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May 30, 2024

Unveiling the Hidden History of Windows Server

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Just over thirty years ago, concurrent with the advent of the PC revolution that transformed the business world, a unique operating system was introduced to govern office computer networks. Today, this very same operating system carries on, now aiding corporations in managing operations spanning continents via cloud servers possibly thousands of miles remote.

The system in question is Windows Server, assuming various roles over its expansive lifespan. Its applications, ranging from ecommerce to remote working, have modified in tandem with the growth of the digital economy. Erin Chapple, a professional associated with the product for over twenty years, finds the journey of Windows Server intriguing not merely for its innovations but also for the influential role it has played in shaping company structures. Chapple, currently serving as the Corporate Vice President for Azure Infrastructure at Microsoft, shares her excitement of being part of a platform that propels technology changing the modus operandi of enterprises or communities. Chapple, along with her teammates, unfolds the chronicle of Windows Server’s evolution and conjectures its future trajectory.

The early 1990s IT milieu barely holds semblance to the contemporary scene. The Internet was in its nascent stage, smartphones were non-existent, and the use of home computers was just starting to gain traction.

In the commercial sphere, however, PCs were emerging as common installations on office desks. With their increasing numbers, companies felt the need for a secure system for managing these machines, and also for connecting them for seamless file sharing and printing. This led to the conception of a new type of PC, termed as a “server”, capable of functioning as the central network point, offering these services to its “client” workstations. With the launch of Windows Server, initially as Windows NT in 1993, many businesses began hosting their own server hardware for the first time.

Many of the technologies and concepts created 30 years ago for Windows NT have stood the test of time. “Those technologies delivered back then are still in use today—and they’re still used in all aspects,” says Jeff Woolsey, Principal Program Manager for Windows Server at Microsoft. Woolsey attributes the longevity of Windows Server to one quality above all – reliability. Windows NT brought with it the concept of protected memory, ensuring that one faulty application did not crash the entire system. These technologies have now proliferated into consumer devices, touching billions of users globally.

One of the chief aspects that has defined Windows Server has been its inherent flexibility. Instead of necessitating administrators to rely on third-party apps for specific tasks, the operating system offered these utilities itself. Server administrators could decide the tools they wanted, enabling the server to assume different roles as per specific needs. This system evolved with time, for instance, Internet Information Services was introduced as the internet gained momentum to facilitate companies in hosting their own websites.

“When you deploy Windows Server, I like to think of it as a blank slate,” says Woolsey. “The first thing you must decide is: What is its role? What is its job? Is it a file server? A print server? A web server? An application server?” With the advent of the PC era, the economic landscape became steadily digitized, calling for increased computing capacity. This led many companies to host their servers in datacenters—buildings filled floor-to-ceiling with computer hardware.

With the expansion of operations, complexity also increased. There was a need for careful load-balancing with the increased workload to ensure user performance wasn’t negatively impacted. Furthermore, the rise of serious cyberattacks led to growing security threats, and the universal demand for internet access required meticulous network management.

In 2006, Microsoft invented PowerShell to address these challenges. This was a pivotal moment in the history of Windows Server. PowerShell automated tasks like installing security updates or executing backups, liberating IT personnel from some of their everyday mundane tasks. Thus, they could concentrate more on the overall strategy.

The significance of its impact is well understood by Erin Chapple. “At the Microsoft conference, TechEd, in New Orleans in 2010, a PowerShell user stopped Jeffrey Snover, the brain behind PowerShell and expressed gratitude. He exclaimed ‘This has changed my life. I can now earn more and directly impact the business. My job satisfaction has improved.’”

The 2000s were mainly about companies operating their own datacenters. However, from the 2010s and beyond, companies started shifting to the cloud. Businesses now prefer to rent server space remotely instead of managing the massive overheads of operating their own infrastructure. This shift also allowed them to deploy software with ease and introduced the possibility of remote work irrespective of the device used.

That didn’t spell the end of the Windows Server story, though. It’s still there as the backbone of Microsoft’s Azure cloud offering—only the physical location of the servers has changed. But the way it fits into corporate systems has evolved: Many businesses are now taking a hybrid approach—they still run some of their own server equipment, but now marry that with the ample resources that the cloud can offer.

Refining the product for this hybrid approach required Microsoft to pay close attention to customer comments. Chapple recalls how Microsoft initially decided to offer a cloud-based interface to manage on-premises servers. “Well, it turns out that customers weren’t necessarily ready to make that switch,” says Chapple, referring to feedback received in 2016. “We thought they would manage Windows Server from the cloud, when really they wanted to keep Windows servers on premises, they wanted to manage from on premises.”

In response, Microsoft released what became Windows Admin Center as an on-premises management tool, and “it had one of the fastest growths of any management tool I’m aware of,” says Chapple. Years later, in 2019, with a product called Azure Arc, Microsoft provided a single platform to manage both cloud and on-premises servers, “and the whole thing has come full circle,” says Chapple. “It’s really exciting to see customers innovating across that spectrum.”

This hybrid set-up can prove invaluable. Chapple cites the example of a cruise line that moved its server infrastructure into the Azure cloud, but also still uses local server equipment on its ships as they sail around the world, often in places where connectivity is limited. “That lets them gain agility and reliability at the edge, on the shore, or at sea,” says Chapple. “But by adopting Azure, they’re also able to manage their apps and track the company’s ships and vital signals as they travel around the world.”

We’re currently at the very beginning of what some predict will engender the next big platform shift in computing: The AI era.

Microsoft has been one of the companies investing heavily in generative AI; its partnership with OpenAI has led to the range of Copilot AI assistants that can help customers code apps, analyze their own business data, or improve the security of their cloud environments. “And, of course, with Azure AI, we’re making it possible for customers to build their own Copilots too, if they want to do that,” says Jeff Woolsey. If you’re a retailer, for example, your server could run a Copilot chatbot, trained on your own catalogs or product manuals, to answer customer queries about your products.

Many Windows Server customers, from US retailers to centuries-old European postal services are beginning to reimagine their businesses with AI. So what future developments in AI could impact their experience of running their servers? One area to watch is the work being done on “AI agents”—bots that don’t merely offer suggestions but autonomously perform sequences of actions to achieve higher-order goals. These could potentially allow system administrators to automate more of their everyday tasks. If AI agents become commonplace, it may also mean that servers need to evolve to handle interactions with third-party AI agents owned by other corporations or people.

While the full impact of AI on businesses is yet to be seen, Chapple believes that it is already having an immediate impact on today’s IT professionals not unlike the emergence of PowerShell all those years ago. “It’s about automating or reducing the toil in the day-to-day lives of the administrators—and developers for that matter,” she says. “That helps make them more productive, and also helps get the most out of their IT infrastructure.”

Get More Info about Azure, adaptive cloud, and the upcoming Windows Server 2025: javascript:void(0);

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