Microsoft’s hardware business has always felt like something of an also-ran, with the notable exception being the Xbox of course. It’s not that the products were bad per se, indeed many of my friends still swear by the Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard, more that it just seemed to be an aside that never really saw much innovation or effort. The Surface seemed like an attempt to change the perception, pitting Microsoft directly against the venerable iPad whilst also attempting to bring consumers across to the Windows 8 way of thinking. Unfortunately the early years weren’t kind to it at all with the experiment resulting in a $900 million write down for Microsoft which many took to indicate that the Surface (or at the very least the RT version) weren’t long for this world. The 18 months that have followed however have seen that particular section of Microsoft’s business make a roaring comeback, much to my and everyone else’s surprise.
The Microsoft quarterly earnings report released today showing that Microsoft is generally in a good position with revenue and gross margin up on the previous quarter of last year. The internal make up of those numbers is a far more mixed story (covered in much better detail here) however the standout point was the fact that the Surface division alone was $1.1 billion for the quarter, up a staggering $211 million from the previous quarter. This is most certainly on the back of the Surface Pro 3 which was released in June 2014 but for a device that was almost certainly headed for the trash heap it’s a pretty amazing turn around from $900 million in the hole to $1.1 billion in revenue just 1.5 years later.
The question that interests me then is: What was the driving force behind this comeback?
To start off with the Surface Pro 3 (and all the Surface Pro predecessors) are actually pretty great pieces of kit, widely praised for their build quality and overall usability. They were definitely a premium device, especially if you went for the higher spec options, but they are infinitely preferable to carting around your traditional workhorse laptop around with you. The lines get a little blurry when you compare them to an ultrabook of similar specifications, at least if you’re someone like me who’s exacting with what they want, however if you didn’t really care about that the Surface was a pretty easy decision. So the hardware was great, what was behind the initial write down then?
That entirely at the feet of the WinRT version which simply failed to be the iPad competitor it was slated to be. Whilst I’m sure I’d have about as much use for an iPad as I would for my Surface RT it simply didn’t have the appeal that its fully fledged Pro brethren had. Sure you’d be spending more money on the Pro but you’d be getting the full Windows experience rather than the cut down version which felt like it was stuck between being a tablet and laptop replacement. Microsoft tried to stick with the RT idea with the 2 however they’ve gone to great lengths now to reposition the device as a laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor.
You don’t even have to go far to see this repositioning in action, the Microsoft website for the Surface Pro 3 puts it in direct competition with the Macbook Air. It’s a market segment that the device is far more likely to win in as well considering that Apple’s entire Mac product line made about $6.6 billion last quarter which includes everything from the Air all the way to the Mac Pro. Apple has never been the biggest player in this space however so the comparison might be a little unfair but it still puts the Surface’s recent revival into perspective.
It might not signal Microsoft being the next big thing in consumer electronics but it’s definitely not something I expected from a sector that endured a near billion dollar write off. Whether Microsoft can continue along these lines to capitalize on this is something we’ll have to watch closely as I’m sure no one is going to let them forget the failure that was the original Surface RT. I still probably won’t buy one however, well unless they decide to include a discrete graphics chip in a future revision.
Hint hint, Microsoft.
The rumour mill has been running strong for Microsoft’s next Windows release, fuelled by the usual sneaky leaks and the intrepid hackers who relentlessly dig through preview builds to find things they weren’t meant to see. For the most part though things have largely been as expected with Microsoft announcing the big features and changes late last year and drip feeding minor things through the technical preview stream. Today Microsoft held their Windows 10 Consumer Preview event in Redmond, announcing several new features that would become part of their flagship operating system as well as confirming the strategy for the Windows platform going forward. Suffice to say it’s definitely a shake up of what we’d traditionally expect from Microsoft, especially when it comes to licensing.
The announcement that headlined the event that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for all current Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 customers who upgrade in the first year. This is obviously an attempt to ensure that Windows 10’s adoption rate doesn’t languish in the Vista/8 region as even though every other version of Windows seems to do just fine Windows 10 is still different enough for it to cause issues. I can see the adoption rate for current Windows 8 and 8.1 users to be very high, thanks to the integration with the Windows store, however for Windows 7 stalwarts I’m not so sure. Note that this also won’t apply to enterprises who are responsible for an extremely large chunk of the Windows 7 market currently.
