Windows 2012 Logo all know the Windows 2008 (R2) operating systems and I find them great to work with. Already, half of the sold licences for this product range has been installed as a virtual machine and its only getting more the next couple of years. This article wants to share with you the main improvements on the new operating system which has the working name Windows Server 8. Yes I call it working name, it is at this time only a beta version, but the RTM version is to be expected in April 2012. I will change the names in this article if it changes,....

Windows Server 2012 is catching-up with VMware rapidly and Microsoft seems to be declaring Server 8 to be the cloud-based operating system for the future instead of Azure. It is my opinion that Microsoft is slowly getting more focused on daily operational virtual and simple Windows Server products. Leaving the Google- and other "open" clouds where they are now and concentrating on products for private clouds at corporate data centres, or in public clouds hosted by (Microsofts) partners. The main reason for Microsoft's cloud-based efforts are the extensive improvements to the Windows virtualization platform Hyper-V. This product has become so mature that it will be competitive with lots of other virtualization products. I'm a Microsoft enthousiast person, I know, but I really think they have done a great job this time. Below I will comment on the main differences, some of the new features and some specifications that became public already. Remember that my reference is only the Beta version at this moment.

The Versions:
Microsoft is slowly turning around on their history of user(administrator) friendly GUI's (Graphical User Interfaces) and thats becomming effective in this new product-line to my opinion. I've seen it from the start, yes I'am that old, and saw it developping in various ways. The Windows Server 2008 Core version was the first Microsoft version to be GUI-less, but I guess the market wasn't ready for that. All kind of troubles appeared with external software vendors, installation scripts,migrations and even some simple Windows Server Core Management task became a real challenge if you didn't have a good script to copy from a colleage...  I guess, at the end,.. all the Linux and Unix colleagues I've had discussions with over the last 10 years, might be asking me for a wine-bottle at Christmas at the end of this year! I might even give it to them! In Windows Server 8 we will be looking at only 3 versions:

  • the Server Core version, which is Microsoft's absolute recommendation by the way.
  • the Full Server without the graphical shell, GUI needed applications will still run, but there is no Explorer or Internet Explorer present, nor available
  • the Full Server with the usual GUI, which is only intended to be used for backward compatibility reasons.

All versions can be managed through the known "Server Manager" that we know from Windows 2008, but this msc is now better designed for "remote" use. In other words,.. Install all your production servers with the "Core" version and have a couple of management servers with all the tools installed, to control your server-park. The Server Manager Gui is there fore now designed to manage multiple (remote) servers instead of the machine that its running on.This latest Microsoft product gives the powershell cmdlets a total new perspective. More about that in the next item.

This can be a short one,... As this article discusses the Beta version, no licensing information is available at this moment.

Also a short one,... no reliable pricing is available right now.

Storage & Network:
Storage appears to have a couple of new features in Windows Server 8. First, the introduction of a new name and that is "Storage Pools".  These pools can be setup as a new way to create virtual drives that can span several physical drives, with either resiliency or high performance/throughput. It sounds to me like a regular software RAID-set, but Microsoft claims that underneath it is a totally different approach. We at Oostdam.Info where not able to test this, due to the small capabilities of our test environment, but we will test this later on this year and report about it. One feature is the possibility to over-commit the capacity, by specifying a larger capacity than is actually available; Microsoft calls this thin provisioning. This will let you defer purchasing, and buy additional storage only when needed. I surely would be carefull using this!! It sounds a little dangerous to me, and as I do not mess around with (customer)(test)data, more investigation on this feature will be necessary.
Clustered file servers are enhanced in Windows Server 8, more on that in another article later this year. The bitlocker encryption is now also available for cluster volumes. Thats always great, but again, be carefull using this! Transparent failover lets you move a (file)server from one cluster node to another while it should remain online. Online patching of security updates, service packs and (VM)tools should be upgraded this way without any interruption.. A new feature which is called "Cluster Aware Updating" can automate patching on all nodes in a cluster while it should remain online. Again, when I'am able to test this, a new article about this topic will appaer here on this site. Network card teaming has been improved as well. This technology combines two network cards to appear as one, but with greater resiliency or performance. The use and possibilities will most benefit in high level (IIS) use. Look for the new features in IIS below in this article. Network teaming is now built into the operating system, and should work even across network cards from different vendors, instead of the previous (current) requirement that identical vendor cards should be used.

