Every vendor conference or developer conference has its heroes and rock stars. For Microsoft, the sessions that attendees flock to see are staged not by the executives, but by distinguished engineers who worked their way up from the very bottom of the company – in some cases, as security engineers exposing vulnerabilities from outside the company.

In Chicago, folks love the Cubs. And at the Ignite conference here this week, they love distinguished engineer Jeffrey Snover, the creator of PowerShell and now Windows Server’s lead architect.

'Like Heroin'

“Local admin GUIs on a server are poison,” Snover declared to the crowd, referring to the graphical user interface-based tools for which a majority of the world’s Windows Server admins are certified.

“I mean, they’re really poison.  It’s like heroin.  Your first shot’s oh, so nice, and then all of a sudden you life’s ruined, and then you’re dead.”

One of the obvious goals for Microsoft’s new Nano Server is to enable applications to be run in newer, tighter, more portable containers. Microsoft has begun supporting the container format devised by Docker for Linux.  But there’s a bigger goal that Snover pointed to, which may only be achievable in the long term:

It has to do with changing the purpose of a server in most businesses.  If server operating systems contain graphics libraries, as the “full” Windows Server still does, invariably developers will write their business logic to run in a graphical environment – compiling back-end logic as though it were a front-end program, a workstation application from the late 1980s.

An application written to that model cannot be managed remotely, because it expects to be interacted with by means of a mouse and a keyboard.  A modern, remote, server-side app must be controlled by API, using some kind of automation system.

“We are going to eliminate the need to ever have to go up to a machine and manage it,” declared Snover.

Enter the Nano Era

Indeed, with Nano Server, there is nothing to walk up to.  The system is “headless,” meaning it has no front end whatsoever.

Snover suggested you should manage Nano Servers more like cattle than pets.  With pets, you give them names, you baby them, and when they die, you throw a funeral.  With cattle, you hire the right tools to keep them well herded, you brand them properly, “and if something goes wrong,” he said, “you fire up the barbecue.”

2015-May Jeffrey Snover & Andrew Mason.jpg

To drive home their points as effectively as possible Wednesday, Snover and colleague Andrew Mason demonstrated Nano Server remote management tools running on a stack of Intel miniature server appliances no taller than a Big Mac (in lower right of picture above).  Using Failover Cluster Management, they showed how they accomplished live migration of a set of virtual machines to the stack sitting on the podium, while the machines were operational.

Mason then attached a fourth, hand-sized box to the Big Mac stack, and ran the script necessary for the fourth box to join the domain.  Or, at least he tried.  In PowerShell, text that comes back from a remote server that’s red is never good news.  The fourth box failed to join the cluster’s domain, but at least we could see why it failed.

During a Tuesday afternoon session on Windows 10 client features at the famous Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place, the 3,000-seat theater was about one-tenth full.  Wednesday morning’s Nano Server session at the same theater seated the lower floor nearly to capacity, with some attendees spilling upstairs into the mezzanine.

It’s the most obvious signal of what’s more important to developers and sysadmins, in a world where desktops and front-ends are becoming less and less relevant to getting work done.