Hands on with Windows Server 8 beta

The Metro user interface doesn't work well for a server OS -- but other than that, no major complaints

Leap Day brought with it the chance to download the beta release of the next version of Microsoft's server platform, along with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and first looks at the next versions of the company's developer software. Then, this morning, Microsoft announced the new features and enhancements that have made it into the server beta, which you can download here .

I've spent some time putting the beta through its paces in my test environment. I used a Dell PowerEdge T300 with a 2.5-Ghz Intel Xeon processor and 24GB of RAM, and tested with both a native installation and as a virtual machine within Windows Server 2008 R2's Hyper-V platform.

Here's my hands-on look at build 8250 of Windows Server 8. It's important to note, though, that the company hasn't yet committed to this being the final beta -- it's not yet feature-complete, in other words.

The big change: The new user interface

There are two things to be aware of when you first install the beta: first, the emphasis for Windows Server has changed from a GUI-first philosophy to a GUI-optional mindset. Indeed, when you first install the OS, you're asked to choose between a core and a full installation, but core is the preferred and encouraged option.

Once you install a core version of Windows Server 8, you can flip on a GUI simply by installing the GUI role, and you can then opt to take it off without a full reinstall. This is a great feature when you first deploy a server, since you can use the GUI to take care of all of the mundane configuration tasks, but when the machine is ready for production, you can turn the GUI off and deploy, reducing the attack surface, resource load, energy requirements and so on.

The Metro overlay in Windows Server 8 beta.

Second, once you boot the beta with the GUI, you'll notice that the server OS shares the new Metro UI with its client brother, Windows 8. Most notably, this means there's no Start button, an interface feature that's been around since Windows 95. It's been replaced with the Metro Start layer, which you can access by hovering your mouse in the bottom left corner of the screen and clicking on the resulting bubble. Then the Metro overlay comes into play and gives you the standard options for installed programs, Internet Explorer and the link to lock and sign out, among other things.

I am not personally a fan of the new interface changes, partly because I've been a Windows administrator for over 15 years now. That's a lot of habit to change. After playing with the preview and the beta for a while, I'm not sure how, at least on a server, the Metro interface overall offers anything useful. Opening the Start menu and typing in what I needed was excellent for me and, I'll bet, for millions of other administrators.

Hiding all of that behind more clicks and hovers seems counterproductive -- and servers are not going to be using touch interfaces, the big intended target of the Metro redesign, so the screens full of big tiles and icons feel wasted. Plus, if Microsoft 's saying the GUI is not preferred on the server, then why update the GUI offered on Windows Server 8 with all the whizbang eye candy? I'm not sure it logically registers for me.

Overall, that change is negative in my opinion.

That said, most admin tasks in Windows Server 8 are done in Server Manager, and the Metro design principles and execution within that app itself are really superb.

Managing multiple machines

The Server Manager app continues to be enhanced as a one-stop shop for managing administrative tasks on Windows Server 8. Out of the box, it's simple to see what tasks need to be done to get a server into production.

It's easy to see what needs to be done to get any particular server into production.

One of the benefits of the new Server Manager interface is the ability to create server groups, or collections of servers that already exist on your network that can be managed through the new user experience. I can also find such machines through DNS or I can import a list of servers to bring into the group manually.

Here,, I'm polling my Active Directory domain for machines to bring into a new group.

Creating new server groups allows you to manage tasks among each server with common attributes. For example, you can create a server group containing all machines running Internet Information Services (IIS), or all database servers, and so on, And you can request specific information on any of them as you wish.

Each server group appears as a separate tile on the front page of Server Manager, giving you instant access and visual cues to alerts and notifications about events going on within the server pool, including service alerts, performance counter information, and Best Practice Analyzer results.

Each server group appears as a separate tile on the front page of Server Manager.

This allows IT pros to administer many servers just like one server. Theoretically, you can manage any Windows machine on your network right from within one single Server Manager console.

I had some difficulties in accessing some machines in my test lab, mainly because the target machines didn't have the right telemetry packages installed by default; some of them also had firewall issues that were fairly easily rectified. Still other machines added just fine and I was able to view rollups of events and problems right from within the tile in Server Manager, and from there I could also drill down to any level of the pool and find individual events on any given machine.

All in all, this is very useful for large-scale machine management tasks.

Hyper-V 3.0 improvements

Numerous enhancements have been made to the Hyper-V virtualization platform in this beta.

Hyper-V Replica interface

The Hyper-V Replica feature, which existed pre-Windows 8, is arguably the biggest advance in Microsoft virtualization in a while, allowing you to replicate a virtual machine from one location to another with Hyper-V and a network connection. VMware does this, too, but charges extra for this capability with new licensees; existing customers get it for free.

With this beta, the new Hyper-V Replica interfaces within Hyper-V Manager include a much simpler, cleaner display for setting up a replication sequence and for better monitoring the process and the overall health of replication systems and partners.

Hyper-V Extensible switch improvements

Along with support for private virtual LANs (VLANs) and Access Control Lists for individual ports on the Hyper-V virtual switch, the hypervisor in Windows Server 8 beta is ready for multi-tenancy. So if you host multiple customers on a single Hyper-V host, each individual customer's privacy and security is much more protected than it was under Windows Server 2008 R2. You can also make new virtual subnets without having to resort to the complexity and administrative burden of VLANs.

