Windows Server 2012 Release Preview: Compelling new features

Much easier DirectAccess deployment and a full-scale dynamic access control system are among the key benefits.

In the first week of June, Microsoft released a near-final version of Windows Server 2012 alongside its client brother, Windows 8 Release Preview. In the days since that release, I've been spending time thoroughly examining some of the new features in the 2012 edition. Here's a preview of a few that I find particularly compelling.

These are in addition to those I've already described in my earlier review of the Windows Server 2012 beta version -- multimachine management, numerous Hyper-V improvements, improved security and others. And it's worth noting, too, that the UI is still set to change by the time the software hits the "release to manufacturing" (RTM) stage, so I'll reserve my final judgment until then. At this point, I still believe that Metro is the wrong way to go for a server operating system aimed at professional systems administrators.

Dynamic access control

In Windows Server 2012, dynamic access control (DAC) is a suite of features and utilities that work together to augment the file system security that has been a part of Windows since the NT days. It joins classification, policy enforcement, auditing and encryption as another way to protect all sorts of data from unauthorized access and tampering.

Let's take a look at how this works, starting with a couple of different types of policies.

First are the central access policies, which make up a layer of security that complements the existing access control list (ACL) entries that we've come to know and love about the NT File System. These policies ride on top of ACLs and add an additional layer of authorization to file and object access. They also pertain to all servers in an organization, so they're applied very broadly and affect the entire business.

They also are more granular than specific file or folder ACLs and better translate to some of the business requirements you're likely to face. These policies take into account the identity of the user, what type of device the person is using for the access attempt and what kind of data is being accessed. It's more than just the yes-or-no choice that ACLs force you to make.

Windows Server 2012 - access control
This is one of the spots in Active Directory Domain Services where you can set up dynamic access control policies.

For example, businesses could create policies that restrict access to a certain file or folder based on the nature of the information, like data subject to HIPAA in the United States. This assists in overall organizational compliance with government and industry regulations.

Additionally, you can create policies to restrict access based on the current department a user is assigned to (as opposed to explicit security groups that would have to be updated regularly). Finally, you could create a scenario where certain sectors of one organization could access only information pertaining to their work, a situation that is common in financial institutions.

Central access policies work with the strategic placement of central audit policies, which basically back up the access policies and prove an organization is in compliance. When you take any government or industry compliance mandate and enter the conditions of that mandate into an audit policy, you can then retrieve instant reports to prove that you're applying and maintaining a policy that accrues to the spirit of the regulation.

You can also see instances where access was granted inappropriately and, from there, fine-tune your policy assignments to ensure those holes don't happen again. You can also spot scenarios where users or groups attempt to access information (and are unsuccessful at it) -- which is helpful from a security standpoint, since it shows where users need further education or consequences.

Access and audit policies work with the file classification infrastructure, which was introduced in Windows Server 2008 R2 and enhanced in this latest build. By classifying files, you apply tags that indicate various properties about them. The tags could be for the type of data, the type of regulation applying to the data, the time limit the data could be valid for, the expiration date of any confidentiality restrictions on the data and so on.

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