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Future of the server operating system

We look at the evolution of the server operating system, and how the next generation is moving into the cloud.

Microsoft’s new Windows Server 2016 operating system (OS) is just being launched. Linux is celebrating its 25th birthday. IBM has its mainframe operating system and its Power operating system, Oracle has Solaris – and that is just a few of the OSs that still abound in the market. But what is the role of an OS in the modern world?

Going back to the early days of servers, the stack required to get a computer up and running was pretty simple – a basic input/output system (BIOS) to get the hardware started, followed by an operating system to provision basic services, followed by an application to carry out the actual work.

Let’s focus on Intel-architected systems, as other chip architectures have slightly different approaches. A means of initiating the hardware is still required. The BIOS has moved on to the unified extensible firmware interface (UEFI), but it is still a core link in the chain of getting a server up and running. Without some sort of base-level process, the hardware would not be set up correctly to support anything else that was to be layered on it.

However, now there is also a hypervisor, such as ESX, Hyper-V or KVM, which is also initiated for virtualisation. It is still the case that an OS is installed on top of the hypervisor in one way or another.

Then there may be application server, middleware, microservices, virtual machines, containers, databases, layered security, a full cloud platform (such as OpenStack) – or we may still just be putting a good old application, as we were in the past, on top of what is a far more complex platform.

So just what is the role of the OS now? In the past, it had several key capabilities. It created the basic interfaces between the server and other systems around it, such as storage, networks and peripherals. It provided libraries of capabilities, such as modem settings, base level drivers for various items of equipment (such as small computer systems interface, SCSI, peripherals), and so on.

But as the whole computer ecosystem grew, the size of the OS ballooned as it introduced new functionality to try to manage that whole environment – while removing virtually nothing as people moved on and stopped using things like modems.