SMB encryption

Windows Server 8 includes new support for the encryption of Server Message Block (SMB) data on untrusted networks. This end-to-end encryption of data from SMB shares, as it crosses the wire, guards against eavesdropping attacks when that data travels across a network not known to be friendly.

This is all done in the box, with no additional investment of hardware or software is required -- you simply turn it on per-share via the Server Manager File and Storage Services node. You can also turn it on via Group Policy for the entire server.

Adding support for the encryption of Server Message Block data on untrusted networks requires admins to simply turn it on per-share via the Server Manager File and Storage Services node.

I was able to verify that this feature worked between a Windows 8 beta client machine and a Windows Server 8 beta server. This is a good feature for branch offices, or even hosted applications requiring file access whose traffic travels over larger wide-area networks or the Internet.

Offline enhancements

The beta includes some welcome improvements to offline files, including an awareness of employees' increasingly mobile lifestyles. For one, users can be designated as always offline, so that files are automatically cached to them and all work local to the user is done from that cache. The cache's updates are then filtered back to the host server or share (or distributed file system configuration) every two hours.

One caveat: The Previous Versions feature, which allows you to recover an earlier version of a document saved via shadow copies, is only available when the connection to the server hosting those shadow copies is live. I was able to make a user in my environment permanently offline by enabling the "Remove 'Work Offline' command" GPO; when I logged on as that user on a Windows 8 client machine, I was not able to remove myself from offline status. Things worked as expected from there.

The operating system understands the type of connection being used; if it's able to detect that expensive 3G and 4G cellular connections are active, it will cease the synchronization process until a cheaper connection is available.

The operating system also will include the ability for Offline Files synchronization to understand the type of connection being used; if it's able to detect that expensive 3G and 4G cellular connections are active, it will cease the synchronization process until a cheaper connection is available. (I wasn't able to test this feature.) This setting is available through Group Policy.

ReFS, the resilient file system

Microsoft made headlines in early 2012 by announcing its new Resilient File System, or ReFS. ReFS is designed as an evolution of NTFS with a focus on availability and integrity. ReFS writes to different locations on disk in an atomic, or transactional, fashion, improving data resiliency in the event of a power failure during a write.

For example, if a write operation was being committed and the electric power went out, writing in an atomic fashion would mean the write completes fully and no old data -- the data being overwritten -- would be left intact after the write. If you were to write to a disk non-atomically, during the power failure it's possible for the newly written data to be mixed, or overlaid, with the old data and the who thing ends up being just garbage.

ReFS also includes the new "integrity streams" feature that uses checksums and real-time allocations to protect the sequencing and access of both system and user data.

Problems that are identified by Windows Server 8 on volumes protected with these features can be automatically repaired without bringing the disk or volume offline in most cases, and in many cases without any administrative intervention, either.

ReFS is also built to scale further than NTFS as well, an important point in the age of Big Data and private cloud operations. According to Microsoft, ReFS is designed to support volume sizes up to 2^78 bytes -- or 256 zettabytes -- using 16KB cluster sizes, while Windows stack addressing allows 2^64 bytes or 16 exabytes.

The point here is that ReFS scales to all practically known storage sizes and then same. (For example, Seagate sold a total of 330 exabytes of hard disk space in 2011.)

ReFS will be available only in Windows Server 8, not in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview or in the final release of Windows 8 on the client side.

Drawing a conclusion

At the time of the first technical preview of Windows Server 8 back in September 2011, I was very optimistic. The capabilities that were slated for inclusion in the release were outstanding and really changed the game for Windows administrators.

With this beta, a lot of that potential now is in the box and working -- with some warts, as you'd expect from beta software. All of that will get worked out as the teams work together toward final release.

Overall, though, I'm kind of surprised at some of the design decisions that have gone into the user experience for this server OS. Specifically, I don't agree at all with the Metro UI being default with Windows Server 8. It's a great design language and it enables some really useful scenarios for managing via the standard administration tools like Server Manager, but as a desktop metaphor, I think it's not useful to change the paradigm so many server admins expect.

In many places, the OS feels like a mixture of Windows 7 , Windows Server 2008 R2 and some Windows 8 Metro preview bits, and it just doesn't feel cohesive.

To my mind, it doesn't add value. In many places, the OS feels like a mixture of Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and some Windows 8 Metro preview bits. It doesn't feel cohesive, and on quite a few screens in particular, it's just plain ugly.

At this stage in the game, I think you have to consider Windows Server 8 in two respects. As a platform of capabilities and technical advancements, it's superb. But from an overall user experience and design point of view, particularly for traditional, dyed-in-the-wool Windows administrators, it's jarring.

I'll reserve total judgment for the final release, but let's hope Microsoft takes a few steps back and considers that what's best for servers and data centers isn't always shiny new objects like they're giving the client.

Microsoft's key to success: solid technical advances delivered simply and effectively. The right ingredients are here, but how good of a soup they end up making is something we will all have to wait to see.

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

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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