Microsoft takes off the gloves with Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1

Long list of updates answer criticisms and throw punches at virtualization, cloud foes

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Desktop/notebook users have now taken second seat to tablets in this upgrade, and some of the hoped for bridges to Windows 7-ish look-and-feel are missing as we found the 8.1 changes more easily demonstrated on tablets. However, mouse or touch sweeps are more customizable, although consistencies can be imposed in Group Policy. If you're looking for the familiar Start button, you'll still need to garner it from a third party app provider. Microsoft, like Apple and Google, would really prefer that you obtain Start Buttons and other third party applications from Microsoft's online store, which is far more filled with new, familiar, and diverse applications than when Windows 8.0 was released. You can still install from “unauthorized” sources if preferred or forbid that if you're draconian or simply worried about security.

Recent changes to 8.1 in terms of speed weren't dramatic, in our subjective analysis. Windows 8.1 uses Server Message Block V3/SMB3 features when connecting to Windows 2012+ network resources that allow several features, including SMB Encryption, SMB traffic aggregation for speed, and TPC “signing” for ostensibly trustable, ostensibly non-repudiating host and client relationships. We say ostensibly, as we're unsure of a comprehensive methodology to test these, and therefore, have not.

Overall

Microsoft has been very busy. Windows Server 2012 R2, while a strong operating system update, is perhaps more about Hyper-V V3 and Azure Pack, and represents a trend towards platform strengthening on Microsoft's part as platform flexibility starts to replace the operating system as the functional least common denominator for applications infrastructure. Towards these ends, Hyper-V now controls more of the network than the operating system, more of the storage connectivity and options then the operating system, and more of the application availability and administrative control nexus than ever before.

For its part, Windows 8.1 is now the client-side of the experiences rendered by web access, and client/cloud-based services, which become increasingly location-irrelevant where persistent connectivity is available. The Windows 8.1 release comes in fewer forms than Window 8.0, which comes in fewer forms than Windows 7. The shrinking forms betrays that the versions must now be synchronized across a wide variety of platforms, from traditional desktops and notebooks, to tablets, phones, and VDI/Desktop-as-a-Service platforms. More attention to this variety of user device in Windows 8.1 also includes attention paid to criticisms of the seemingly lurching change from former Windows UIs to the tiled interface of Windows 8.

Windows as a client is no longer like the old leaky Windows, but it's approachable in a more familiar way. Whether the 8.1 client changes can re-enamor disaffected users, and roll with new competitive punches, remains to be seen.

How We Tested Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1

For Windows Server 2012 R2, we tested the RTM version downloaded from the MSDN website. We deployed and tested the DataCenter version on both bare metal servers from HP (DL580G5, 16core, iSCSI, Dell (Compellent iSCSI SAN and older Dell servers), and Lenovo (ThinkServer 580 with 16 cores, 32GB) and various hypervisors. Windows 2012 R2 installed basic operations successfully atop VMware vSphere 5.1 and 5.5, Oracle VirtualBox 4.2, aforementioned Hyper-V V3, and Citrix XenServer 6.2, and we found much flexibility and a few servers that needed the aforementioned firmware upgrades for Hyper-V or 2012 R2.

Windows 8.1 was tested on a Microsoft Surface Pro, Lenovo T530 notebooks, and as virtual machines, upgrading from Windows 7 Professional and Windows 8.0 Enterprise versions, as well as fresh installs on UEFI the T530 notebooks hardware.

Testing was performed between the Lab (Gigabit Ethernet switched infrastructure) connected via Xfinity Broadband to our NOC at Expedient/nFrame in Indianapolis (Gigabit Ethernet switched infrastructure with 10GB links on Extreme Switches, connected via a GBE backbone to core routers, Compellent iSCSI SAN, with numerous hosts running VMware, XenServer, BSD, various flavors of Linux, Solaris, in turn connected to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft's Azure Cloud).

Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

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