Microsoft also announced Universal Applications which are essentially the next iteration of the WinRT framework that was introduced with Windows 8. However instead of delineating some applications to the functional ghetto (like all Metro apps were) Universal Apps instead share a common base set of functionality with additional code paths for the different platforms they support. Conceptually it sounds like a great idea as it means that the different versions of the applications will share the same codebase, making it very easy to bring new features to all platforms simultaneously. Indeed if this platform can be extended to encompass Android/iOS it’d be an incredibly powerful tool, although I wouldn’t count on that coming from Microsoft.
Xbox Live will also be making a prominent appearance in Windows 10 with some pretty cool features coming for XboxOne owners. Chief among these, at least for me, is the ability to stream XboxOne games from your console directly to your PC. As someone who currently uses their PC as a monitor for their PS4 (I have a capture card for reviews and my wife didn’t like me monopolizing the TV constantly with Destiny) I think this a great feature, one I hope other console manufacturers replicate. There’s also cross-game integration for games that use Xbox Live, an inbuilt game recorder and, of course, another iteration of DirectX. This was the kind of stuff Microsoft had hinted at doing with Windows 8 but it seems like they’re finally committed to it with Windows 10.
Microsoft is also expanding its consumer electronics business with new Windows 10 enabled devices. The Microsoft HoloLens is their attempt at a Google Glass like device although one that’s more aimed at being used with the desktop rather than on the go. There’s also the Surface Hub which is Microsoft’s version of the smart board, integrating all sorts of conferencing and collaboration features. It will be interesting to see if these things see any sort of meaningful adoption rate as whilst they’re not critical to Windows 10’s success they’re certainly devices that could increase adoption in areas that traditionally aren’t Microsoft’s domain.
Overall the consumer preview event paints Windows 10 as an evolutionary step forward for Microsoft, taking the core of the ideas that they attempted with previous iterations and reworking them with a fresh perspective. It will be interesting to see how the one year free upgrade approach works for them as gaining that critical mass of users is the hardest thing for any application, even the venerable Windows platform. The other features that are coming along as more nice to haves than anything else, things that will likely help Microsoft sell people on the Windows 10 idea. Getting this launch right is crucial for Microsoft to execute on their strategy of it being the one platform for time immaterial as the longer it takes to get the majority of users on Windows 10 the harder it will be to invest heavily in it. Hopefully Windows 10 can be the Windows 7 to Windows 8 as Microsoft has a lot riding on this coming off just right.
Microsoft isn’t a company you’d associate with open source. Indeed if you wound back the clock 10 years or so you’d find a company that was outright hostile to the idea, often going to great lengths to ensure open source projects that competed with their offerings would never see the light of day. The Microsoft of today is vastly different, contributing to dozens of open sourced projects and working hard with partner organisations to develop their presence in the ecosystem. For the most part however this has usually been done with an integration view towards their proprietary products which isn’t exactly in-line with the open source ethos. That may be set to change however as Microsoft will be fully open sourcing its .NET framework, the building blocks of all Microsoft applications.
For the uninitiated Microsoft .NET is a development framework that’s been around since the Windows XP days that exposed a consistent set of capabilities which applications could make use of. Essentially this meant that developing a .NET application meant you could guarantee it would work on any computer running that framework, something which wasn’t entirely a given before its inception. It’s since then grown substantially in capability, allowing developers to create some very capable programs using nothing more than the functionality built directly into Windows. Indeed it was so successful in accomplishing its aims that there was already a project going to make it work on non-Windows platforms, dubbed Mono, and it is with them that Microsoft is seeking to release a full open source implementation of the .NET framework.
Whilst this still falls in line with Microsoft’s open source strategy of “things to get people onto the Microsoft platform” it does open up a lot of opportunities for software to be freed from the Microsoft platform. The .NET framework underpins a lot of applications that run on Windows, some that only run on Windows, and an implementation of that framework on another platform could quickly elevate them to cross platform status. Sure, the work to translate them would still likely be non-trivial, however it’ll be a damn sight easier with a full implementation available, possibly enough to tempt some companies to make the investment.
One particularly exciting application of an open sourced .NET framework is games which, traditionally, have an extremely high opportunity cost when porting between platforms. Whilst everything about games development on Windows isn’t strictly .NET there are a lot of .NET based frameworks out there that will be readily portable to new platforms once the open sourcing is complete. I’m not expecting miracles, of course, but it does mean that the future of cross-platform releases is looking a whole bunch brighter than it was just a week ago.
