Microsoft targets virtualization with Windows 8/Windows Server combo

Tight integration of desktop/server OS with Hyper-V and Active Directory gives Microsoft a leg up on competitors

Much of the attention being paid to this week's Windows 8 launch focuses on the new Metro-style interface and the fact that Microsoft is extending its desktop OS to tablets and smartphones. But for enterprises, the real story is the way Microsoft has integrated Windows 8, Windows Server 2012 and the Hyper-V hypervisor to create an unmatched system for running virtualized environments.

9 things enterprise IT will like about Windows 8

Combined, Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 represent the biggest changes we've seen from Microsoft in a decade, with the company training its guns on virtualized Linux vendors such as Red Hat, as well as hypervisor market leader VMware.

Both Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 sport the new Metro-style GUI, but we found that it's not as radical a change as has been reported. Indeed the bemoaned missing "Start" button and menus already have a dozen replacements being offered freely (or almost freely). If you know about Windows 7 or Windows Server, the menu makeovers are rapidly obvious, we found.

Although we have some minor reservations about Windows Server, both philosophically and in practice, we found the Windows Server/Windows 8 Enterprise combination to be far ahead of its peers for large enterprise deployments and management. And that's not even counting the additional management functionality available from Microsoft System Center 2012.

Inside the Windows Server 2012 platform is a shift towards the kind of programmability first envisioned by Bill Gates when he declared that Windows would run on BASIC as a programming environment. That was an allusion towards the Visual BASIC scripting that became popularized in inter-application/platform custom coding efforts.

These efforts allowed organizations to integrate custom code with Microsoft Office apps, and web development efforts then became centered around Microsoft SharePoint services. While these "departmental" and populist development efforts continue, Microsoft has now evolved its PowerShell "cmdlets" in a way that both mimics scripting and inter-platform communications, but in vastly more powerful ways.

The goal is to give the Windows platform as much potential for programmability and customization as Linux distributions.

Windows 8 Enterprise

Pre-release criticisms have focused around a number of changes that appear to alter the character of Windows-as-we-know-it. We don't think so. Windows 8 has a new user-interface, but the changes are no more radical than those we've seen from Apple, Canonical, and others. Microsoft is trying to get unstuck from the success of Windows XP; and the new user interface -- once apps are built -- might just do it.

There are more differences than limitations, and there are just three different versions of Windows 8 to choose from, Home, Professional, and Enterprise. Each edition gradient has differing feature sets, and Enterprise is differentiated by its ability to be activated via Windows 2012 Key Management Services that can dole activation keys as needed.

Professional/Enterprise can be considered the analog to Windows 7 Ultimate; these replace up to nine different versions in Windows 7.

You get the Hyper-V hypervisor in Professional/Enterprise (we'll call it W8E) that's the same version shipped with Windows 2012 Server, and it replaces Windows Vista/Windows 7 Virtual PC to serve as a bare metal-type hypervisor.

Ostensibly, it's used to run a prior version that you upgraded from, like Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7. You can have your old apps in other ways, too. You can host Windows 8 instances as VMs on Windows 2012 Hyper-V, VMware, or other hypervisors, too.

Microsoft's application virtualizer, App-V, has been upgraded and now has a physical-to-virtual feature, although we didn't test it. App-V V5 allows, like prior versions, a Remote FX-based GUI connection to an application that's executing someplace else. It appears as though the application launching, manipulation, and execution are happening locally, but these are actually communication broker stubs that link to the application on a server somewhere else.

Windows 8

Installation and Options

Microsoft Windows 8 wants to own the master boot record (MBR) on a system's hard drive, which some have objected to, but solutions that allow an alternate boot have already become available. The controversy regarding whether to prevent boot-sector virus vectors through the use of a UEFI secure boot (a BIOS replacement scheme) initially riled people who like to host concurrent operating system or disk partition instances. And we found that Windows 8 at installation, indeed grabs and will not eagerly let go the disk master boot, securing it, and making it very difficult to place other operating systems on it.

Disk security methods already in place will be removed on installation, unless Windows 8 plainly refuses to use the disk because it can't partition it. We applaud Microsoft's attempts at boot security, and don't have the qualms that others find when a vendor tries to secure a system. Yes, it makes it a hassle to have other operating systems on the same system -- that's what virtual machines and workarounds are for. The security trade-off, we feel is worth it and is only small discomfort for hackers -- who have already suggested clever workarounds.

See how we conducted our test.

We ran into one case where a pre-release version of Windows 8 wouldn't install without removing older partitions, but all upgrades we tried from Windows 7 to Windows 8 worked flawlessly and without complaint or annoyance. Microsoft suggests that anywhere Windows 7 works, Windows 8 should install; the only limitations we've heard anecdotally are where drivers for advanced displays just aren't available yet; we didn't run into this problem in 11 installations.

The Windows 2012 Key Management Service allows instances of W8E to be installed, grabbing an activation key when initially installed. This works with Windows 7, too. The operating system payloads can also be modified to deploy both Microsoft and third-party software for automated updates, although Microsoft's System Center 2012: Configuration Manager handles this chore with better finesse than manual payload management.

