10 best new features of Windows Server 8

With Windows Server 8, Microsoft has outdone itself, from a revamped UI to hundreds of new features, including vastly improved virtualization management

Microsoft claims 300 new and improved features in Windows Server 8, but after a few days in Redmond watching demos and stepping through lab sessions, we wonder whether the marketing guys accidentally left off a zero. It's hard to name a Windows Server feature that hasn't been tweaked, streamlined, wizardized, or completely revamped. Whatever grudge you may hold against Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 8 will almost certainly make amends.

If you're a large shop struggling to manage hundreds of Windows servers, Windows Server 8 should ease the job. If you're a small shop trying to squeeze high-end capability from a low-end budget, Windows Server 8 has plenty for you, too. With Windows Server 8, everything from server deployment to high availability becomes smoother and more automated.

[ Read all about the desktop side in "Windows 8: What it's really all about." | Plus, InfoWorld's Galen Gruman goes wild! See: "Watch out, Apple: Windows 8 could trump the iPad." ]

In fact, there's so much of note in the new OS, it's almost a crime to stop at the top 10, listed below in no particular order. Believe it or not, data deduplication for production file servers, native PowerShell support in Hyper-V, and virtual Active Directory didn't even make the list. Look at it this way: There will be even more surprises in store when you finally get your hands on a Windows Server 8 beta.

Multiserver management. Server Manager not only gets a face-lift in Windows Server 8, donning the superclean Metro look, but opens the management horizon to the entire server environment. Pull in new servers (physical or virtual) to manage through Active Directory or DNS lookup, and Server Manager will inventory the server and add a new tile to the dashboard displaying its state. Other tiles roll up aggregates of information across multiple servers by server role and various attributes.

Views are search driven, so it's easy to pull up matching values across all rows. Search filters can be saved, so it's easy to create personalized dashboards or standard views for selected sets of machines. Instead of reaching across the screen to ye olde Task pane (RIP), you perform all actions directly on specific elements, by right-clicking and choosing from a contextual menu. Naturally, all of this remote, multiserver management goodness is built on PowerShell and WMI (Windows Management Interface). Considering Microsoft's boasts of 2,300 new PowerShell cmdlets, wizards should become more commonplace throughout the Windows Server ecosystem.

Friction-free server deployment. Windows Server 8 inherits Windows Server 2008's wizards for installing roles and features, but combines them in what Microsoft calls "scenario-based deployment." Installs can target local machines, remote machines, or virtual hard disks, with deployment to multiple machines automated through PowerShell cmdlets, WMI APIs, and "workflows" that handle suspending and resuming batch operations. Plus, you no longer have to second-guess that Server Core install. Instead of starting over from scratch, Windows Server 8 lets you move between Server Core and a full server simply by installing or removing components. You can even install the full server without the graphical shell because real servers don't have GUIs.

IP address management. Odds are you're using a spreadsheet or homegrown cobbleware to track your IP address allocations, and it's no fun at all. Windows Server 8 introduces a full-featured IP address manager that combines network discovery, static and dynamic address allocation, DNS and DHCP monitoring, and network auditing capabilities all in one place. Logging actual address usage, identifying conflicts, cross-referencing with hardware inventory, and providing an audit trail of all changes, the Windows IP Address Management Center goes way beyond record keeping. It has the potential to eliminate a huge time-suck from your to-do list.

Dynamic Access Control. Today's folder-centric model for access control makes it all too easy for permissions to get garbled -- and auditing is a horror. Dynamic Access Control doesn't replace your current file and folder permissions, but allows you to layer global policies and claims-based access controls on top of them. For example, you might create a rule to ensure that only members of the finance group can access finance department files and strictly from a managed device -- and this rule could be enforced by all Windows Server 8 file servers (and only Windows Server 8 file servers) in your organization.

Dynamic Access Control uses tags applied to the files by users, supporting applications (think Microsoft Office), and Windows Server 8 itself (automatic classification). To implement, you create claims definitions and file property definitions in Active Directory; any Active Directory attribute can be used for access control. Claims travel with the user's security token. In a nice touch, the system now goes beyond the annoying "access denied" message. Instead of the stone wall, denied users can be presented with a remediation link to open a help ticket or contact the administrator or file owner to request access.

Large Hyper-V clusters. Windows Server 8 leaps into VMware territory and beyond with support for as many as 63 hosts and 4,000 VMs per cluster. Backing up the raw numbers are a slew of features that improve performance, manageability, availability, and security in large environments: cluster-aware patching, storage resource pools, thin provisioning, storage offload for data transfers, BitLocker encryption for cluster volumes, data deduplication, and live storage migration.

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