Windows Server 2012 will be updated this autumn to Windows Server 2012 R2. This will be the first in a series of more or less annual updates to the Windows Server platform. It's not just the operating system that'll get these regular updates, either. On the server side, System Center and SQL Server are also going to be on an annual cadence. On the client side, Visual Studio will be too.
Even though Windows Server 2012 is less than a year old, Microsoft promises a stack of new features for the R2 iteration. Hyper-V, in particular, has some compelling improvements: legacy-free, UEFI-booting "generation 2" virtual machines, faster live migration, live cloning of VMs, online disk resizing, and support for live migration, backup, disk resizing, and dynamic memory for Linux guests.
Windows' pooled storage system, Storage Spaces, is set to become a lot smarter. Pools can use a mix of solid state and spinning disk media, and the Storage Space software will automatically move hot data off the spinning disks and onto the solid state ones.
SQL Server 14's biggest feature is a new in-memory database engine called codenamed Hekaton. SQL Server's internal structures are designed for on-disk storage, where memory is essentially only cache. Hekaton uses different data structures that are tailored to in-memory operation. As long as your data fits into RAM, it should be able to deliver considerable performance improvements.
System Center 2012 R2 will feature tighter integration with the Intune device cloud-based management software, enabling Configuration Manager 2012 R2 to be used for Intune administration.
Visual Studio 2013 will have even more application lifecycle management features, including cloud-based load testing and the display of information such as unit test failures and recent changes directly within the code editor. Git support will be built-in.
Preview releases of most or all of these programs will be made available at Microsoft's BUILD conference later this month.
Among the range of new features, most developers and IT departments will probably find at least one or two things that make the new versions compelling upgrades. The bigger question is whether they're ready for annual updates. More frequent updates mean more frequent testing, more frequent upgrading or migration, and, potentially, more frequent problems.
From Microsoft's position, the decision was probably an easy one to make, since for its hosted services, it's already using this kind of model. Azure, for example, receives regular feature updates delivered as and when the code is ready. Microsoft's Server and Tools division is using this "cloud first" development strategy for Windows, Hyper-V, SQL Server, and System Center. The result will be a greater number of smaller updates, rather than major new versions every three years or so.
This commonality in both software and development has end-user repercussions beyond the more regular updates: it's instrumental to Microsoft's "cloud" ambitions. The same software can be used to deploy and manage both on-premises hardware (and "private clouds") in just the same way as it can manage public clouds, whether Microsoft's own Azure or third-party hosts.
Customer acceptance of these regular updates will, no doubt, depend in part on pricing. The Server and Tools division sees most revenue come from the Software Assurance multi-year license agreements. The value proposition of these agreements (compared to one-off purchases) varies greatly according to what updates Redmond can deliver over the lifetime of the agreement. The five year gap between Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008, for example, undermined the appeal of Software Assurance. (SA did entitle customers to use Windows Server 2003 R2, but that R2 release was merely a set of installable optional components for Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1, not an updated version of the core operating system.)
Unlike the client Windows 8.1 update, which will be free to existing Windows 8 users, the new wave of server updates, including Windows Server 2012 R2, are all paid updates. This means that customers who paid full price for their licenses will have to pay again to upgrade. Software Assurance customers, however, will receive the new versions as part of their subscription.
In this regard, the new release model makes Software Assurance make sense in a way it didn't before: it's subscription software with regular improvements delivered over the lifetime of the subscription. But making sense and being embraced are two different things. Microsoft's customers may already be paying for regular updates, but whether they're ready, willing, and able to make use of them is much less clear.