One of the more intriguing tidbits to come out of last week's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2011 was a brief mention and then private demonstration of Windows Server 2012 (formerly code-named Windows Server 8), which should ship alongside Windows 8 next year. Until the show, Microsoft had never publicly discussed Windows Server 8, to my knowledge, or even mentioned a codename. But now, finally, we have a few interesting details which, when put together with general information about Microsoft's strategy, provides a clue to where this product is heading.

First, it's worth mentioning that what we don't know about Windows Server 8 drastically outweighs what we do. Will it be a major or minor release? Will it still serve such a wide range of markets or will Microsoft push more and more Windows Server core functionality to the cloud? Will the on-premises versions of Windows Server be more influenced by Windows Azure than vice versa? These and many other questions remain.

But we do know a few things. First, Windows Server 8 is a code name and not necessarily the final name of the product. In fact, Microsoft writes the name as Windows Server "8"–and even says "Windows Server codenamed 8"—to drive home that fact. I happen to believe that Microsoft should use the 8 branding for both the next client and server Windows versions, but they'll decide that in secret.

Windows Server 8 will include "hundreds" of new features, according to Microsoft, though as with Windows 8, the software giant will wait until its BUILD conference in September to reveal most of them.

Windows Server 8 will include "the next version" of Hyper-V, which is called Hyper-V 3.0 in leaked builds of Windows 8. (Yes, the client version. This suggests that Microsoft is finally moving to a hypervisor-based backwards compatibility model on the desktop, which is exciting and perhaps overdue.)

And more specifically, Windows Server 8 will include a new Hyper-V feature called Hyper-V Replica that will provide an "enhanced, reliable infrastructure" for offsite VM replication. It's asynchronous, application-consistent, and will be built into Windows Server 8.

This functionality is needed because more and more server infrastructure is being implemented virtually, a situation Microsoft formally approves of and provides best practices for. This situation will be furthered in Windows Server 8.

"We heard that we needed to provide support for more virtual processors within virtual machines, to provide service offerings for larger, scale-up workloads like SQL [Server]," Microsoft's Jeff Woolsey said during a WPC 2011 demo last week. (You can see this demo at about the 37:00 mark of the video on this page.)

He then brought up task manager in a virtual machine running on top of Windows Server 8 Hyper-V and showed that it was running "not 4, not 8, not 12, but 16 virtual processors within the virtual machine." He also pointed out that 16 virtual processors is not the limit, but that he was limited by the server he could bring with him to the show. (Not revealed: The actual limit on virtual processors in a VM.)

SQL is obviously an important workload, and a typical example of the need for offsite VM replication. "Today, replication is complex to configure and often requires expensive, proprietary hardware," he admitted, a phrase I don't believe I read in the reviewers guide for Windows Server 2008 R2. "In Windows Server 8, all you need to replicate a virtual machine from one location to another is Hyper-V and a network connection."

Here, Woolsey utilized a right-click context menu to trigger the "Enable Replication" option, which is the only difference I saw between the current shipping version of Hyper-V Manger and the one he used in the demo. This brought up a wizard in which you can configure the recovery (target) server and authentication type, which virtual disks to replicate, the recovery snapshot history (which will compute the necessary storage requirements as changed), and the replication mode (over the network immediately, scheduled, or offline via sneakernet). That's all there is to it.

Hyper-V Replica works between different server types, of course (i.e. those from different manufacturers), but also across any supported network type, and with any network-based storage scheme. Point being, it works with what you have. Classic Microsoft.

By the way, this feature follows two other virtualization-related features, Remote FX and Dynamic Memory, which shipped in Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 earlier this year. And as with those features, Microsoft is shifting the conversation here to "private cloud" infrastructure as its next-generation version of on-premises infrastructure. There are some interesting things to discuss around private cloud, not the least of which is how Microsoft's definition of such an infrastructure differs from that of other software and hardware vendors. But for now the important bit to consider is that, for Microsoft at least, the term private cloud is a formalization of not just how on-premises infrastructure is implemented, but also how it's managed and coordinated between various services and servers.

"Windows Server 8 delivers massive, massive scale ... and unlimited replication in the box," Woolsey concluded. "With literally hundreds of new features coming in the Microsoft private cloud, there's no better time to get started than today."

Well, I'm not sure about "today." But we'll know a lot more in September, that's for sure. And my sneaking suspicion is that Windows Server 8 is going to be as dramatic an upgrade as is Windows 8, if not more so.