Windows 8 opens with the Windows 8 UI (formerly known as Metro), which is also found on Windows Server 2012, Windows RT and Windows Mobile 7.5+. This cross-platform UI ideal has also been championed by Apple with iOS (even MacOS devices are starting to look like iOS), Canonical with Unity on Ubuntu (desktop, server, tablet, and beta smartphones), and is desirable as the proliferation of personal device learning curves and seeming inter-device family incompatibilities arise.

The UI isn't tough to maneuver at all, we found. A fast mouse-movement to the right of the main UI reveals options to change settings, and otherwise move around. Behavior of applications already installed shouldn't change. But there's a rub.

Windows 8 FAQ

11 free Microsoft tools

There are apps currently compatible with Windows 7, and those should run OK. Apps that use the new Windows 8 UI are called Windows 8 apps, and can be obtained (ostensibly) only from the Microsoft Store. The store is currently starting to fill, but by no means has the quantity found in Apple, Google or Amazon app stores. The regimen used to vet applications in the store is also still largely unknown.

Other items we tested include: the Windows 8 User State Migration Tool, which allows user settings to be migrated to a new machine (similar to the older, Windows 7 version); Windows To Go, which makes a bootable (think USB Flash Drive or other externally connected drive) instance, system hardware-permitting; and we played with making customizable Windows 8 P/E images for distribution purposes.

By combining these tools, coupled to server-based key management tools, deploying Windows has been made almost as simple as an online Linux distro. It's still Windows, and uses a hallowed convention for file placement and licensing, but we found it easier than Windows 7 at image customizing.

Likes/Dislikes

The Windows 8 UI takes just a moment to understand; it's not quite an intelligence test. On our Lenovo T520 tablets -- on the same hardware -- Windows 8 boots in 16 seconds to usability in a fresh installation vs. Windows 7 (with updates) at 27 seconds. We could detect no real disk speed changes, but the UI is fast and has a "snappy" feel when we changed screens, or popped back to the Windows 8 UI with the Windows key on the Lenovos.

We were mystified that sleep, hibernate, and other control options were absent from the Windows 8 UI choices. These worked, but we like to choose them ourselves sometimes, rather than close the lid on our notebooks, or shutdown via hibernate switches on our desktop machine, but these are small grievances.

This is the first Microsoft client OS that hasn't been directly compared with Apple's MacOS in ages. With Windows 8, Microsoft deviates from the course of evolving their UI into stratifying their UI across the platform segments that it supports.

Windows 8 isn't quite as radical as Windows Server 2012, but the unified UI strategy is a departure from UI and iterative functionality improvements. Windows 8 is more distributable, more easily secured, and works hard to retain an enterprise presence. Old software works, new software installed without issue if it works with Windows 7. What's for sale here is cross-device unified behavior atop the gains made by Windows 7.

We still fear a dot-zero release, but with as much advance pounding as this release has seen -- it was in general beta for a year prior to our ability to obtain RTM code -- it seems (dare we say it?) safer.

Windows Server 2012 (Standard and Data Center)

Microsoft's plentiful work in 2012 was spent towards making Hyper-V more competitive with features of other virtual machine and cloud services vendors, but also in out-featuring its competition in management and enterprise-focused control-plane capabilities.

You don't have to deploy all of the options to get just traditional file-and-print, Active Directory Controls, and MS Exchange going -- the most popular basic combination.

What Microsoft has added is the ability to get to those extra features rapidly and with rational procedures for civilians, or modifiable-then-deployable payloads for larger organizations that must distribute customized server payloads. And it's all 64-bit, even 32-bit in-place upgrades aren't possible. Microsoft's website offers extensive detail on upgrade paths from current versions of Windows 2008.

There are two forms of the Windows Server 2012 -- "Standard" and "Data Center"; both can be optionally run over Hyper-V. Two user-limited versions, Windows 2012 Essentials (25 users, 50 devices, one server) and Windows Server 2012 Foundation (up to 15 users, but without Essentials application features that are much like Windows 2008 Small Business Server/SBS) are available but aren't covered in this review.

Each Windows Standard/Server license covers just two physical processors, which we found comparatively limiting, although somewhat inline with hypervisor competitor VMware -- where you'll pay for the hypervisor license and in addition, the Windows license. Standard edition allows two VMs; licenses can be stacked up to eight VMs for two licenses on the same server. Data Center licenses are essentially unlimited, subject to the two physical processor rule. CAL (Client Access Licenses) are roughly the same as before, and Remote Access (VDI) sessions also require additional-cost licensing support in many cases.

Installation

We could also choose to install in a GUI- or GUI-less version, "Server Core". Windows 2012 as an operating system on media, can be mounted, added-to, or modified within constraints for either the full-installation, or a sparse one, prior to installation. Although we couldn't find directions regarding putting the operating system on a diet, we know that the payload can be reduced dramatically. A lighter payload makes it non-standard for purposes of later adding software, but for organizations seeking sparse instances to virtualize -- it can be done.

In the Server Core installation, the initial server payload can be pre-configured to wake-up the first time and find resources as a package, or can be rapidly and subsequently built through the use of additional PowerShell commands (in the form of text-based scripts) to get the server initially configured. If you haven't preconfigured anything, you're dropped to a CMD box at the end of the Server Core installation, and will subsequently run administration and modification of that server from a different machine, or through the use of PowerShell cmdlets -- perhaps a favored set of scripts completes the provisioning process for the server.

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