Review: Weighing Windows Server 2012

From network services and storage to virtualization and private cloud, the beefy new Windows Server leaves no server role unturned

It may feel like a wolf chasing you through the woods at night -- yet another Windows Server migration closing in on its prey. This is one migration you'll want to look at very closely before trying to pull it off. It's a great time to start serious evaluation, since the Windows Server 8 beta has graduated to the Release Candidate stage and its full and final name: Windows Server 2012. And yeah, the Metro GUI stuck.

I'll do the Metro GUI dance in a bit, but first things first. Not much has changed since the beta, which is great on two levels: First, it means a stable code progression -- a bunch of tweaks would have implied depth coding at the post-beta stage, which is never good news. Second, it means all the cool features that have us excited about Windows Server 2012 will stay in the final release, not disappear in a late-stage dose of reality.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Windows Server 2012: All the coolest featuresTechEd 2012: The key insights for Windows admins | The 10 best new features of Windows Server 2012 | Download the Windows 8 Deep Dive PDF special report | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Installation is even smoother than at the beta stage. Back then I had some driver difficulties with the late-model Dell server on which I was doing a clean installation. This time, I ran it as a virtual machine in VMware Workstation 8 on an HP Envy 15. I screwed the pooch on the first installation, but then I came across a great blog post on installing Windows Server 8 beta on VMware and found it works just as well for the RC iteration.

There's little apparent difference from beta to RC in the installation wizard save for one thing: What was listed as Small Business Server (SBS) in beta is now listed as Microsoft Windows Essentials 2012 at RC. There have been rumors of big changes for SBS coming this year, and the new name seems to lend some credence. I guess we'll see at the SBS announcement, which, if past history is any indication, will be three to six months after Windows Server 2012 ships.

Server Manager A1/4ber alles Post-installation, Windows Server 2012 boots directly into the beefed-up Server Manager. It's here that you'll choose roles and add features for your WS2012 machine, not during the installation process as in Windows Server 2008. For most administrators, Server Manager (not the tiled GUI) is where you'll spend the bulk of your time when managing Windows Server 2012, so all the fuss over Server Metro is kinda lost on me.

There are several improvements to Server Manager in this release, but the one I like most is its ability to manage multiple servers as logical groups. You can group servers on whatever criteria suit you: subnet, department, geographical location, you name it. Server Manager can use Active Directory to build these server groups and assign user and administration rights. Couple that with remote server management, and it's going to be much easier to organize and deal with large server farms from afar.

You'll also be manipulating Active Directory via Server Manager, and you'll notice that Microsoft has evolved the heart of its identity management system. The most obvious new change is AD's Dynamic Access Control (DAC) tool set. DAC lays a rules-based framework not just on network resources, but on specific information. This covers not just AD-based access to data files and folders, but also integrates with Windows' Rights Management permissions.

That combination will let administrators design more granular data access structures than ever, covering not just file access but also control over printing, saving, sending, and other capabilities. The AD portion also lets administrators group data in logical subsets, such as grouping a set of files (with accompanying permissions) that are all connected to invoicing, for example. You can construct these subsets based on content or metadata.

When you're exploring roles in Server Manager, you'll see several enhancements. One of the more noteworthy is DHCP Failover. Microsoft built this to comply with the IETF definition, and it allows you to configure DHCP servers as strictly hot failovers or in load-balancing mode. For straight failover, smaller networks can do this in a one-on-one mode, while larger installations can assign a single failover server to cover multiple production DHCP servers.

Load balancing, however, is the default mode. It's designed to work best for failover servers located on the same site, though they can span multiple subnets. True, this isn't as powerful as Windows Server's full-on failover/clustering capability, but having it as an integrated feature in the DHCP server role makes it much easier to deliver resilient DHCP services quickly.

Another key role to explore is Hyper-V. This one became notably beefier since Windows Server 2008, growing from 64 logical host processors to 320 with support for 2,048 virtual processors. Host memory support went from 1TB of physical memory to 4TB and memory per VM jumped from 64GB to 1TB, and you can now cluster up to 4,000 VMs. But Microsoft has more in mind with Hyper-V than simply pushing out its hardware limits, or even beefing up its networking and storage capabilities. Hyper-V is the foundation for Microsoft's much, much-promoted private cloud solution, which pairs WS2012 and System Center 2012.

Pillars of the private cloud The combination of the two builds a stack that covers all the features you'd expect from a private cloud, including infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and hybrid cloud computing, but also adds a sophisticated service delivery capability that combines application management and data center orchestration. That combo allows you to manage applications as workloads rather than isolated tiers, and deliver them to users as admin-designed service offerings.

Users can select services from a self-service menu or portal and the private cloud will kick off associated back-end workflows automatically. This feature set takes the Microsoft private cloud right to the feature peak when it comes to today's private cloud offerings, and it's a feature set you'll need to evaluate in-depth if cloud computing (read: virtualization and automation) is on your agenda. To make that a little easier, Microsoft is offering a truckload of free and pay-based training via its MSDN, TechNet, and Learning sites.

