First look: Windows Server Blue beta shows compelling improvements

Storage, virtualization, management and other improvements make Windows Server 2012 R2 a must-have.

There's a lot to like in Windows Server 2012 R2, but the key question centers around how Microsoft will handle licensing, our reviewer says. That alone might be the gating factor for the eventual success of this OS release.

During the TechEd conference earlier this month, Microsoft announced what it has been working on with its flagship server product and demonstrated a few of its new features. But there is a larger, more detailed story underneath those keynote sound bites and some things you discover only when you work directly with the code.

[ALSO: Microsoft talks about Windows Blue]

Late last Friday, I got my hands on a copy of the beta release for Windows Server Blue, which will be formally known as Windows Server 2012 R2 upon its release later this year, and I spent last weekend exploring the build. Here is a first look at the next version of Windows Server, which should be available as a preview today and, as Microsoft announced at TechEd, generally available by year-end.

The idea of the cloud OS

First, however, it is important to look at what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with this release. Microsoft has long been touting the idea of a cloud operating system; the company sees this as an operating system that pulls together all computing resources -- not just at an individual node level, but across the data center. A related goal is to expose in the same way the pieces that make everything run, no matter where they are physically located.

The overarching design goal for Windows Server 2012 R2, therefore, was to provide an operating system platform that basically lets entire data centers be managed just like individual computers -- which in turn allows the applications and tasks being run within those data centers to shift seamlessly between data centers.

Overall, Windows Server 2012 Release 2 has much to recommend it, our reviewer finds.

According to Microsoft, the goal is one consistent platform between a customer's own data centers, a service provider's private cloud and the public Windows Azure cloud service. The same operating system, Windows Server, should work everywhere in the same way with the same tools no matter where things are hosted.

The most explicit example of a feature designed to make one OS work on premises or in the cloud is the Windows Azure Pack for Windows Server. This takes the management portal and capabilities of the Windows Azure service and puts it into a nice, installable package on top of Windows Server 2012 R2.

With the Azure Pack living in on-premises data centers, you essentially create a private cloud, where users can create websites, virtual machines, SQL Server-based databases -- not MySQL yet -- Active Directory integration modules and more, all from a self-service web portal. Administrators can configure how resources are distributed and which users can ask for what services, and a powerful REST API opens the door for other applications and services to also request services from the private cloud in the same way they do from Windows Azure itself.

To achieve these goals, there is plenty going on under the hood in Windows Server 2012 R2.

Enhanced virtualization with Hyper-V

Hyper-V has been around for a while, but Microsoft shops in particular will surely find some of the improvements to the hypervisor technology compelling. Instead of just enhancing or tweaking the base functionality of the virtualization platform, Microsoft seems to be pushing the envelope in the virtualization industry with a couple of these new features.

Perhaps the most interesting development is what Microsoft calls "Generation 2 virtual machines." Most virtualization solutions on the market today emulate old pieces of hardware for true maximum compatibility, but they do so at a price of efficiency and performance.

Instead, Generation 2 VMs are newly designed to rid themselves of legacy components. They were created in acknowledgment of an era where virtualization is mainstream and operating systems are aware, and in some cases even prefer, being virtualized. This means no devices need to be emulated and the whole virtual machine can be based on the newer Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, and not on old BIOS.

Generation 2 virtual machines can boot off of virtual SCSI and network adapters and also support Secure Boot for maximum protection against malware injecting itself into the boot process.

This Generation 2 VM upgrade also allows for remote desktops to function even when a virtual machine is not connected to a network. The remote desktop protocol (RDP) session transits entirely over the "VMBus," which is simply the internal connections made between the hypervisor and the virtual machine itself.

This gives you out-of-band management, like a Dell DRAC card or an HP iLO device to manage real hardware independent of the hardware itself over an Internet connection. This was not possible in previous versions of Windows Server.

Other interesting virtualization-related improvements of note include:

- Virtual machines that run 2012 R2 and that were created on a Windows Server 2012 R2 Datacenter Edition host will automatically activate themselves with no user intervention. (The license for Windows Server 2012 R2 includes an unlimited number of guest virtual machines running Windows Server.) This saves hosters and other heavy virtualization users from having to build out an activation or key management server infrastructure just for their VMs. At the time of this writing, however, it is unclear how virtual machines activated in this manner can be migrated to hosts running a Standard Edition license, which has more restrictive guest license rights.

- There is complete compatibility between virtual machines on local, on-premises Hyper-V and VMs running on the Windows Azure Infrastructure-as-a-Service model. You can import and export the same VM into either environment and it works just fine, with no changes required. The only possible exceptions: Network settings may -- or may not, depending on whether you have Windows Azure VPN set up and configured -- differ.

- You can perform live migrations of virtual machines from Windows Server 2012 hosts to Windows Server 2012 R2 hosts and vice versa, despite the difference in versions, which means zero downtime.

