10 great new features in Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V

From next-generation Windows VMs to better Linux support, there’s something for everyone in the next version of Microsoft’s virtualization platform

Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V highlights

Microsoft has traditionally put out point releases to its server operating systems about every two years; Windows Server 2012 R2 will ostensibly show up just over a year after the initial release. Logic would suggest that such a short release cycle would contain little in the way of new capabilities, but in this case, logic has been defied, as the R2 release delivers a significant number of both new and improved features. Hyper-V is just one of the areas with rich improvements. We hit on ten of the best new features in this slideshow. Rumor has it that you’ll be able to check out these features yourself in a beta release coming June 26.

Gen2 VMs

The basic architecture of the virtual machine has not changed in a very long time. Because operating systems were built to operate physical devices, all VMs emulate broadly supported hardware, such as a specific NIC card or IDE disk controller. Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 R2 supports the concept of a totally new architecture based on modern hardware with no emulated devices. This makes it possible to do a number of new things, such as secure boot for VMs and to boot off of virtual SCSI or virtual network adapters. The catch is that guest support is limited to 64-bit versions of Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012.

VM Direct Connect

Connecting to a running VM over RDP requires an active network connection, something you can’t always count on. In addition to an active network connection, the VM must have an IP address reachable by the system attempting to connect, a requirement with potential management and security issues depending on the environment in which you're running. All this changes in Windows Server 2012 R2 and Hyper-V with the addition of VM Direct Connect. This feature allows a direct remote desktop connection to any running VM over what's now called the VM bus. It's also integrated into the Hyper-V management experience.

Extend replication to a third site

Hyper-V Replica in Windows Server 2012 is currently limited to a single replication target. This makes it difficult to support scenarios like a service provider wanting to act both as a target for a customer to replicate and a source to replicate to another offsite facility. Windows Server 2012 R2 and Hyper-V now provide a tertiary replication capability to support just such a scenario. By the same token, enterprises can now save one replica in-house and push a second replica off-site.

Replica frequency options

Hyper-V Replica in Windows Server 2012 provides a fixed replication interval of 5 minutes. This means you can't replicate any faster, even if you have the hardware to support it. Nor can you replicate any slower, even if you don’t need such frequent copies. Two new options have been added in the Windows Server 2012 R2 release to support more frequent (30 second) and not so frequent (15 minutes) replication. This will even support an intermittent connection. By default, Hyper-V Replica will look for 12 missed cycles before it switches into a failed state. With the 15 minute cycle, that buys you up to 3 hours of network downtime. 

Compression for faster migration

There are two new options in Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V to help improve the performance of live migrations. The first (and the new default) is the ability to enable compression on the data to reduce the total number of bytes transmitted over the wire. The obvious caveat is that tapping CPU resources for data compression could potentially impact other operations, so you'll need to take that into consideration. The second option, SMB Direct, requires network adapters that support RDMA. Microsoft’s advice: If you have 10Gb available, use RDMA (10x improvement); otherwise, use compression (2x improvement). 

Online VM exporting and cloning

One of the downsides of Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 is the need to stop a running VM before you can export or clone it. In production environments, this is simply not an option. Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V removes this restriction. It’s now possible to export or clone a running VM from System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 R2 with a few mouse clicks. As with pretty much anything related to managing Windows Server 2012, you can accomplish the same task using Windows PowerShell.

Online VHDX resizing

In Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V, it is not possible to resize a virtual hard disk attached to a running VM. Windows Server 2012 R2 removes this restriction, making it possible to not only expand but even reduce the size of the virtual disk (VHDX format only) without stopping the running VM. What you can’t do with this feature is compress an online VHD. You can make these adjustments from System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 R2, Hyper-V Manager, or from the command line using PowerShell. As a protection measure, you won’t be able to reduce the disk size below a certain percentage of the current allocated amount.

Storage QoS

Windows Server 2012 R2 includes the ability to limit individual VMs to a specific level of I/O throughput. In the screenshot at left, you can see the two settings for minimum and maximum IOPS. In the initial release of Windows Server 2012 R2, the only number that really makes a difference is the maximum limit. The IOPS are measured by monitoring the actual disk rate to and from the attached virtual hard drives. If you have applications capable of consuming large amounts of I/O, you’ll want to consider this setting to ensure that a single I/O-hungry VM won’t starve neighbor VMs or take down the entire host.

Dynamic Memory support for Linux

Microsoft continues to improve support for Linux VMs. In the Windows Server 2012 R2 release, Hyper-V gains the ability to dynamically expand the amount of memory available to a running VM. This capability is especially handy for any Linux workload (notably Web servers) where the amount of memory needed by the VM changes over time. In environments with many Linux VMs, dynamic memory becomes even more critical to efficiently manage the total memory used by all running VMs. Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V also brings Windows Server backups to Linux guests.  

Shared VHDX

With Windows Server R2 Hyper-V, Windows guest clusters (think traditional Windows Server failover clustering but using a pair of VMs) no longer require an iSCSI or Fibre Channel SAN, but can be configured using commodity storage: namely a shared VHDX file stored on a Cluster Shared Volume. Note that while the clustered VMs can be live migrated as per usual, a live storage migration of the VHDX file requires one of the cluster nodes to be taken offline. 

See also: 

   • 7 ways Windows Server 2012 pays for itself
   • Virtualization showdown: Microsoft Hyper-V 2012 vs. VMware vSphere 5.1