This is probably one of Microsoft’s longest bets in a while as it’s going to be years before the .NET framework sees any kind of solid adoption among the non-Windows crowd. However this does drastically increase the potential of C# and .NET to become the cross platform framework of favour with developers, especially considering the large .NET developer community that already exists today. It’s going to be an area that many of us will be watching with keen interest as it’s yet another signal that Microsoft isn’t the company it used to be, a likely never will be again in the future.
For the longest time, far too long in my opinion, XP had been the beast that couldn’t be slayed. The numerous releases of Windows after it never seemed to make much more than a slight dent in its usage stats and it reigned as the most used operating system worldwide for an astonishing 10 years after its initial release. It finally lost its crown to Windows 7 back in October of 2011 but it still managed to hold on a market share that dwarfed many of its competitors. It’s decline was slow though, much slower than an operating system which was fast approaching end of life should have been. However last quarter saw it drop an amazing 6% in total usage, finally dropping it below the combined usage of Windows 8 and 8.1.
The reasons behind this drop are wide and varied but it finally appears that people are starting to take Microsoft’s warnings that their product is no longer supported seriously and are looking for upgrades. Surprisingly though the vast majority of people transitioning away from the aging operating system aren’t going for Windows 7, they’re going straight to Windows 8.1. This isn’t to say that 8.1 is eating away at 7’s market share however, it’s up about half a percent in the same time frame, and the upgrade path is likely due to the fact that Microsoft has ceased selling OEM copies of Windows 7. Most of those new licenses do come with downgrade rights however though I’m sure few people actually use them.
If XP’s current downward trend continues along this path then it’s likely to hit the low single digit usage figures sometime around the middle of next year. On the surface this would appear to be a good thing for Microsoft as it means that the majority of their user base will be on a far more modern platform. However at the same time the decline might just be a little too swift for people to consider upgrading to Windows 10 which isn’t expected to be RTM until late next year. Considering the take up performance of Windows 8 and 8.1 this could be something of a concern for Microsoft although there is another potential avenue: Windows 7 users.
The last time Microsoft has a disastrous release like Windows 8 the next version of Windows to take the majority of the market share was 7, a decade after the original had released. Whilst it’s easy to argue that this time will be different (like everyone does) a repeat performance of that nature would see Windows 7 being the dominant platform all the way up until 2019. Certainly this is something that Microsoft wants to avoid so it will be interesting to see how fast Windows 10 gets picked up and which segments of Microsoft’s business it will cannibalize. Should it be primarily Windows 7 based then I’d say everything would be rosy for them, however if it’s all Windows 8/8.1 then we could be seeing history repeat itself.
Microsoft is on the cusp of either reinventing itself with Windows 10 or being doomed to forever repeat the cycle which consumers have forced them into. To Microsoft’s credit they have been trying their best to break out of this mould however it’s hard to argue with the demands of the consumer and there’s only so much they can do before they lose their customer’s faith completely. The next year will be very telling for how the Microsoft of the future will look and how much of history will repeat itself.
Microsoft really can’t seem to win sometimes. If they stop making noticeable changes to their products everyone starts whining about how they’re no longer innovating and that people will start to look for alternatives. However should they really try something innovative everyone rebels, pushing Microsoft to go back to the way things ought to be done. It happened with Vista, the Ribbon interface and most recently with Windows 8. Usually what happens though is that the essence of the update makes it into the new version with compromises made to appease those who simply can’t handle change.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, Microsoft has announced Windows 10.
Everyone seems to be collectively shitting their pants over the fact that Microsoft skipped a version number, somehow forgetting that most of the recent versions of Windows have come sans any number at all. If you want to get pedantic about it (and really, I do) the last 10 versions of Windows have been: Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows ME (gag), Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. If you were expecting them to release Windows 9 because of the last 2 versions of Windows just happened to be in numerical order I’m going to hazard a guess you ate a lot of paint as a child.
On a more serious note the changes that many people were expecting to make up the 8.2 release appear to have been bundled into Windows 10. The start menu makes its triumphant return after 2 years on the sidelines although those modern/metro apps that everyone loved to hate will now make an appearance on there. For someone like me who hasn’t really relied on the start menu even since before Windows 8 arrived (pressing the window key and then typing in what I want is much faster than clicking my way through the menu) I’m none too bothered with its return. It will probably make Windows 10 more attractive to the enterprise though as many of them are still in the midst of upgrading from XP (or purposefully delaying upgrading to 8).
