What will the follow-on to Windows Server 2012 be called?

Let me start with “I have no idea”.  Don’t like that answer?  Well, I’d bet on Windows Server 2012 R2 based on post 2003 release history.  But let’s explore this further.

With the latest revelation that Windows Blue is likely to be called Windows 8.1 I ended up in an amusing Twitter stream of speculation about Windows Server naming.  Microsoft has maintained a consistent naming convention for server (of all flavor) releases since 2000.  I’ll give some history of this, speculate on what happens this year, and speculate a bit on the future.

Back in the mid-90s when Microsoft decided to name both client operating systems and Office (e.g., Windows 95 and Office 95) by year rather than version number Jim Allchin declared that his products (Windows NT, SQL Server, etc.) would never adopt that naming convention.  I want to say that Jim said “Over my dead body” but my memory is fading enough that I won’t promise he actually said that.  Anyway, Jim didn’t die when 5 years later he agreed to adopt the calendar-based naming convention for Microsoft’s server products.

Prior to 2000 each of the server products was on its own development schedule and had little in the way of coordinated marketing.  But as it turned out 2000 was going to be a big year for product launches with most of the server products bringing something to the table.  Paul Flessner, who had become head of the Server Applications Division, and others were of the belief that marketing individual products to IT departments was no longer the way to go and that Microsoft should put more emphasis on marketing the family over the individuals.

There were two problems with marketing the 2000 wave of products as a single family.  The first was that it wasn’t really developed that way.  Of course there were the usual efforts by each team to coordinate certain features and usage scenarios, but it wasn’t as front and center in the product planning as one would have pursued had the family concept been around when we started as opposed to coming out of marketing later.  The second, and easier to fix, problem was that product naming conventions left little guide as to the relationship between the products.  That could be fixed, and was fixed, by adopting a common family naming convention.

This was the coming out party for .NET and so the naming convention that was adopted was .NET yyyy.  Yes, oh so briefly, SQL Server 8 had become SQL Server.NET 2000.  All the other server releases followed this pattern.  My SQL Server 8 developer conference was hijacked to become the .NET Developer Conference (“Featuring SQL Server.NET 2000″), a mistake for which I will never forgive Paul :-)  It didn’t take long before the .NET was dropped from the name of all the products but they retained the convention of using the year rather than version number to indicate specific releases.  So SQL Server 2000, Commerce Server 2000, Exchange Server 2000, etc.

Over the years this has been rejiggered in a number of ways.  For a while all these products were marketed together as the “Windows Server System” which included Windows Server itself as well.  And while no serious attempt was made to force all the products to release in waves, as the Office team does, there has been an increased level of coordination.  For example STB maintains a set of criteria that all of its products must meet in order to be allowed to ship.  Think of it like an internal logo program that is used to achieve some consistency across server products.

Initially management of the Server family was purely virtual.  While Paul Flessner ran the Server Applications Division (which at the time owned Exchange Server too) he did not own Windows Server (which remained in the Windows organization) nor Developer Division.  But he did have an overall business ownership role across them.  Microsoft is not a good organization for matrix management, so eventually all of the servers  were consolidated into what we now know as STB with Eric Rudder as its leader.

Bob Muglia took ownership of Windows Server, reporting to Eric, and sought to accelerate its development (which had been slowed by the Windows’ teams effort to transition the client OS to the NT kernel, followed by the Longhorn debacle).  Bob instituted a system in which Windows Server would release more frequently than Windows itself, alternating releases without kernel changes with those in which Windows had a release of its own (and thus a revised kernel).  These non-kernel releases were given the designation R2, the first of which was Windows Server 2003 R2.  In time the kernel vs non-kernel differentiation became meaningless and the true meaning of R2 became a way to designate a minor (or perhaps more appropriately positioned as a “.5″) release.  Other server products adopted the convention, although they have not used it very extensively.

Without any significant changes in branding we have STB on-premise products with a fairly clear naming convention.  The product is either the product name followed by the year, or it is the previous product release name followed by R2 (or R3, R4, etc. though that has rarely happened).  That means a Windows Server Blue would either be named Windows Server 2013, Windows Server 2014, or Windows Server 2012 R2.  Let me explain the 2013 vs 2014 thing.  There is some concern that a product shipping in the 4th calendar quarter of the year would seem dated just a few months later if it used the actual year of release in its name.  So sometimes Microsoft will use the subsequent year in the name.  But my bet on Windows Server Blue is that it will use the Windows Server 2012 R2 name.

