Alongside Microsoft's Oct. 1 release of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, the company offered early previews of the next iteration of Windows Server and System Center. With final releases not expected until the summer of 2015, these extremely early technical previews are a marked departure from the norm for Microsoft. Far from being feature complete or even stable, the Windows Server Technical Preview nevertheless presents a way to become familiar with new features coming down the pike, and to put the UI changes through their paces.
As you'd expect, Windows Server Technical Preview largely builds on virtualization, storage, networking, and management capabilities introduced with Windows Server 2012. But it also holds a few nice surprises. Here is a quick tour of the highlights -- for now. We're sure to see much more in the coming months.
Start menu and the UI
Debate over the switch from the Windows 7 Start menu to the Start screen in Windows 8 has been nonstop since day one, but if the Start screen proved to be a bad fit for laptops and workstations, it makes even less sense for servers. Fortunately the new Start menu isn't limited to the Windows 10 client, but is also present in the Windows Server Technical Preview. While server users won't benefit much from Windows 8-style live tiles, the new Start menu (accessed by clicking the Windows button) is unobtrusive and familiar.
The other big changes in the UI are focused on multitasking. First is support for virtual desktops (not to be confused with remote desktops), which can be used to group like applications into separate desktop instances. The ability to snap windows to the edges of the screen is also enhanced in the technical preview. Instead of simply splitting the screen in half like in Windows 7 and Windows 8, you can split the screen into quarters. This feature is clearly more beneficial to desktop users (hopefully most of your server management isn't done from the console), but anything that makes an admin's workflow smoother and more efficient is welcome.
The command line and PowerShell
Thanks to PowerShell, more and more admins are driving their Windows servers from the command line. Microsoft is improving the experience there too. In current versions of Windows, selecting text or doing a simple copy and paste into the Windows command line is not only a pain, but can introduce line breaks, tabs, and inconsistent or unexpected characters. These inconsistencies are gone in the Windows Server Technical Preview. Now when you paste incompatible special characters such as slanted quotes into the command line, they are automatically cleaned up and converted into their command-line-safe equivalents.
Microsoft is aware that PowerShell is a major selling point of the Windows Server platform right now and is taking measures to ensure the whole experience is optimized and pain free. The Windows Server Technical Preview includes PowerShell 5, which is a significant release offering critical new features, as well as updates to features that have been around for a while. The biggest new feature in PowerShell 5 is OneGet, which brings package management capabilities to Windows.
Another major new area of improvement is the ability to manage network switches from within PowerShell, a nod to Microsoft's efforts to leverage automation throughout the data center. Other PowerShell enhancements include updates to Desired State Configuration and the ability to natively manage zip archive files.
Like the old Windows 7 Start menu, the new Start menu in Windows Server Technical Preview offers fast access to all apps and files.
Windows Defender, Microsoft's free antimalware solution, was originally licensed only for home use, then integrated into the OS with Windows 8. The Windows Server Technical Preview includes Windows Defender natively, though the UI element is optional. Many corporate customers will likely prefer an enterprise antimalware solution, but there are clear benefits to having Windows Defender enabled natively. Having antimalware protection from the get-go is a big deal, and the ability to manage it through PowerShell is another notable win for system administrators.
Without a doubt, one of Microsoft's most rapidly evolving platforms, Hyper-V continues to receive major attention in the Windows Server Technical Preview. The first new feature is the ability to perform a rolling upgrade to a Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V cluster, upgrading cluster nodes to the Windows Server Technical Preview one by one. Once all nodes have been updated, the functional level of the entire cluster can then be upgraded to support a number of new Hyper-V features.
For starters, virtual machines running on Windows Server Technical Preview use a new configuration file format. The new format promises to be both more efficient (when reading and writing the data) and safer, preventing data corruption due to storage failure. Checkpoints for point-in-time snapshots are now supported in production workloads, due to the use of backup technology within the guest OS. Windows-based virtual machines will use the Volume Snapshot Service, while Linux VMs flush their file system buffers during checkpoint creation.
Hyper-V Manager receives some love in the Windows Server Technical Preview, gaining the use of WS-MAN, and the ability to access a different set of credentials to connect to a remote host. Additionally, virtual network adapters and memory are now treated as hot-swap capable, so it's easier to perform critical VM changes on the fly. Finally, virtual machines hosted in the Windows Server Technical Preview now support Connected Standby.