The return of the start menu goes hand in hand with the removal of the metro UI that hosted those kinds of apps, which have now been given the ability to run in a window on the desktop. This is probably one of the better improvements as it no longer means you get a full screen app taking over your desktop if you accidentally click on something that somehow associated itself with a metro app. For me this most often seems to happen with mail as even though I’ve got Outlook installed the Mail app still seems to want to launch itself every so often. Whether or not this will make that style of apps more palatable to the larger world will have to remain to be seen, however.
There’s also been a few other minor updates announced like the inclusion of multiple desktops and improved aero-snap. The command line has also received a usability update, now allowing you to use CTRL + C and CTRL + V to copy and paste respectively. In all honesty if you’re still doing your work in the command line on any version of Windows above Vista you’re doing it wrong as PowerShell has been the shell of choice for everyone for the better part of 7 years. I’m sure some users will be in love with that change but the vast majority of us moved on long ago.
The release date is scheduled for late next year with a technical preview available right now for enterprising enthusiasts. It will be interesting to see what the take up rate is as that date might be a little too late for enterprises who are still running XP who will most likely favour 7 instead. That being said the upgrade path from 7 to 10 is far easier so there is the possibility of Windows 10 seeing a surge in uptake a couple years down the road. For those early adopters of Windows 7 this next release might just be hitting the sweet spot for them to upgrade so there’s every chance that 10 will be as successful as 7.
I’ll reserve my judgement on the new OS until I’ve had a good chance to sit down and use it for an extended period of time. Microsoft rarely makes an OS that’s beyond saving (I’d really only count ME in there) and whilst I might disagree with the masses on 8’s usability I can’t fault Microsoft for capitulating to them. Hopefully the changes aren’t just skin deep as this is shaping up to be the last major revision of Windows we’ll ever see and there’d be nothing worse than for Microsoft to build their future empire on sand.
It’s hard to deny that Windows 8 hasn’t been a great product for Microsoft. In the 2 years that it’s been on the market it’s managed to secure some 12% of total market share which sounds great on the surface however its predecessor managed to nab some 40% in a similar time frame. The reasons behind this are wide and varied however there’s no mistaking that a large part of it was the Metro interface which just didn’t sit well with primarily desktop users. Microsoft, to their credit, has responded to this criticism by giving consumer what they want but like Vista the product that Windows 8 today is overshadowed by it’s rocky start. It seems clear now that Microsoft is done with Windows 8 as a platform and is now looking towards its successor, codenamed Windows Threshold.
Not a whole lot is known about what Threshold will entail but what is known points to a future where Microsoft is distancing itself from Windows 8 in the hopes of getting a fresh start. It’s still not known whether or not Threshold will become known as Windows 9 (or whatever name they might give to it) however the current release date is slated for sometime next year, on time with Microsoft’s new dynamic release schedule. This would also put it at 3 years after the initial release of Windows 8 which also ties into the larger Microsoft product cycle. Indeed most speculators are pegging Threshold to be much like the Blue release of last year with all Microsoft products receiving an update upon release. What interests me about this release isn’t so much of what it contains, more what it’s going to take away from Windows 8.
Whilst Microsoft has made inroads to making Windows 8 feel more like its predecessors the experience is still deeply tied to the Metro interface. Pressing the windows key doesn’t bring up the start menu and Metro apps are still have that rather obnoxious behaviour of taking over your entire screen. Threshold however is rumoured to do away with this, bringing back the start menu with a Metro twist that will allow you to access those kinds of applications without having to open up the full interface. Indeed for desktop systems, those that are bound to a mouse and keyboard, Metro will be completely disabled by default. Tablets and other hybrid devices will still retain the UI with the latter switching between modes depending on what actions occur (switch to desktop when docked, Metro when in tablet form).
From memory such features were actually going to make up parts of the next Windows 8 update, not the next version of Windows itself. Microsoft did add some similar features to Windows 8 in the last update (desktop users now default to desktop on login, not Metro) but the return of the start menu and the other improvements are seemingly not for Windows 8 anymore. Considering just how poor the adoption rates of Windows 8 has been this isn’t entirely surprising and Microsoft might be looking for a clean break away from Windows 8 in order to drive better adoption of Threshold.
