Today, big Silicon Valley names like Google and Twitter run their online services across thousands of machines. And to efficiently execute their software with so much hardware in the mix, they use the open source Linux operating system and a technology called “containers.” What they don’t use is Windows.
Microsoft’s flagship operating system operates quite differently from Linux—which could be a problem as containers become the preferred way of computing in the cloud. But now, as so many others follow the lead of giants like Google and Twitter, Microsoft is reshaping Windows so that it doesn’t get left behind.
In the fall, Microsoft announced that it would add Linux-like container technology to a future version of Windows. Today, the company revealed that it’s also developing a super-slim version of Windows that will run what it describes as a new kind of container—one that provides an added level of security. The OS is called Windows Server Nano.
According to Microsoft spokesman Mike Schutz, the company is building a way of wrapping containers in its Hyper-V “virtualization” technology, so that they’re completely isolated from each other. But the real news seems to be that Microsoft will offer a stripped-down operating system along the lines of CoreOS, a Linux operating system that’s particularly suited to running containers across a large number of computers. This kind of operating system represents the future of online services, which necessarily run on hundreds or even thousands of machines—or what industry marketers like to call the cloud.
The move is yet another example of Microsoft changing with the times. For many years, the company tried to push the world towards its way of thinking. But under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is revamping its technologies to suit the way the world is moving.
Unsuited to the Task
At a San Francisco company called Pivotal, Mike Kropf helps build large online services, and he says that today’s Windows is, in many ways, unsuited to the task. Part of the problem, he says, is that Windows is such a large operating system that you need time to deploy it across many machines. In an age when you can so easily push Linux operating systems like CoreOS onto a vast array of computer servers, Windows is behind. Kropf calls Microsoft’s move to close this gap “interesting.”
It’s also important that Windows Server Nano will offer containers. Containers provides a way encapsulating software so that developers and businesses can more efficiently run applications across a large number of machines. In essence, you can readily move these containers from machine to machine, as well as squeeze many of them onto the same machine, to take advantage of any unused computing power.
But the added security Microsoft provides with its “Hyper-V containers” is something that will appeal to only some organizations, such as government agencies that have extreme security requirements. Some agencies may need a way of tightly securing individual containers because they’re running alongside containers from other agencies. Regulations often require agencies to maintain complete software separation.
Yes, many organizations now run containers atop public cloud computing services such as Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud and Microsoft Azure, and that means they end up sharing computers with each other. But here, containers run atop virtual machines, which provide the needed security.
The Hyper-V containers don’t make much sense in this situation—a situation that represents the future. But Microsoft must also appeal to a wide range of businesses, including government agencies. It must serve a new audience without losing the old one.