a way for users to make mobile payments at retail stores and other locations. Sounds like something that would be particularly useful on a smartphone.

Digitizers. With touch-based Windows 7, PC makers can implement pretty low-resolution digitizers and only need to support one touch point to get the logo.

This is changing dramatically in Windows 8, where they'll be required to support at least five touch points, just the right amount for every finger on a hand. Of course, modern PCs will likely support even more, and Lenovo has already announced a Windows 8–era convertible PC called the IdeaPad Yoga that will support ten touch points.

Hardware buttons. If you're familiar with Windows Phone, you know that handsets based on this mobile OS must include the following hardware buttons: Back, Start, and Search on the front, and Volume, Power, and Camera on the outside edge.

Similarly, Windows 8 devices—like tablets and convertible PCs—have to implement a stock set of hardware buttons as well. These include Power, Rotation Lock, Windows Key (the WinKey button, not the Windows button or Start button), Volume Up, and Volume Down.

CTRL+ALT+DEL button shortcut. Long-time PC enthusiasts probably know that the CTRL+ALT+DEL keyboard shortcut came to be because Microsoft developers wanted a way of halting application execution but wanted to make sure it was a keyboard combination no one would ever hit by mistake.

Years later, it's one of the most-frequently-used keyboard combinations on earth, partially because Microsoft made it a requirement to log on to domain-joined Windows PCs. But what about tablets? In Windows 8, you'll be able to tap Windows Key + Power to emulate CTRL+ATL+DEL, no physical keyboard required.

Tablet and convertible PC minimum requirements. Although today's PCs come with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to computing resources, some of the Windows 8–based devices of the future will offer decidedly lower-end feature sets, more similar to that of an iPad than a full-fledged Windows laptop.

But there are limits, and Microsoft specifies, among other things, that any logoed Windows 8 device must include at least 10GB of free storage space after Windows 8 completes the Windows Out Of Box Experience (OOBE); UEFI firmware (instead of BIOS); WLAN and Bluetooth 4.0 + LE (low energy) networking capabilities; graphics compliant with Direct3D 10 (but hardware acceleration is optional); 1366 x 768 or higher screen resolution; at least one 720p camera; an ambient light sensor; a magnetometer; a 3-axis accelerometer; a gyroscope; and stereo speakers (plus that five-point digitizer mentioned above).

Two second resume . Much has been made about the requirement that all Windows 8 PCs be able to resume from Sleep in two seconds or less. However, less well known is the fact that this requirement doesn’t apply to ARM-based Windows 8 devices, just those using the traditional Intel-based x86/x64 architecture.

Rivera and I have a theory about this, and that's that Microsoft simply doesn't have enough experience with power management on ARM yet to require this level of performance, but that it will be added in a future release, such as Windows 9.

Graphics driver updates can't require a reboot. Finally, Microsoft is requiring hardware makers to provide graphics device drivers that can be installed without requiring a system reboot. (Previously, only WDDM-class drivers came with this requirement.)

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Although Microsoft usually refers to its late February Windows 8 milestone as the Windows 8 Beta, Microsoft director of public relations Janelle Poole provided a new name for this release that I think more clearly reflects its purpose. She described it as the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, as opposed to the previous milestone, which was the Developer Preview.

I find this name interesting and very telling, and suspect that it will thus provide all of the end-user features that consumers expect. But this also suggests that the milestone after that, for now referred to as the Release Candidate (RC), might be aimed specifically at IT and the enterprise and thus could bear a name like Business Preview (or whatever).

Regardless, the use of the word Consumer on the February release means to me that businesses will likely want to wait even longer before fully testing this OS release. And that means an even later deployment schedule than was previously thought.

This isn't a bad thing. Microsoft first told me over a year ago that it planned to make Windows 8 virtually identical to its predecessor for businesses, and explained that from a deployment and management perspective, the OSs would behave very similarly.

And from a user's perspective, Windows 8 can, of course, be controlled by policy to look and behave nearly identically to Windows 7, cutting down on training and support costs.

Put simply, this is further evidence that Windows 8's stratospheric user experience changes could be aimed solely at consumers and that businesses won’t need to worry about mixing and matching Windows 7 and 8 in their environments.

So there you go: Another month of Windows 8 information. Something tells me this is going to be pretty common throughout 2012. See you next month.

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