It’s a strategy that has worked well for them in the past so it shouldn’t be surprising to see Microsoft doing this. For those of us who actually used Vista (after it was patched to remedy all the issues) we knew that Windows 7 was Vista under the hood, it was just visually different enough to break past people’s preconceptions about it. Windows Threshold will likely be the same, different enough from its direct ancestor that people won’t recognise it but sharing the same core that powered it. Hopefully this will be enough to ensure that Windows 7 doesn’t end up being the next XP as I don’t feel that’s a mistake Microsoft can afford to keep repeating.
The Surface has always been something of a bastard child for Microsoft. They were somewhat forced into creating a tablet device as everyone saw them losing to Apple in this space (even though Microsoft’s consumer electronics division isn’t one of their main profit centers) and their entry into the market managed to confuse a lot of people. The split between the Pro and RT line was clear enough for those of us in the know however consumers, who often in the face of 2 seemingly identical choices will prefer the cheaper one, were left with devices that didn’t function exactly as they expected. The branding of the Surface then changed slightly so that those seeking the device would likely end up with the Pro model and all would be right with the world. The Surface 3, announced last week, carries on that tradition albeit with a much more extreme approach.
As you’d expect the new Surface is an evolutionary step up in terms of functionality, specifications and, funnily enough, size. You now have the choice of either an Intel i3, i5 or i7, 4GB or 8GB of memory and up to 512GB of SSD storage. The screen has swelled to 12″ in size and now sports a pretty incredible 2160 x 1440 resolution, equal to that of many high end screens you’d typically find on a desktop. These additional features actually come with a reduction in weight from the Surface 2 Pro, down from 900g to a paltry 790g. There are some other minor changes as well like the multi-position kickstand and a changed pen but those are small potatoes compared to the rest of the changes that seem to have aimed the Surface more as a laptop replacement than a tablet that can do laptop things.
Since I carry a laptop with me for work (a Dell Latitude E6430 if you were wondering) I’m most certainly sensitive to the issues that plague people like me and the Surface Pro has the answer to many of them. Having to lug my work beast around isn’t the most pleasant experience and I’ve long been a champion of moving everyone across to Ultrabooks in order to address many of the concerns. The Surface Pro is essentially an Ultrabook in a tablet form factor which provides the benefits of both in one package. Indeed colleagues of mine who’ve bought a surface for that purpose love them and those who bought the original Surface Pro back at the TechEd fire sale all said similar things after a couple days of use.
The one thing that would seal the deal for me on the Surface as the replacement to my now 2 year old Zenbook would be the inclusion (or at least option to include) a discrete graphics card. Whilst I don’t do it often I do use my (non-work) laptop for gaming and whilst the Intel HD 4400 can play some games decently the majority of them will struggle. However the inclusion of even a basic discrete chip would make the Surface a portable gaming powerhouse and would be the prime choice for when my Zenbook reaches retirement. That’s still a year or two away however so Microsoft may end up getting my money in the end.
What’s really interesting about this announcement is the profound lack of a RT version of the Surface Pro 3. Indeed whilst I didn’t think there was anything to get confused about between the two version it seems a lot of people did and that has led to a lot of disappointed customers. It was obvious that Microsoft was downplaying the RT version when the second one was announced last year but few thought that it would lead to Microsoft outright cancelling the line. Indeed the lack of an accompanying Surface RT would indicate that Microsoft isn’t so keen on that platform, something which doesn’t bode well for the few OEMs that decided to play in that space. On the flip side it could be a great in for them as Microsoft eating up the low end of the market was always going to be a sore spot for their OEMs and Microsoft still seems committed to the idea from a purely technological point of view.
The Surface 3 might not be seeing me pull out the wallet just yet but there’s enough to like about it that I can see many IT departments turning towards it as the platform of choice for their mobile environments. The lack of an RT variant could be construed as Microsoft giving up on the RT idea but I think it’s probably more to do with the confusion around each of the platform’s value propositions. Regardless it seems that Microsoft is committed to the Surface Pro platform, something which was heavily in doubt just under a year ago. It might not be the commercial success that the iPad et al were but it seems the Surface Pro will become a decent revenue generator for Microsoft.