All these high-level abilities are built in conjunction with System Center 2012. But Windows Server 2012 contains the foundation features necessary to make the private cloud happen. Hyper-V Network Virtualization is one such example, allowing administrators to build networks based on multitenant designs. Think of these as VLANs on steroids.

Using network virtualization, you can build multiple logical network topologies on top of your physical network infrastructure and parse them out among users and workloads, allowing you to move around network resources and workloads without having to change anything at the physical level -- and without users being the wiser or bumping into one another.

A little further into the future, you can see where this is headed: Complex network capabilities move into virt-space while the network physical layer moves toward an ever flatter design intended merely to provide capacity. That might frighten network administrators today, but as long as you stay current with network virtualization your job will just move into virt-space along with your network.

At the heart of Windows Server 2012's network virtualization is the new Hyper-V Extensible Switch. This looks like a very slick piece of code, but of course it's hot off the forge: You'll want to make sure it stands up to your network requirements before designing anything that needs the v-switch as a dependency.

In a smart move, Microsoft has made the v-switch an open platform based on the Network Device Interface Specification (NDIS), which means third-party network vendors can design plug-ins for value-add features. Expect to see a few of these available at Windows Server 2012's ship date, though I bet the bulk will come out some months after that. Such extensions will allow you to build v-switch-based network infrastructure for specific tasks such as firewall and intrusion detection, packet filtering and inspection, and more.

The many new storage-oriented features Microsoft has built into Windows Server 2012 should also turn your head. There are too many to cover in-depth in this space, but make sure to evaluate Virtual Machine Storage Migration, updated controls for Windows Storage Management, thin provisioning support, and the new Storage Spaces, to name a few.

You can sum up Storage Spaces as the ability to group your storage resources into logical pools. Allocate one disk, pieces of one disk, or multiple disks to give users and workloads consolidated logical storage ... well, spaces. This feature is designed to work with Windows Server 2012's failover clustering, so you can keep storage pools running behind server clusters without as much concern for physical hardware.

Roll-your-own storage systems This bleeds directly into another subset of storage features you'll want to explore deeply: better DIY SANs, or the ability to provide high-availability and high-performance storage on commodity hardware. Microsoft has done quite a bit of work on giving Windows Server 2012 the ability to act as an integrated front-end management interface for third-party storage solutions, while also giving storage managers even more tools to roll their own storage solutions across a broader variety of hardware.

For example, you can now attach simple JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks) arrays via high-speed network interface cards that support RDMA. By leveraging RDMA, NICs can transfer data without bothering the OS, which means significant improvements in overall performance. This offload-to-NIC performance model is a common theme in Windows Server 2012, as you'll find other such features supported, including Receive Side Coalescing (RSC), Receive Side Scaling (RSS), Single Root IO Virtualization (SR-IOV), and TCP Chimney Offload. All this means that storage geeks will have an easier time building in-house storage arrays and even full-on SANS using just the tools provided in Windows Server rather than paying for third-party infrastructure.

With these new data protection, performance, and scalability features, Windows Server 2012 now has enough muscle that third-party storage hardware vendors may simply rely on the OS for storage management -- or it'll force those same vendors to raise the management bar. I expect these features will prompt many an admin, especially in midsized companies, to simply start building their own storage infrastructures with off-the-shelf parts, rather than spending a premium on more expensive turnkey storage.

Finally, with tempers running hot, I apparently must touch on The Great GUI Debate. Anticlimactically, this really isn't interesting to me. Yes, Metro survived the RC cut, which means it'll be in the final release. You can use the Tiles feature to pin oft-used management applications or even logical groups of network resources to the Start menu for quick access. I expect to see more Microsoft and third-party Windows Server Metro add-ins coming out over time.

But if you're one of the spear-waving anti-Metro tribesmen, relax. Remember that you can always turn Metro off. Indeed, Microsoft is pushing harder for a GUI-less install than a Metro-based screen. You'll find Server Core has been fleshed out with new depth and ease-of-use features, many related to the evolving PowerShell scripting language. PowerShell, by the way, is practically mandatory for Windows Server administrators going forward and well worth an in-depth look with another reported 2,000-plus commandlets added in this release --10 times the number released with Windows Server 2008.

All this only scratches the surface of Windows Server 2012's new capabilities. When Microsoft calls this a "major" release, the company isn't kidding. Windows Server 2012 really does change the game, and that's across all roles: file sharing, identity, storage, virtual desktop infrastructure, and certainly server virtualization and cloud. You can expect to see more in-depth coverage here in the future. In the meantime, download the Windows Server 2012 RC installation bits and conduct your own evaluation based on your organization's needs. Then let us know what areas you'd like to see us dive deep into in the coming months. There's a lot to cover.

Microsoft Windows Server 2012 Evaluation Resources

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