Windows Server 2008 to feature hot swap capability

Microsoft Corp. and NEC Corp. demonstrated a feature of Longhorn that will allow administrators to add and swap processors, storage devices and memory without needing to take the entire machine offline.

In addition, Longhorn has now been officially dubbed “Windows Server 2008,” even though it’s still scheduled to ship in the second half of this year, said Eric Jewett, a Windows Server product manager at Microsoft.

Depending on the server manufacturer’s implementation, a Longhorn-equipped server may also be able to spot hardware components that are about to fail and do a hot-swap on its own without human intervention, according to spokesmen from NEC and Microsoft.The demonstration of Longhorn running on an NEC Express5800/1000 server running Intel Corp. Itanium 2 chips, took place at this week’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). NEC is the first hardware vendor to incorporate Longhorn’s hot-swap feature, Jewett said, but other server vendors are working on it, too.Jewett declined to name the other server vendors, but said Microsoft is partnering with suppliers to vertical markets including financial services, or for applications including database or e-mail, where server availability is critical. Microsoft is making available an API (application programming interface) to allow server vendors to implement the hot-swap feature with their respective systems-management software and firmware, Jewett said.

In NEC’s case, customers are able to set policies, for instance, that tell a Longhorn server to ‘borrow’ processors and memory that may be sitting idle, or were used for another application, if a given application’s performance threshold hits 90 per cent.The API is needed so the other system software and firmware to communicate with Windows Server 2008. In case of failure or when a pre-set threshold is crossed, the operating system, in effect, gives the entire system a ‘time out’ so all jobs are in a state of suspended animation. Then Windows moves all workloads to the new processors or memory and restarts the processing.

Longhorn is the first Windows server operating system to sport the hot-swap feature, which Microsoft calls dynamic partitioning. A broader definition of dynamic partitioning refers to the ability to segment server hardware into different zones, each with its own version of the operating system. Those zones can be expanded or collapsed, depending on the application’s needs — either on-the-fly or at a predefined time. In this scenario, the computer can be reconfigured at 6 p.m., for example, to do database queries overnight and then reset itself at 8 a.m. to be ready to do high-transaction types of jobs during the day.

This type of dynamic partitioning has been available in mainframes and supercomputers for almost 40 years, but is now becoming part of less expensive servers, too.

Longhorn’s hot-swap feature provides “an alternative way of bumping up reliability and availability without having to spend mainframe dollars,” said Barb Goldworm, president of Focus Consulting in Boulder, Colo.

Still, she said, while this is a big improvement over previous Windows availability, it’s not “magic.” Customers still have to figure out which application on any given server is the most mission-critical – in other words, which one will be able to borrow components or processing power from the other applications. The ones deemed less important will need to be shut down while the chosen application gets the additional memory.

“I can do a hot add or hot replace, but I can’t do a hot delete,” Goldworm said.Previous versions of Windows Server could hot-swap I/O components but not memory or the chips themselves, Jewett said. When Windows Server 2008 does ship, there will be two editions that support dynamic portioning: Windows Datacenter and a new version of Windows Server 2008 specifically geared for Itanium servers.

For NEC’s part, the company is holding off making its Windows Server hot-swap feature a commercial product until after Longhorn officially ships later this year, said Mike Mitsch, general manager of alliances and strategy in NEC’s IT platform group. In the meantime, customers can join the Windows Server 2008 beta-test group if they want to try this feature out for themselves, he said.

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