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Microsoft Containers See Daylight in New Windows Server 2016 Preview

Microsoft on Wednesday released technical preview 3 (TP3) of its upcoming Windows Server 2016 product, giving users a first glimpse of its new Windows Server Containers.

The new preview, available to download here, also includes improvements to Active Directory (both AD DS and AD FS), Hyper-V, failover clustering, remote desktop services and file and storage services. This Microsoft blog outlines the new features introduced in TP3.

Not included in TP3 is Microsoft's Hyper-V Containers, which is expected to arrive in a subsequent preview release. Nor does the release include the new Azure Stack, which Microsoft first described at its Ignite conference in May. Azure Stack promises to bring Azure functionality to Windows Server. Microsoft has indicated that Azure Stack will emerge as a technical preview later this year.

TP3's Windows Server Containers, which integrates the open source Docker Engine, will introduce a new way for organizations to build and deploy applications faster and with more scalability in on-premises and cloud environments. Through Microsoft's partnership last year with Docker, the two companies have worked to help Microsoft build Windows Server Containers in the server OS to ensure applications built for them are interoperable via new APIs that are compatible with Linux containers, from both a deployment and orchestration standpoint.

"This is a big step on a journey we started awhile ago," said Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich in an interview this week. "This TP3 release is the first time we're making publicly available in preview form Windows Server Containers with complete Docker tool chain ported to Windows, as well as integration of container deployment and management through Visual Studio."

Docker Senior Engineering Manager Arnaud Porterie noted in a blog post Wednesday that "the Docker Engine for Windows Server port is not a fork, nor a different project: it's the same open source code base being built for Linux and Windows."

Porterie also emphasized that "the Docker daemon for Windows Server doesn't run Linux images! No virtualization is involved. The Windows Server Containers reuse the host kernel and create a sandboxed environment for the process, exactly like it does on Linux."

From the perspective of development of applications for the Azure public cloud and the on-premises Azure Stack, Windows Server Containers introduce the most important new capabilities in Windows Server 2016 TP3. But for IT pros, this is just as important as the notion of containerization is to DevOps to give organizations more agility, Russinovich explained.

"If you take a look now at any enterprise, they've got to get applications out faster and they've got to iterate on them faster," he explained. "The business motivation for an agile development workflow is what's driving a lot of enterprises from the top-level business requirement, that you're seeing what started as a grass-roots-driven wave by developers themselves. They're looking for a faster way to iterate as they develop their applications. One of the value propositions Docker likes to tout is a developer can debug and test their container on their own development laptop, and then, with high confidence, know that that tested application is going to deploy in the same exact way to a production server. And if they're iterating, for example, on their development laptop, they can do that very quickly because the containers deployed so quickly."

Containers aimed at allowing DevOps organizations to iteratively build applications that are scalable for modern cloud environments using micro services is a new concept. However, many Fortune 50 companies are either piloting or have small deployments of applications for these new architectures. Because each container is small and isolated, they should help create applications that are less monolithic and more secure. While the technology is still emerging, Russinovich believes the use of micro services will be the next wave of software development, virtualization and IT operations.

"What you're seeing is the power of this isolation and agility fit nicely with an application level that's decomposed, which also goes back to the business driver of agility," Russinovich said. "If you've got a complex application and many enterprise applications -- and even CSV-type applications or ISV-type applications are complex -- [they] consist of many subsystems. If you break down that monolithic application into constituent components, containerize them, and then have the whole thing managed by a micro service application platform, you get the benefits of containerization, the agility of deployment. You've got things like rolling update, you get the independence of updates so different teams can work on different parts."

Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said he's seeing growing interest among large IT organizations that are enamored with the agility of sites such as Amazon.com and Facebook, and among those that offer modern apps. However, he warned that the technology is still in its very early days.

"I think you're seeing the operating system vendors essentially react and design, and ultimately look at where modern applications are headed, and ultimately making a more efficient operating system to run those types of workloads. It doesn't necessarily have all the full-blown features because a lot of those features are actually written into the application itself," Bowker said.

Many IT pros still don't understand containerization. Russinovich gave a far more extensive explanation of Microsoft's view of what the future of containers holds in a blog post published earlier this week. It's worth reading to understand Microsoft's container vision and what it means for the future of Windows.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.