Windows Server 2012 introduced Storage Spaces, a method of pooling physical storage devices (hard drives or SSDs) into logical volumes in order to boost performance and reliability. Windows Server 2012 R2 added automated tiering, with pools of SSDs being used for the most frequently accessed data and spinning hard drives for less frequently used data.
Two major features added in the Windows Server Technical Preview are aimed at common use cases for Windows Server-based storage. The first, Storage QoS (Quality of Service), leverages PowerShell and WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) to build policies managing prioritization and performance of virtual hard disks. The second, Storage Replica, brings block-level replication to Windows Server. Storage Replica provides high availability and can even be used to build multisite, fail-over clusters. Between Storage QoS and Storage Replica, the Windows Server Technical Preview shows Microsoft is serious about making Windows Server a viable option for all of your storage needs.
Windows Server 2012 introduced several new capabilities for building complex virtual networks and allowing clients to connect to their own isolated virtual network through the use of multitenant site-to-site VPN. This was pitched as a way for service providers to build their own cloud service on the Windows Server platform, but the configuration was complex and primarily handled within PowerShell. The Windows Server Technical Preview brings this functionality into a new server role called the Network Controller. The Network Controller role provides the ability to automate the configuration of networks both physical and virtual, as well as handle numerous other aspects of your networking environment.
Identity and access management
Possibly one of the more exciting features coming to the next version of Windows Server is more control over the permissions provided to users with elevated rights. Microsoft has not said much publicly about the additional level of security, only that time-based access and more fine-grained permissions will be available. However, one could speculate that this will be based on PowerShell's JEA (Just Enough Admin) feature set. JEA allows administrator access to be limited to specific PowerShell cmdlets, specific modules, or even certain parameters within a cmdlet.
Additionally, JEA is configured using a local administrator on the server, preventing network-level permissions from being cached on the server and potentially being used in a pass-the-hash attack. Regardless of how these features look and feel in the final product, they will be a welcome addition for IT shops.
In conjunction with Remote Desktop Services, MultiPoint Services support multiple users logging into the same computer. Rather than requiring a thin client or additional hardware, MultiPoint Service clients are connected directly to the server using standard USB and video devices. This functionality was originally shipped as Windows MultiPoint Server 2012, a product aimed at schools that allows a teacher to manage what is shown on student displays. Now it comes along for the ride in Windows Server Technical Preview.
An announced feature that is nowhere to be found in the current release of the technical preview, DNS Policies will presumably allow you to manage how and when your DNS server responds to client queries. Microsoft states that DNS responses can be configured based on time, the public IP of the DNS client performing the query, and other parameters. There are several scenarios in which this type of functionality could be useful, such as load balancing or custom responses based on geography. I imagine this having a similar feel to the policy-based DHCP functionality introduced in Windows Server 2012.
IP Address Management
IPAM (IP Address Management) was introduced in Windows Server 2012 as a way to monitor and manage DHCP and DNS services. The focus in both Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2 was clearly on DHCP and the IP address space. The Windows Server Technical Preview enhances existing functionality for DNS servers and your IP address space, but also allows you to manage DNS zones and resource records on both Active Directory-integrated and file-backed DNS servers.
Web Application Proxy
First appearing as a core Windows service in Windows Server 2012 R2, Web Application Proxy functions as a reverse proxy, allowing external clients to access Web applications internal to the corporate network. The Windows Server Technical Preview promises new capabilities in Web Application Proxy, including the ability to handle HTTP-to-HTTPS redirection and additional support for claims-based or integrated Windows authentication.
Windows Server next
Where is Windows Server Technical Preview taking us? Microsoft pitched Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2 as the basis for our private cloud. Major features introduced or substantially enhanced in Windows Server 2012 -- such as Hyper-V, Storage Spaces, IP Address Management, and multitenant site-to-site VPN -- were geared specifically to companies looking to gain efficiency through consolidation and automation.
The Windows Server Technical Preview is a clear progression of this vision, as most of the features enumerated here bring something new to the table when it comes to building and managing a hybrid or private cloud.