The IT industry has always been one of rapid change and upheaval, with many technology companies only lasting as long as they could innovate for. This is at odds with the traditional way businesses operated, preferring to stick to predictable cycles and seek gains through incremental improvements in process, procedure and marketing. The eventuality of this came in the form of the traditional 3~5 year cycle that many enterprises engaged in, upgrading the latest available technology usually years after it had been released. However the pace of innovation has increased to the point where such a cycle could leave an organisation multiple generations behind and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down soon.
I mentioned last year how Microsoft’s move from a 3 year development cycle to a yearly one was a good move, allowing them to respond to customer demands much more quickly than they were previously able to. However the issue I’ve come across is whilst I, as a technologist, love hearing about the new technology the customer readiness for this kind of innovation simply isn’t there. The blame for this almost wholly lays at the feet of XP’s 12 year dominance of the desktop market, something which even the threat of no support did little to impact its market share. So whilst the majority may have made the transition now they’re by no means ready for a technology upgrade cycle that happens on a yearly basis. There are several factors at play with this (tools, processes and product knowledge being the key ones) but the main issue remains the same: there’s a major disjoint between Microsoft’s current release schedule and it’s adoption among its biggest customers.
Microsoft, to their credit, are doing their best to foster rapid adoption. Getting Windows 8.1 at home is as easy as downloading an app from the Windows store and waiting for it to install, something you can easily do overnight if you can’t afford the down time. Similarly the tools available to do deployments on a large scale have been improved immensely, something anyone who’s used System Center Configuration Manager 2012 (and it’s previous incarnations) will attest to. Still even though the transition from Windows 7 to 8 or above is much lower risk than from XP to 7 most enterprises aren’t looking to make the move and it’s not just because they don’t like Windows 8.
With Windows 8.2 slated for release sometime in August this year Windows 8 will retain an almost identical look and feel to that of its predecessors, allowing users to bypass the metro interface completely and giving them back the beloved start menu. With that in place there’s almost no reason for people to not adopt the latest Microsoft operating system yet it’s likely to see a spike in adoption due to the inertia of large IT operations. Indeed even those that have managed to make the transition to Windows 8 probably won’t be able to make the move until 8.3 makes it debut, or possibly even Windows 9.
Once the Windows 8 family becomes the standard however I can see IT operations looking to move towards a more rapid pace of innovation. The changes between the yearly revisions are much less likely to break or change core functionality, enabling much of the risk that came with adopting a new operating system (application remediation). Additionally once the IT sections have moved to better tooling upgrading their desktops should also be a lot easier. I don’t think this will happen for another 3+ years however as we’re still in the midst of a XP hangover, one that’s not likely to subside until it’s market share is in the single digits. Past that we administrators then have the unenviable job of convincing our businesses that engaging in a faster product update cycle is good for them, even if the cost is low.
As someone who loves working with the latest and greatest from Microsoft it’s an irritating issue for me. I spend countless hours trying to skill myself up only to end up working on 5+ year old technology for the majority of my work. Sure it comes in handy eventually but the return on investment feels extremely low. It’s my hope that the cloud movement, which has already driven a lot of businesses to look at more modern approaches to the way they do their IT, will be the catalyst by which enterprise IT begins to embrace a more rapid innovation cycle. Until then however I’ll just lament all the Windows Server 2012 R2 training I’m doing and wait until TechEd rolls around again to figure out what’s obsolete.
When Facebook first announced the Open Compute Project it was a very exciting prospect for people like me. Ever since virtualization became the defacto standard for servers in the data center hardware density became the prime the name of the game. Client after client I worked for was always seeking out ways to reduce their server fleet’s footprint, both by consolidating through virtualization and by taking advantage of technology like blade servers. However whilst the past half decade has seen a phenomenal increase the amount of computing power available, and thus an increase in density, there hasn’t been another blade revelation. That was until Facebook went open kimono on their data center strategies.
The designs proposed by the Open Compute Project are pretty radical if you’re used to traditional computer hardware, primarily because they’re so minimalistic and the fact that they expect a 12.5V DC input rather than the usual 240/120VAC that’s typical of all modern data centers. Other than that they look very similar to your typical blade server and indeed the first revisions appeared to get densities that were pretty comparable. The savings at scale were pretty tremendous however as you could gain a lot of efficiency by not running a power supply in every server and their simple design meant their cooling aspects were greatly improved. Apart from Facebook though I wasn’t aware of any other big providers utilizing ideas like this until Microsoft announced today that it was joining the project and was contributing its own designs to the effort.
