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Reviewer Jonathan Hassell takes you through the highlights, and some lowlights, of the newly available Microsoft operating system.
The final build of WS2012
As of Sept. 4, Windows Server 2012 officially went up for sale. It was finalized and the gold master build produced in August.
A lot has changed from Windows Server 2008 R2 -- there are many new features and modifications to the user interface, and it represents a different way of working with Windows on the server. Microsoft has done a lot to bring Windows Server into the cloud age and to make it easier to for IT to support working anywhere and everywhere, without a loss of service or quality. It's also melded Windows 8 experiences into the OS in some questionable and strange ways.
In this photo gallery, we'll take you through the most significant changes visually.
Server Manager’s new look and feel
Server Manager has been completely rewritten and redesigned to allow for managing multiple machines across your organization, rolling up common tasks and status updates into a single window. You can add multiple machines into server groups, and these groups get their own tile on the front page of the Server Manager utility.
Here, I've added several servers on one domain to Server Manager and they've populated in the All Servers group. I get status reports in the top pane about all servers in this group and, in the bottom, Event Viewer messages appear from each server in the group. These are logs; services and apps send messages about their activities and errors to the Event Viewer utility.
Turning the GUI on and off with a checkbox
The emphasis for Windows Server has changed from a GUI-first philosophy to a GUI-optional mindset. Once you install a core version of Windows Server 2012, you can flip on a GUI simply by installing the GUI role, and you can then opt to take it off without a full reinstall via the Remove Roles and Features Wizard, as shown here.
Just untick the Server Graphical Shell feature, do a restart and you're done. This way, you can use the GUI to take care of all of the mundane configuration tasks that are easier with a full experience, but when the machine is ready for production, you can flip the GUI off and deploy, reducing the attack surface, resource load, energy requirements and more.
The Start screen -- a questionable part of Windows Server 2012
If you're like many admins, you'll probably want to get rid of the GUI as soon as you can, because the newly redesigned Start screen has made it from Windows 8 desktops and mobile devices over to the server. The same shortcuts apply -- just start typing once you’re in this screen for a list of apps, settings or files, and the Windows key plus D on your keyboard gets you out to the familiar desktop.
The Start screen adds nothing useful to Windows Server, and in fact I find it gets in the way while doing routine administration. But luckily you can minimize the amount of time you spend interacting with this inappropriate UI.
The new DirectAccess wizard-based setup
In the past, DirectAccess was a beast to deploy and configure. You needed a lot of competence with IPv6, or you had to deploy special software to get the setup working correctly. It also only worked with Windows 7 clients, so when Windows Server 2008 R2 came out, the payoff was limited.
In Windows Server 2012, the wizard to set up DirectAccess has been vastly simplified: this is the only screen required to set up DirectAccess on a machine with a single network adapter behind a firewall or other edge device. (The screen after this one is just a confirmation.) The wizard takes care of setting up Group Policy objects, configuring the certificates required, registering the necessary items in your organization’s DNS and other tasks.
The Resilient File System (ReFS) and fault tolerance
Microsoft has planted a new file system, called ReFS, into Windows Server 2012.
The software giant claims that ReFS is more fault tolerant and supports much larger volume sizes than does its older brother, the NT File System (NTFS). ReFS writes data to separate parts of a disk before overwriting a file, for example, protecting against data loss in the event those file transactions get interrupted. It also intercepts corruption as it happens, rather than -- as with NTFS -- requiring the administrator to take the corrupted volume offline.
ReFS doesn't work on boot volumes or thumb drives or other removable media, and you can't go from NTFS to ReFS; you have to reformat. Still, a more fault tolerant file system is a welcome improvement.
Fast, resource-efficient copies with Windows Offloaded Data Transfer
Windows Offloaded Data Transfer, or ODX for short, basically takes the guts of a file copy process and offloads it to the intelligent hardware inside an enterprise storage array. It lets the array transfer the data from one part of a storage volume to another.
This frees up disk space, network bandwidth and CPU utilization on the host server for tasks that it alone can accomplish. This is very useful when, for example, importing large files like virtual machines and their associated virtual hard disk (VHD) files, and exporting the same to shared storage. Your array has to be certified with ODX and you need to be using iSCSI, SAS or Fibre Channel connection protocols to allow fast transfers across arrays.
