Microsoft Preps ‘Advanced’ Windows 10 Pro for Workstation PCs

Once upon a time (read: the 1990s), the difference between a true workstation PC and a desktop or consumer system were impossible to miss. Workstations weren’t just souped-up versions of consumer systems with more RAM or a higher-resolution display. They ran different operating systems, used different CPUs and graphics solutions, and had specialized hardware components that were difficult or, in some cases, impossible to fit into a standard x86 consumer system. As the WinTel alliance gained market share, these differences were increasingly confined to niche hardware, until they all but vanished.

Today, in virtually every case, a workstation is just an x86 PC with higher-end components, possibly backed up by a better warranty, service agreement, or professional CPU and GPUs (Xeon and Quadro / FirePro as opposed to Intel Core / AMD Ryzen and a GeForce or Radeon card). Microsoft, however, may be preparing to take a step back towards specialized workstation loadouts with a new version of Windows, dubbed Windows 10 Pro for Advanced PCs.

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That’s the news from Twitter user AndItsTito, who found evidence of these new SKUs in a handful of bad Windows 10 builds that Microsoft accidentally pushed to the Insider Preview channel last week. TheGrandMofongo provided additional details via a leaked Microsoft slide, with additional reference to the new capabilities and performance of the new operating system variant.

The new OS will include support for ReFS (Resilient File System, the NTFS follow-up MS introduced with Windows Server 2012). ReFS isn’t a file system we’ve covered much — it’s designed to improve data resiliency, with automatic protection against data degradation. It is not fully compatible with NTFS and its performance can vary depending on which features are enabled.

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Microsoft is also claiming that this new version of Windows 10 Pro will be able to support up to 6TB of RAM and four-socket PC systems (the existing Windows 10 Pro only supports two sockets). That’s less of a limit than it might seem, since a modern two-socket workstation loaded with Intel’s top-end Xeon E5 would support 44 CPU cores and 88 threads, while a top-end AMD system using the upcoming Naples server platform would pack 64 cores and 128 threads into a two-socket system.

Four-socket support pushes the E5 family up to 88 cores and an AMD platform up to a hypothetical 128 cores. (I say hypothetical, because I’m not sure there are any near-term, workstation-class motherboards with four-socket support for AMD’s Naples coming down the pipe.) In fact, four socket motherboards in general became much harder to find once multi-core CPUs started hitting the market 10 years ago, to the point that I’m a bit surprised MS is touting this kind of support as a major feature. SMB Direct Network Adapters are also supported and again, these require specialized network hardware adapters that very few consumers have access to.

Microsoft’s new Workstation mode promises better performance in certain workloads, which could be of interest to users who regularly use advanced workstation capabilities. But we’ll have to know more about it before we can determine whether it’s a feature with more than niche appeal.

It’s interesting to see Microsoft pushing a targeted OS like this at a time when the major impulse driving business spending — or at least, the major impulse driving business marketing spending — is a focus on cloud applications and an associated usage model that looks more like the classic “thin client” model of old. Granted, the tension between thin and fat clients has been seesawing back and forth for decades. But cloud services and support seem to have the upper hand for good this time around.

At the same time, however, the PC market has been moving in two different directions, with general consumer spending down, while gaming and enthusiast spending are both up. It would be interesting to know if workstation-specific spending has followed the enthusiast model; this type of granularity isn’t typically broken out in PC sales reports. If it has, it would explain why Microsoft is willing to invest in creating such a niche version of its operating system.

Now read: Windows 10: The Best Hidden Features, Tips, and Tricks

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