Manageability

In Windows Server 2012 R2, the PowerShell command-line scripting language introduces a feature called Desired State Configuration, or DSC. It uses a declarative syntax to define a configuration for a server and then uses PowerShell remoting to apply that desired configuration to a group of servers all at once.

This automated configuration approach goes even further to attempt some repairs when configurations of individual servers drift from the original target. This is great for large farms of servers that all need to be identically configured. Without installing a management layer or other agents, you can initially deploy and then maintain the configuration of a platform of servers right from the command line, all with some easy scripting.

Storage improvements

One of the unheralded improvements in Windows Server 2012 was deduplication technology, which is essentially an algorithm that detects identical data on a drive and removes all but one copy of it to save space. It works very well and can result in real savings on your storage costs.

Windows Server 2012 R2 takes that one step further and now allows for deduplication of open VHD/VHDX files -- essentially, running virtual machines and virtual hard disk files. In addition to saving valuable space on hypervisors, deduplicated VMs actually boot faster than non-deduplicated machines booting off the same storage hardware and host. This is mainly because of caching in memory that is done with the initial re-pairing of deduplicated data with the un-deduplicated chunks.

With the new release, deduplication now works on VMs and virtual files that are open and running.

With deduplication in 2012 R2 enabled, my tests showed, you can gain space savings as high as 90% on VDI deployments with minimal impact on performance -- and in some cases (like booting) even realize an increase in performance. That is pretty impressive.

The R2 release also expands Storage Spaces, the feature introduced in Windows Server 2012 that allows large boxes of cheap, regular disks to scale inexpensively when compared to dedicated storage area network configurations. In R2, Storage Spaces can actively manage solid-state disks as members of a storage pool and tier frequently used documents and files on the SSDs for super-fast access. This happens while moving "colder," less frequently used files to cheaper spinning media.

The advantage is this lets you get much faster access to the most popular files, still using standard SSDs and HDDs, without having to invest in SANs costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can let Windows detect which files are most frequently used, or you as the administrator can "pin" certain files to the hot SSD tier to ensure they will always be present.

For the smaller business

Not forgotten is the small business cousin of the main Windows Server product, called 2012 R2 Essentials. Microsoft essentially killed off its past small business product, known as Small Business Server (SBS) Standard, in June 2012 and replaced it with a Windows Server variant that essentially wants to integrate with the cloud by default.

The current version sets up a simple Active Directory domain, lets you share files and back up client computers centrally, and then integrates in a very simple, non-detailed way with Office 365. Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials takes all of this a big step further, however.

The OS' beta ships with a separate file for Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, the server meant for small business, which has the Essentials role pre-configured and pre-installed.

Interestingly, the Windows Server 2012 beta ships with a separate ISO file for R2 Essentials, which is essentially (pun intended) the regular Server 2012 R2 product but with the Essentials role pre-configured and pre-installed. This will most likely be sold at a reduced price and be capped at 25 users. But if you purchase another, likely full-priced, SKU of Windows Server 2012 R2, you will be able to use Server Manager to enable this role to enable the unique features available under the Essentials umbrella and also increase the user limit to 200.

Most of those unique features in this release center around enabling integration scenarios with cloud service providers, but in a much deeper way than the initial release did. For instance, the Office 365 integration feature set is now built directly into the product rather than requiring a separate add-in. And it enables better control over user, group and contact synchronization between the local Active Directory data set and the Office 365 cloud infrastructure.

You can also back up your server directly to Windows Azure and, perhaps most interestingly, use the Azure Recovery Service to spin up a replica of your local machine in the cloud so that business continues to run in case of a disaster. In addition, the web-based remote access features of the product have all been rewritten to use HTML5 rather than Microsoft's proprietary (and moribund) Silverlight technology, and are all tablet, mobile and touch compatible for a better experience across a variety of devices.

Since Essentials is Server 2012 R2 underneath, you also get access to all of the new features in the regular versions of the operating system, without any of the strange limitations on configurations and supportability that plagued the previous Small Business Server product.

The last word

The Windows Server team at Microsoft has been largely immune from what have arguably been missteps and public relations foibles that have plagued many other Microsoft departments recently, and rightly so. Windows Server has always been a consistent product and over the last decade in particular has delivered clear, compelling value in each release.

That continues despite the shortened release cadence here. Meaningful improvements to storage, management, configurability and virtualization make this a release that on its merits is absolutely worth having.

The question is: What will the licensing look like to get your hands on it? Will it be a free update a la Windows 8.1 for currently licensed customers? (For what it is worth, I would find this outcome unlikely, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.) Will it be a reduced price update compared to previous dot releases? Or will it be treated as a fully new version of Windows Server that will be separately licensed?

Windows Server 2012 R2 has certainly won the technical superiority game, but only Microsoft can position its licensing to win the overall match as well.

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.

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This story, "First look: Windows Server Blue beta shows compelling improvements" was originally published by Computerworld.

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