Rumors of Windows Server’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

I am frequently left somewhere between amused and exasperated when reading a statement that Windows Server is “dead” or listen to an industry commentator question the release of Windows Server. One might assume, judging by the typical Microsoft conference, that Windows Server is actually dead and irrelevant to the industry. But I am here to tell you that you are wrong.

Proof of Death

Sometimes I am in my car stopped at traffic lights, listening to a podcast, not long after Microsoft announces some news about Windows Server, I’ll hear it said, and neighboring drivers will hear me scream. Or maybe I’ll see a comment on social media and my reaction is “oh! for f…” ..’ you get the drift of where I’m going with this. Yes “WINDOWS SERVER IS DEAD”!

We need to face today’s reality. Why should Windows Server continue, right? Data centers are full of ARM servers running Android. Linux is the king of the desktop. The only code that is developed is for containers in the cloud. [Best sarcastic inner voice] Yeah – right!
When was the last time Windows Server had anything interesting in it? All it seems to be is a hyper-converged platform for hosting ever-smaller containers. And who needs to learn about that? So, all the conference sessions are gone. All the training has stopped. We don’t even need to talk about Windows Server anymore. It’s dead, Jim!

Proof of Life

By now, you are moving through that grief process and are working on acceptance. We have just a few little things to iron out. Microsoft’s recent financial results for Q2 (financial year 2021) showed a 23% year-on-year increase for the Intelligent Cloud business, clocking in at an acceptable $14.6 billion. Sure, Azure and GitHub (Microsoft’s future, don’t you know?) were a slice of that juicy pie, but no one truly believes that they are most of it – Microsoft chooses not to reveal the actual breakdown.  So Windows Server must be a pretty nice figure out of the $14.6 billion.
And there are the workloads. I work 100% in Microsoft Azure. The only role of “on-premises” in my life is helping my employer’s clients move their workloads and data from there and into Microsoft Azure. I giggle when they tell me “we are going to be 100% platform”. I’ll nod and smile, knowing that the ambition of “SaaS first, PaaS second, and IaaS last” is a worthy one, you’ll be amazed how often your workloads will land in IaaS.
An organization has three kinds of workload running in their data center:

  • Self-written: This code is entirely in the control of the organization. They can choose its fate – if they have the time! This is the one workload that you can truly say “this is going to PaaS”. Rarely will that happen, because time is precious and refactoring that production system will be expensive and disruptive? So in reality, most will focus PaaS development in new workloads.
  • Purchased: The vendor might have a SaaS offering. But in my experience, that is usually limited to very large vendors. The smaller vendors who make up the majority of workloads focus their limited development time and budget on gradual code improvements on the common denominator platform for all of their customers: the good old-fashioned server operating system. Supporting everyone’s favorite flavor of PaaS on the big 3 clouds is never going to be financially viable. And those hooked-on-containers-fanboys can forget the “dump that vendor” junk at the door while their boss kicks them to the curb for forgetting that business operations and profits come before personal preference.
  • Hybrid: A mix of both self-written and purchased – see both of the previous, mix with water and you’ll end up with the same result.

When I am working with clients, what ends up being deployed in a migration project is virtual machines. In theory, some simple self-written code can be picked up and dropped in PaaS. In theory, databases can be picked up and dropped into a form of PaaS – but the application vendor won’t support it! And those are reasons why we end up seeing things like IIS on Windows Server and SQL Server running on Windows Server in Microsoft Azure, despite Azure Kubernetes Services, App Services, Functions (serverless computing that runs on virtual machines!), Azure SQL, and Azure SQL Managed Instance. Don’t think that this process is over – worldwide, we are only at the start of the … I can’t believe I am about to use these words … the cloud journey.
Maybe this is why Microsoft continues to build and extend the support for Windows Server? Maybe the continued use of Windows Server is why we see Microsoft continue to regularly improve Windows Admin Center? Another Windows Admin Center and Windows Server 2022 were just announced during Microsoft Ignite.
Do not tell anyone this … it’ll be our little secret … Azure is based on Windows Server. Sure, over 50% of workloads in Azure are Linux, but how many million Windows Server Hyper-V hosts are they running on? And those Linux workloads … what are they really? Are they just teeny, tiny Linux containers that carry out micro functions? I would be more interested to know what percentage of Azure physical processor cores are Linux-/Windows-based.

The Challenge

Think fast … name a workload in Microsoft Azure that has exploded in popularity in the last year. Yes – working from home has made Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD to the cool kids) a fast climber up the charts. WVD reminds us that Windows Server plays a huge role. What does WVD (and Citrix) need to make it work – Active Directory Domain Services. And where does that little doozy come from? Windows Server!
The last couple of years, working in a cloud-first professional services firm, I have observed something interesting. The industry has decided to focus skills development on The Cloud. Kids (anyone under 40 now that I am of age to buy a Harley or a convertible) only know about things like Azure AD and Azure App Services. They can fire you up well specified and nicely secured Azure virtual machines, but please do not ask them to log in to that machine and do anything. These kids don’t even know how to do a DCPROMO! They can give you a SQL Managed Instance but they don’t know the first thing about managing it with SQL Management Studio. And if the Azure region doesn’t offer Azure Premium Files or NetApp Files, don’t go to them for a secured file server, let alone a Storage Spaces Direct cluster – OK that one is a stretch for most Windows Server admins.
The kids don’t know Windows Server. But organizations are still powered by it. Microsoft has declined to build a truly usable and scalable PaaS alternative to many Windows roles, such as Certificate Services for a private PKI, ADDS, Network Policy Services for RADIUS, and many more. The app vendors still require Windows Server. But all the kids know is … The Cloud.

The Potential

I have a neighbor that works for a large financial services company as a mainframe administrator. He is closing in on retirement age and he has a nice plan. He will retire with a nice pension, and then he’s going to offer his services back to his old employer as a part-time contractor at a nice hourly rate. He’ll get that gig and the money. How many mainframe administrators are under the age of 60? How many mainframe administrators are still alive? Those companies have had 30 years to get off of the mainframe – onto client/server computing and now The Cloud – and it hasn’t happened. Their processes are stuck on the mainframe, written in languages, such as COBOL, that haven’t been taught since the early 1990s.
We Windows Server administrators/consultants are the next generation of that phenomenon. The workloads stuck on Windows Server are not going anywhere. And someone needs to keep those cloud virtual machines ticking, and that means logging in and doing stuff that an ARM template or the Azure Portal cannot do. Those of us with growing guts, balding heads, or an urge to buy a Winnebago should feel comforted. For as long as we have the mental capacity to sign-in and remember that “it’s always DNS”, we will have a job. The thought of being the Wallmart-greeter of The Cloud might scare you, but I don’t think it’ll be like that. As we start to die off, those organizations will need us even more … and the demand will drive up our hourly rates.
My friends, Windows Server is not dead, and because of that mistaken-thinking, we Windows Server veterans are sitting pretty sweet.