Automation Engine / Powershell:
Allthough I am a rather newbee in powershell, this version drives me to learn more about it. It even contains some "learning capabilities" out of the box. Originally powershell was created for remote tasks and the successor for vb scripts etc.; but it seems Microsoft is now calling it the "Automation Engine". There are already thousands of cmdlets for different purposes, and the general idea is that any management task can be accomplished with a PowerShell script. Microsoft has been saying that tools like Server Manager are now more a kind of lightweight GUIs wrapping PowerShell scripts. In some cases, the scripts are exposed so that you can perform a task once in the GUI, then see what script was generated, and then repeat it as a script, perhaps with a modification, or within a (time)loop targeting to multiple servers. The autocompletion function of keywords within Powershell is still present and has even extended.

Security (on file access):
There seem to be a new kind of security build in in Windows Server 8, that can perform access to files, (DFS)shares, based on tags within documents, department or company codes, which quickly compare youre access rights to a file with a quick compare based on your own (Active Directory) attributes. This techique looks promising, but it still needs a lot of work. I saw a demo once, but could not test it in this Beta version. Spaces, mistypes and capitalization of phrases and words did not work correctly at all. I guess this is an effort to reduce the (large) number of security groups stored in Active Directory usually, and I admit, often thats a lot of work to set-up and maintain. I can see the future for it,..  sort of  "storage wherever you want" but that it's my guess that will not be realized in the next 5 years to come. It looks promising, it sure does, but for now, I'll advise you to keep maintaining your (global/local) security groups...  

New in IIS:
There seems to be improvements for IIS Web Server components that will better suite a scaled and multi-tenancy environment. At this moment I have not been able to test this enough, so I will comment on that specific item in another article, or review this article when the RTM version is available. The main change seems to be the way that certificates are handeld and stored. In previous IIS versions, all the certificates where stored in the windows certificate store and bound individually to their websites, and effectively all present certificates are loaded into the memory, even when their not used. Microsoft change this in Windows Server 8 in a big, big way! No more worries on changing/updatingand replacing certificates! It can now be done by a helpdesk employee! (SSL)Certificates are now stored on a file server(share) and IIS can determine which one to use for a particular site by just a match in the site name. This change increases the current alowwed maximum limit of SSL sites on a single server from 500 to 10,000 or more, and improve their performance as well. The last years, the numbers of (zero-day)critical patches that was related to IIS was quite large. Most of them where related to the Non Uniform Memory Access (NUMA), area where memory meets a specific processor. This is to technical for me, so I can just write, that they seem to have fixed this issue in Windows Server 8 now. CPU throttling has also been changed. Instead of measurement the CPU load of a period of time, and limit the processor time to that load, it should be more accurate now. I have not been able to test this, due to limitations in my testlab, but I would appriciate a mail containing some performance numbers if you have it available.

) This is one of the major changes and a big step forwards. A lot of improvements has been made within Hyper-V and it looks very promising. A Hyper-V host can now have a maximum of 160 logical processors and 2TB of RAM, and the usual virtual machines (VMs) can have up to 32 virtual CPUs and 512GB RAM per VM. On the storage level Hyper-V has also changed a lot. There is a new virtual disk format, called VHDX, completely in line with previous updates on file-extensions within Microsoft products, and it gives support to diskdrives larger than 2TB and at the meantime improving performance. Administrators who work with SANs (Storage Area Networks) will surely benefit from buildin support for ODX (Offloaded Data Transfer), which will enable you to transfer data directly, by sending an instruction to the SAN rather than reading and writing the actual data, which willresult in a much better performance. If you are creating a fixed-size VHDX disk on a SAN it took a while normally, but if you are using ODX, you are done in a couple of seconds. The ODX technology is also used in live migration, when Hyper-V drives are being moved online. Hyper-V VirtualMachines can now contain up to four virtual Fibre Channel HBAs (Host Bus Adapters), which provides totally new possibilities on disk-access to gigabit-speed storage networks from within the VM. Live Migration and Live Storage Migration of complete VM's and/or individual virtual drives, can now be done with this new ODX technology, concurrently and simultaneously by a Hyper-V host. Microsoft says it must be possible to patch and reboot a host server without loss of any service, by moving VMs elsewhere, updating, and then moving them back, but we have not been able to test that thoroughly. Hyper-V has also a new extensible virtual switch, which will handle all network traffic between your VM's, the external network, and the actual host server. You are now able to create private VLAN's which are isolated from each other for safe multi-tenancy. This is sometime that was never done properly in previous versions. Port Access Control Lists is giving you the ability to restrict traffic by source or destination and I'm very impressed with it. With bandwidth control you can specify a maximum and a minimum bandwidth per VLAN, which gives you control over (internal) bandwidth use on a specific customer or environment. Third party tools, filters or (re)directs on bandwidth traffic are still allowed, giving you the possibility to migrate VM's to a new Hyper-V host without worries.
B.) Wurth a second paragraph under Hyper-V is Hyper-V Replica. It seems very
basic stuff, all you need is two Hyper-V hosts, and you can set up VM replication through a a right-click option in the Hyper-V manager. Once initialised, replication only copies differences, and uses VSS (Volume Shadow copy Service) for application-level consistency. Once configured, replicated and online, Hyper-V will failover to the replica if there is a failure.