On the surface they look pretty similar to the current Open Compute standards although the big differences seem to come from the chassis.Instead of doing away with a power supply completely (like the current Open Compute servers advocate) it instead has a dedicated power supply in the base of the chassis for all the servers. Whilst I can’t find any details on it I’d expect this would mean that it could operate in a traditional data center with a VAC power feed rather than requiring the more specialized 12.5V DC. At the same time the density that they can achieve with their cloud servers is absolutely phenomenal, being able to cram 96 of them in a standard rack. For comparison the densest blade system I’ve ever supplied would top out at 64 servers and most wouldn’t go past 48.
This then begs the question: when we will start to see server systems like this trickle down to the enterprise and consumer market? Whilst we rarely have the requirements for the scales at which these servers are typically used I can guarantee there’s a market for servers of this nature as enterprises continue on their never ending quest for higher densities and better efficiency. Indeed this feels like it would be advantageous for some of the larger server manufacturers to pursue since if these large companies are investing in developing their own hardware platforms it shows that there’s a niche they haven’t yet filled.
Indeed if the system can also accommodate non-compute blades (like the Microsoft one shows with the JBOD expansion) such ideas would go toe to toe with system-in-a-box solutions like the CISCO UCS which, to my surprise, quickly pushed its way to the #2 spot for x86 blade servers last year. Of course there are already similar systems on the market from others but in order to draw people away from that platform other manufacturers are going to have to offer something more and I think the answer to that lies within the Open Compute designs.
If I’m honest I think that the real answer to the question posited in the title of this blog is no. Whilst it would be possible for anyone working at Facebook and Microsoft levels of scale to engage in something like this unless a big manufacturer gets on board Open Compute based solutions just won’t be feasible for the clients I service. It’s a shame because I think there’s some definite merits to the platform, something which is validated by Microsoft joining the project.
As a poor student the last thing I wanted to pay for was software. Whilst the choice to pirate a base operating system is always questionable, it’s the foundation on which all your computing activities rely, it was either pay the high license cost or find an alternative. I’ve since found numerous, legitimate alternatives of course (thank you BizSpark) but not everyone is able to take advantage of them. Thus for many the choice to upgrade their copy of Windows typically comes with the purchase of a new computer, something which doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I believe that this is one factor that’s affected the Windows 8/8.1 adoption rates and it seems Microsoft might be willing to try something radical to change it.
Rumours have been making the rounds that Microsoft is potentially going to offer a low cost (or completely free) version of their operating system dubbed Windows 8.1 with Bing. Details as to what is and isn’t included are still somewhat scant but it seems like it will be a full version without any major strings attached. There’s even musings around some of Microsoft core applications, like Office, to be bundled in with the new version of Windows 8.1. This wouldn’t be unusual (they already do it with Office Core for the Surface) however it’s those consumer applications where Microsoft draws a lot of its revenue in this particular market segment so their inclusion would mean the revenue would have to be made up somewhere else.
Many are toting this release as being targeted mostly at Windows 7 users who are staving off making the switch to Windows 8. In terms of barriers to entry they are by far the lowest although they’re also the ones who have the least to gain from the upgrade. Depending on the timing of the release though this could also be a boon to those XP laggards who run out of support in just over a month. The transition from XP to Windows 8 is much more stark however, both in terms of technology and user experience, but there are numerous things Microsoft could do in order to smooth it over.
Whilst I like the idea there’s still the looming question of how Microsoft would monetize something like this as releasing something for free and making up the revenue elsewhere isn’t really their standard business model (at least not with Windows itself). The “With Bing” moniker seems to suggest that they’ll be relying heavily on browser based revenue, possibly by restricting users to only being able to use Internet Explorer. They’ve got into hot water for doing similar things in the past although they’d likely be able to argue that they no longer hold a monopoly on Internet connected devices like they once did. Regardless it will be interesting to see what the strategy is as the mere rumour of something like this is new territory for Microsoft.
It’s clear that Microsoft doesn’t want Windows 7 to become the next XP and is doing everything they can to make it attractive to get users to make the switch. They’re facing an uphill battle as there’s still a good 30% of Windows users who are still on XP, ones who are unlikely to change even in the face of imminent end of life. A free upgrade might be enough to coax some users across however Microsoft needs to start selling the transition from any of their previous version as a seamless affair, something that anyone can do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even then there will still be holdouts but at least it’d go a long way to pushing the other versions’ market share down into the single digits.