Headless Windows to Come in Whistler

When Microsoft Corp. officials use the term "headless," they’re not trying to scare you with mental images of the Headless Horseman. They are describing an upcoming Windows technology that promises to make management of large Web server farms less of a nightmare.

Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) discussed some of its plans for headless operating systems last month with hardware partners at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in New Orleans. While headless technology is related to embedded technology, its primary focus is to be completely remotely manageable over a network. Embedded operating systems are more often designed for stand-alone devices that may never be connected to a network.

Headless Windows is something of a follow-on to the Windows Server Appliance Kit that Microsoft is introducing this summer for OEMs making appliances designed to quickly plug into Web server farms. Dell Computer Corp. (www.dell.com) and IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com) already released thin Web servers based on Web-tuned Windows 2000 Advanced Server.

"Moving forward we’re going to do a lot more in this space," Pasquale DeMaio told hardware partners at WinHEC. DeMaio, a program manager in Microsoft’s enterprise server group, said headless Windows will be coming with Whistler, the next version of Windows 2000 that is expected in 2001. Headless Whistler will be available in the Whistler Server, Advanced Server, and Datacenter Server versions, but not Windows Whistler Professional.

Those server versions are also supposed to come in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors with Whistler, but the headless version will initially be 32-bit only. "There will be no headless support for 64-bit Windows in the Windows Whistler timeframe," DeMaio said.

Headless Whistler would be another piece in Microsoft’s developing strategy for "scaling out" or "software scale." DeMaio described scenarios where headless boxes would be managed through Application Center 2000, software for configuring and managing farms of Web servers and Web application servers scheduled for release this summer. Headless Whistler will also enjoy a lower requirements standard for stability than the embedded version of Whistler. In a large Web server farm with remote management capabilities, the effect of one downed server is minimized.

Analysts at market research firm IDC (www.idc.com) say the approach would move Microsoft closer to the appliance paradigm, one of many directions Microsoft is heading in these days.

Microsoft officials at WinHEC described several of the requirements of headless systems.

"Simply put, it’s a server that doesn’t require a keyboard, a monitor, or a mouse," DeMaio explained. "You can remove the keyboard controller and the video controller as long as your BIOS supports use without the video card present."

The key element is what Microsoft calls Emergency Management Services. Those services translate to two basic states: in-band management and out-of-band management.

"In-band management is the type of management where you come in over the network card over the network stack and manage the OS. Everything’s working and everyone’s happy," DeMaio said.

"Out of band, you come in out of the OS, trying to diagnose a problem. Obviously it’s very useful from a customer standpoint to have out-of-band management," he said.

Jeff Westerinen, lead program manager at Microsoft’s enterprise server group, framed the issue. "In order to do remotability successfully, you have to be able to manage all six states of a server," he said. Those states are off, firmware, operating system loader, operating system running, operating system failure, and setup.

DeMaio encouraged hardware vendors to help with out-of-band management. "We’re sort of counting on the hardware providers to allow the out-of-band management," he said.

The headless approach will rely heavily on Windows Scripting Host and will require a physically secure environment.