Terminal Servers or Services:
Immediately forget this general term. Remote Desktop Services has been given 3 new names in Windows Server 8, a new one for every new type of remote desktop connection. Here they are, followed by a brief description:

  • RDSH; which stands for Remote Desktop Session Host is the original (classic) remote desktop based on a single user session on the server as we have known it for years now. 
  • PVD (1); which stands for Pooled Virtual Desktop. In this desktop version, each user has its own Virtual Machine available, but they are all drawn from a pool so they may get a different machine every time a user logs-on. In Windows Server 8, the personalization as well as the performance has been improved by storing the user state separately, so it is no longer solely dependent on what is stored in the roaming profile. Patching pooled VM's is a lot easier if you make use of  a golden image Virtual Machine. To patch the machines, you need only update the golden image. This is then rolled out to users when they log out, or on a schedule, or in emergency as an instant update. Compare it with the use of golden images in provisioned (Citrix/XenApp)farms but than for individual users.
  • PVD (2); which stands for Personal Virtual Desktop. This must be a Beta indeed...  It is my expectation and wish that these names will change towards the production version. This is utmost confusing! Anyway,.. in this version each user will have their own dedicated Virtual Machine. In this type of VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), VM's seems to be more treated like a physical machines, and patching is managed by Windows Software Update Services (WSUS) or other administrative tools like System Center Configuration Manager 2012 (SCCM). Setting up these individual VDI options is much more simplified in Windows Server 8, compared to previous possibilities. You need to adjust a little more settings than just specify what kind of VDI you want, and the build-in default wizard will set it up for you. So, don't do the next, next finish stuff, but pay a little more attention on the advanced settings  and youre done. HDX technology as you know it now, is replaced by a feature called RemoteFX, but the functionality seems quite the same. Already this product seems prepaired for Windows 8 Virtual Machine because one of the option is called multi-touch support. I like that, but in the meantime it is a bit odd as well that a feature for taking a virtual machine offline temporary, and sync it back later appears to be un-available in this Beta.

Miscellaneous things:

  • Data Deduplication is buildin now, which reduces storage requirements by storing only the differences between files. Three, or more identical files in different folders or with different names should only take the space of one. It's should be based on chunks of data, so your files do not need to be exactly identical to save diskspace. Specifications are, that there is a performance overhead present as well, so it works best for files that are accessed less frequently, allthough Microsoft claims that the system is smart about where to apply de-duplication based on activity, I have a doubts on if it works. I smell some more testing comming up, but I will wait for the RTM version for that kind of tests.
  • Active Directory seems to be getting a new management tool, called Active Directory Administrative Center, once again fully built on PowerShell cmdlets. This looks very promising!! The Active Directory recycle bin, which has been used and sold by several tools, looks to be out-of-the-box present in the GUI for the first time, providing you the ability to easily restore deleted objects. Another change is that you might be able to clone an Active Directory serverbased Virtual Machine, and achieve instant disaster recovery for a virtual machine. I have not been able to test this right now I must say.
  • DHCP is a service that assigns IP number to clients, along with other critical networking information. DHCP load balancing and failover is now built into Windows Server, whereas In the past this was awkward to configure.
  • IP Address Management (IPAM) is a new tool offering a unified view of IP address allocation across multiple subnets, which are sets of IP addresses. Microsoft claims most administrators resort to Excel spreadsheets to record which device has which address, and IPAM includes a spreadsheet import tool. Most DHCP tasks, such as reserving an address for a device, can now be done through IPAM as well as through the DHCP manager.

Windows Server 2012 is not finished at all yet, keep that in mind. The user interface needs more work as its sometime a bit crappy and I could not remember some features locations, but isn't it therefore a "Beta" version? I'm looking forward to the RTM already and I hope you do that too after reading this article. Have fun using, testing and working with Microsoft products!.

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Ben OostdamBen Oostdam has been working with Windows systems since 1993. Worked for several companies as a system administrator, and is currently a Senior Support Engineer and a (Freelance) Trainer for a large company in the Netherlands.

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