First look: Windows Server Blue beta shows compelling improvements

Storage, virtualization, management and other improvements make Windows Server 2012 R2 a must-have.

During the TechEd conference earlier this month, Microsoft announced what it has been working on with its flagship server product and demonstrated a few of its new features. But there is a larger, more detailed story underneath those keynote sound bites and some things you discover only when you work directly with the code.

Late last Friday, I got my hands on a copy of the beta release for Windows Server Blue, which will be formally known as Windows Server 2012 R2 upon its release later this year, and I spent last weekend exploring the build. Here is a first look at the next version of Windows Server, which should be available as a preview today and, as Microsoft announced at TechEd, generally available by year-end.

The idea of the cloud OS

First, however, it is important to look at what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with this release. Microsoft has long been touting the idea of a cloud operating system; the company sees this as an operating system that pulls together all computing resources -- not just at an individual node level, but across the data center. A related goal is to expose in the same way the pieces that make everything run, no matter where they are physically located.

The overarching design goal for Windows Server 2012 R2, therefore, was to provide an operating system platform that basically lets entire data centers be managed just like individual computers -- which in turn allows the applications and tasks being run within those data centers to shift seamlessly between data centers.

Windows Server 2012 R2
Overall, Windows Server 2012 Release 2 has much to recommend it, our reviewer finds.

According to Microsoft, the goal is one consistent platform between a customer's own data centers, a service provider's private cloud and the public Windows Azure cloud service. The same operating system, Windows Server, should work everywhere in the same way with the same tools no matter where things are hosted.

The most explicit example of a feature designed to make one OS work on premises or in the cloud is the Windows Azure Pack for Windows Server. This takes the management portal and capabilities of the Windows Azure service and puts it into a nice, installable package on top of Windows Server 2012 R2.

With the Azure Pack living in on-premises data centers, you essentially create a private cloud, where users can create websites, virtual machines, SQL Server-based databases -- not MySQL yet -- Active Directory integration modules and more, all from a self-service web portal. Administrators can configure how resources are distributed and which users can ask for what services, and a powerful REST API opens the door for other applications and services to also request services from the private cloud in the same way they do from Windows Azure itself.

To achieve these goals, there is plenty going on under the hood in Windows Server 2012 R2.

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