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.

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In Windows Server 2012, the operating system will now create a separate virtual hard disk (VHD) file that stores user personalization information. When users log in to a pooled desktop, Windows will stream this personal VHD alongside the pooled image VHD to create a personalized experience. It also preserves any changes to the user disk and saves it so that the next time a user logs in, those changes are streamed back in.

Now you get the benefit of patching and maintaining a single image while allowing users to customize their work environment as if it were their own.

Finally, the storage options for VDI-based deployments have improved as well. For example, you can store and operate VHDs over Server Message Block file shares, storage area networks (SANs) or local storage directly attached to a server. Collections of pooled virtual desktops can be configured with tiers -- in other words, infrequently used machines can be stored on cheap storage whereas more frequently used VHDs and sessions can be put on faster but more expensive storage. And VDI works well with clustering and failover options present in Windows Server 2012 to better ensure high availability.

Networking improvements

The big benefit for management gurus everywhere is the further enhancements to DirectAccess. I've written about DirectAccess before for Computerworld, and I'm a big fan of the technology. It allows VPN-like secure tunneling from any endpoint back to the corporate mother ship without the overhead and performance hit of a true VPN.

There is also no management agent on the client; when the technology is configured correctly, it just works. Users have seamless connectivity to file shares, on-premises equipment and other resources just as if they were on the corporate campus.

Windows Server 2012 - DirectAccess
In just seven clicks, an administrator can run through this wizard and have a working DirectAccess setup immediately.

In addition, group policy objects get applied and administrators can manage machines wherever they are, not just when employees come to headquarters or when the machines connect up to the VPN.

The downside of using DirectAccess up to now has been the heavy requirements in getting the technology set up -- it used to be dependent on IPv6 or somewhat kludgy IPv6-to-IPv4 conversion engines -- and configuring the server endpoints that reside in your DMZ or on the edge of your network. It also didn't support being virtualized.

These requirements have all been removed in Windows Server 2012. DirectAccess works transparently with IPv4, so no strange Teredo or conversion tunnels are required. In addition, you can virtualize the edge machine running the DirectAccess "interceptor" without any problems. I've only tried it on Hyper-V, but I assume VMware will be supported once the product has officially been released.

And finally, a new Express Remote Access Wizard included in the release candidate build removes nearly all of the complexity from setting up DirectAccess. In just seven clicks, an administrator can run through a wizard and have a working DirectAccess setup immediately.

DirectAccess is a hugely powerful technology that has big implications for companies with largely remote workforces as well as organizations with traveling sales workers and other business users. Now you can touch them, and they can touch you, wherever they are with Internet connectivity. It's a huge win for IT and I was pleased to see these refinements and the removal of these large hurdles to adoption.

The last word

I've been pessimistic about Windows 8 as a client. I simply don't understand some of the changes that have been made and don't fully buy into the value proposition on the Metro interface and touch. On the server end, though, I am a full 180 degrees opposite: I love the things that are happening in Windows Server 2012.

From much easier deployment for DirectAccess to a full-scale file classification and dynamic access control system, to better user experiences for companies deploying a virtual desktop infrastructure, the improvements in Windows Server 2012's release candidate build are palpable and compelling. Chances are, there's something in there for you.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures LLC, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte, N.C. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him at jhassell@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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