What You Need to Know about Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, Communications Server 14, Windows InTune, and More

Although summer is usually a quiet time in the PC and electronics industries, Microsoft holds its annual TechEd conference at this time of year, and there's always a lot of good product and technology information coming out of the show. Here's what you need to know about the news from TechEd 2010.


Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 SP1 Public Beta

As of press time, Microsoft is to deliver by the end of July a public beta version of SP1 for Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7. The company says it will use feedback from the beta to determine the final release schedule, but I expect to see the final release hit before the end of 2010.

SP1 adds almost no new functionality to Windows 7 beyond a Remote Desktop update. But it represents a major functional update to Windows Server 2008 R2, with support for new features like Hyper-V Dynamic Memory and RemoteFX.

Another new feature, RemoteFX USB Devices, aims to provide better USB device redirection over RDP than the shipping version of Server 2008 R2. You’ll be able to use virtually any USB device transparently over RDP, including scanners, all-in-one printers, web cameras, VoIP phones and headsets, and biometric devices.

And since I knew you were just thinking about this, yes—the Dynamic Memory feature from SP1 is being added to Hyper-V Server 2008 R2. And System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 will get an update this year to support Dynamic Memory as well.


Looking Back and Looking Ahead with Windows Server

Speaking of Windows Server, you can expect some changes in naming and branding when the next version hits in 2012. Microsoft is dropping the major/minor release cadence silliness and the even sillier R2 naming scheme.

Instead, Windows client and server releases will be developed and released in lockstep going forward, starting with vNext, as they call it internally.

Think about this for a second. Windows Vista SP1 and Server 2008 were developed on the same code base, so they were updated together with the SP2 release that applied to both—although it was Vista's second SP and Server 2008's first.

Meanwhile, Windows 7 (a major release) and Windows Server 2008 R2 (a minor release) were developed on the same code base, and will be serviced together starting with SP1.

These two product generations—Vista/Server 2008 and Windows 7/Server 2008 R2—are incompatible from a servicing perspective. And Microsoft tells me it has no plans at all for a Vista/Server 2008 SP3 release. I have to think a rollup will happen eventually, however.

Of course, some Windows Server users are facing bigger problems. Windows 2000 will have hit EOL ("end of life") by the time you read this, meaning that it has exited the support lifecycle.

So unless you don’t mind paying for security updates, this OS is dead in the water. And although Win2K Server usage is down to the single digits, these machines are still out there.

Windows Server 2003 is even worse. This OS represents about 50 percent of the installed base and it will hit extended support in July 2010.

That means that the majority of Microsoft's server customers have five years to move to something more modern. The big issue with Windows 2003—and as it turns out, Server 2008—is 32-bit application compatibility.

In fact, the number-one reason that Server 2008 R2 customers exercise their downgrade rights is to install a 32-bit version of Server 2008. Server 2008 R2, as you know, is 64-bit only, and there's an entire generation of 32-bit in-house and line of business (LOB) apps that need to be updated or replaced, and from what I can see, few are moving to do so with any alacrity.

"Windows Server 2003 is a power-hungry, non-virtualized, x86 world," Microsoft product manager Ward Ralston told me recently. "It's the classic server sprawl problem. Newer versions of Windows Server are just so much more efficient."

Exactly right. Get busy, people. If you're on Windows Server 2003, it's time to start planning a migration today.


Small Business Server "7" and "Aurora"

Microsoft will follow up the current Small Business Server version, SBS 2008, with two products, each of which serves a particular need.

The first, currently codenamed SBS "7", will be a traditional SBS product update and will offer, as before, on-premises versions of Windows Server (2008 R2), Exchange 2010, Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), and more.

The second product is, perhaps, more interesting. Currently code-named SBS "Aurora", this SBS version is based on the same code base as Windows Home Server "Vail" and assumes that your email and other services will be hosted in the cloud.

It can create but not join domains, and offers only very simplified on-site management tools. But it has a super-simple interface and works with the WHS-based Drive Extender technologies to consolidate all attached storage as a single block of storage. Good-bye, drive letters.

I'll be writing more about Aurora soon. This is a product that could transform the small business market.