Although I’ve heard some rumbling that Windows Server Blue might actually bring more dramatic improvements to Windows Server than Windows Blue is bringing to Windows 8, I have my doubts that they could bring so much to the table that they’d want to use a major version name.  Not only that, but being the conservative upgrade types that most IT leaders are, Microsoft might want to send a message of stability rather than one of change.  Depending on what kinds of changes are in Windows Server Blue they may be able to get IT departments to switch deployment efforts mid stream from a Windows Server 2012 to a Windows Server 2012 R2 effort.  It is unlikely they could get them to switch mid-stream to a 2013 named release.  So I think the dynamics point towards Microsoft using the R2 naming convention in this case.

There is a third reason for Microsoft to use the R2 convention, which is that the entire server product family branding scheme is getting rather dated.  At some point Microsoft will want to re-brand all of the products to better communicate their appropriateness for cloud and hybrid environments in addition to on-premise.  Is 2013 the year in which they will do this?  Overall for the company it is a year of consolidating the position they established with the 2012 product wave.  So maintaining a notion of stability where changes are more incremental and meant to mature the 2012 wave makes the most sense.  But if I factor out Windows 8 and focus on how solid a release Windows Server 2012, SQL Server 2012, etc. are then a rebrand of the server products seems more reasonable this year.  Still, I’m betting against it.  Why?

As many have noted the value of the “Windows” brand is in decline.  For one thing it doesn’t carry much cachet with consumers any more.  For another, Windows 8 isn’t your father’s Windows and future versions will make this even more obvious.  So Microsoft could in fact be on the cusp of a more dramatic re-branding than just changing how server products are named.  If that is in the cards then it makes no sense for the server products to change before the company has figured out an overall re-branding.  And given I think they won’t want to make such a disruptive change in 2013, the server naming conventions likely won’t change in 2013 either.

For me the bottom line is that Windows Server 2012 R2 is the most likely name for Windows Server Blue, followed by Windows Server 2013 as a second possibility.  Anything more dramatic wouldn’t be a total shock, I just don’t expect it.  Anything more off the reservation, but not part of a major re-branding, would just be silly.

(Update: I forgot to mention that Windows 2000 originally got that name because it was supposed to be the follow-on to Windows 98 SE.  When the team was unable to finish all the app and driver compatibility work a final follow-on in the Win 9x family was added to the plan.  Since Windows 2000 had already taken that name the Windows 9x release was called Windows ME.  So the Windows 2000 naming was not the result of the name syncing scheme described above, but rather the bridge from the client OS use of that scheme to the server use of it.)

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6 Responses to What will the follow-on to Windows Server 2012 be called?

  1. Bob - former DECie says:

    Interesting bit of history. Thanks.

  2. Brian says:

    One thing you didn’t mention (about R2 releases)…

    When an R2 is released, it gets the same support lifecycle as the original release (for example, Server 2008 and Server 2008 R2 get the same end-of-mainstream-support and end-of-life dates).

    However, since the existance of an R2 release effectively “delays” the release of a follow-on product (Server 2008 was released in May 2008 while the next full server release was Server 2012, released in October 2012, more than 4 years later). That delay ends up extending the support lifecycles of both the life of both the original product and the R2 product (Server 2008 (and R2) go into Extended Support in January 2015 – effectively stretching the original Server’s lifecycle to match what the R2 release would get had it been released along).

    Support Lifecycle calculus is an obscure art. However, the costs of supporting releases does figure into the decision (can you tell I worked in Premier Support for a long time back in the day).

  3. The other thing about Windows Server “R2″ releases… is CALs! Server 2003 CALs worked for Server 2003 R2. Server 2008 CALs work for Server 2008 R2. Here’s hoping “Server 2012″ CALs will also work for “Server 2012 R2″.

  4. Glenn Berry says:

    You are probably right about the name being Windows Server 2012 R2. I wish Microsoft would stop using the R2 suffix for these interim releases, since it still tends to confuse people, especially with SQL Server 2008 vs. 2008 R2.

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