HTML 5 and the Future

HTML 5 is still years away from being ratified as an international standard, but browser makers are jumping all over this technology.

The reason is simple: HTML 5 is the future of the web, and they want to prove that their product will get you there. Microsoft's response to HTML 5 involves Internet Explorer 9, as well as calls to the industry to rally around standards test that make sense.

That last bit is important because today's web standards test seem designed to make IE fail. Though I don’t expect to see IE 9 until early 2011, it will include hardware acceleration of video and SVG graphics.

Microsoft isn't the first to step up to the HTML 5 challenge, not by a long shot, and by the time IE 9 does happen, it could be swamped by a field of competitors that have already exceeded whatever HTML 5 compatibility IE offers.

Browser makers are talking up HTML 5, but two in particular, Apple and Google, have been rapidly shipping new products as well.

Apple's offering is, perhaps, less interesting, but Safari 5 does offer one IE 9 feature—hardware acceleration, even on Windows—and it’s aggressively adopting HTML 5 features, including full-screen video, closed captioning for video, geolocation, and more.

Safari 5 finally offers an extensibility model, an area in which this browser was lacking. I don't expect Safari to make major inroads in the Windows market, but it's not wise to discount Apple. And Safari is certainly the overwhelming champion in the mobile space right now.

Google's latest browser, Chrome 5, also embraces HTML 5, and Google is shipping Chrome updates at any amazing clip. Chrome 5 features a great extensions infrastructure, browser bookmarks and preferences sync, and should have an integrated version of Adobe Flash available by the time you read this.

On the HTML front, it now supports many of the same HTML 5 features that Apple added to Safari 5. Given Chrome's update schedule, it might prove the most popular browser for early adopters and those who like to use the latest technologies.

Mozilla Firefox, of course, is still the alternative browser of choice, though it seems to have hit a plateau in usage shares. Current versions of Firefox do support HTML video and audio, but not with the popular H.264 video and AAC audio formats.

Mozilla has been moving slowly, not just with HTML but in general, and its browser updates seem to be on an ever-slower schedule. I wouldn't be surprised to see Firefox begin a gradual decline.


Communications Server "14"

A couple of years ago, Microsoft's Unified Communications (UC) vision was, well, more vision than reality. But with the release of Microsoft Communications Server (MCS) "14" (it still doesn't have a final branding), later this year, the vision is becoming reality.

And that's especially true for those environments that can standardize on Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Office 2010 as well, given the hooks that tie each together.

MCS 14 provides real-time communications solutions around instant messaging (IM)— text, voice, and video—and it does so via a tiered experience where you locate a contact by using presence information in the MCS client, in Outlook, in SharePoint, or in other areas, then can escalate the discussion to different conversation types, including VoIP.

New features include enterprise skill searching through integration with SharePoint 2010, and major improvements to the presence model so that MCS exposes only those conversation types for your location.

Aside from branding, there are some other questions around scheduling and licensing. But Microsoft says you can expect a public preview release by the end of 2010.


Windows InTune

Thanks to the cloud computing phenomenon, Microsoft has scaled back plans for on-premises server products in small and medium-sized businesses and is focusing instead on delivering hosted services that make more sense for those environments.

The one I think will have the broadest implications over time is Windows InTune. Currently aimed at midsized businesses, it offloads system management to the cloud and provides a way to manage all of the PCs in your environment remotely. That it does so outside of Active Directory (AD) will be controversial to some.

There are two bit of news up front: First, Microsoft's initial public beta offering of Windows InTune in April 2010 was, perhaps, too popular, and the company had to shut down the sign-up site.

If you didn't get in, there should be a second, larger, public beta offering by the time you read this. Second, Microsoft is addressing the concerns of partners who will want to support their own customers using InTune by offering a partner dashboard interface so they can manage multiple sites more easily.

I'm happy to report that Microsoft is now actively seeking to expand InTune and will someday offer versions of the service for small businesses and AD-wielding enterprises as well.

Although the company is mum about how it will change InTune to accommodate AD, in the short term you can rest easy by understanding that AD-based policies will always supersede any InTune-specific policies, so it should be safe to use in smaller environments. Microsoft plans to deliver the initial InTune version in the first quarter of 2011.

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