Improved PowerShell Management support -- now with more Cmdlets
Windows Server 2012 is a command-line first, GUI-second style of operating system. Indeed, the Server Core installation option is the preferred way of operating with this new version.
As you might expect, that means a significant increase in the surface area of the OS that PowerShell, Microsoft's command-style scripting environment, can manage. Indeed, a simple count as shown in this slide shows 1,317 cmdlets installed out of the box.
As long as WinRM, the remote management framework, is installed and any host-based firewalls are configured correctly, you can use PowerShell to do anything on remote servers -- Unix style, like SSH and bash. Finally, good command-line management of servers locally and remotely has arrived in Windows.
Storage pools and storage spaces create more visible disk space
Storage spaces and storage pools are new features to Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8. They allow you to abstract away the boundaries of physical disks and create pools of available, visible disk space that combine the capacities of various volumes.
Say you have a bunch of disks of varying sizes available on a server. You can create a storage pool that combines, for example, a 1TB disk, a 320GB disk and a 500GB external drive. You can then have all this storage represented both to the OS and therefore to users as a single volume. It can even be fault tolerant to an extent, as you can create striping pools.
The New Storage Pool Wizard helps you sort out the configuration and get a pool running.
Data deduplication saves space and reduces data clutter
New data deduplication technology can, in some cases, achieve a deduplication rate of over 70% on data already stored on your volumes. This technology is transparent to the user and is turned on essentially with a couple of checkboxes within the File and Storage Services part of Server Manager, as shown here. (It won't work on encrypted volumes.)
It's great for archived material, build and software images, and aged files that often have a lot of duplicate content. And there isn't a huge hit to performance, either, with just about 10% reduction in the number of active connections that can be serviced when deduplication is enabled, according to Microsoft. A tool, DDPEval.exe, tells you how much space you could recover before you turn deduplication on.
VHDs, apps and database files that behave on SMB shares
In Server Manager, once a file server role has been installed, you can quickly create shares where virtual hard disk (VHD) files, databases and software applications will live comfortably. Letting these types of interactive, oft-updated file types reside on network shares drastically reduces the cost associated with running applications on network shared storage, and is a big win for branch offices and smaller shops with limited resources.
If you've tried to run a virtual machine off a network share before, you know it was slow, cumbersome and prone to failure. And databases on a share suffered from file-locking problems and other issues. In the past, you had to put these files on direct-attached storage or fast storage area network hardware that was also expensive.
A decent IP address management solution in the box
Incorporated into Windows Server 2012 you'll find a complete IP address-management suite. With it, you can allocate, group, issue, lease and renew IP addresses in an organized fashion. You can also integrate with the in-box DHCP and DNS servers to discover and manage devices already on your network.
It's a little bit clunky to get it set up -- you have to do some things in the wizard, like deciding how manual or automatic your network device discovery will be, using PowerShell cmdlets to actually set up Group Policy objects, making sure everything replicates and then managing firewall exceptions.
Even with all these steps, however, it's a good upgrade from the manual and non-extensible spreadsheets most businesses use.
Hyper-V replica, failovers and fault-tolerant virtual machines
The Hyper-V Replica feature allows you to replicate a virtual machine from one location to another with Hyper-V and a network connection -- without any shared storage required. This is a big deal for disaster recovery, high availability and more.
Within Hyper-V Manager, you can set up replication partners, replicate VMs, plan and execute failovers (as shown in this slide) for patch management and/or system administration purchases, then reverse the replication to bring things back. You can also manage the unplanned failover process and ensure the process is handled smoothly. The new cluster-aware updating (CAU) feature in Windows Server 2012 will orchestrate the failover and migration of clustered virtual machines to assure no downtime when Windows Update patches are applied.
Better CPU throttling for heavily loaded websites in IIS 8
The Windows Web server, IIS, has been improved for operating at large scales in Server 2012. One of the key enhancements here is better CPU throttling based on the actual worker processes that execute actions on a website.
The new options, which you can set through IIS Manager, allow an administrator to set a limit on CPU usage in high-load situations, but enforce no limits when there is enough spare CPU capacity to give IIS what it wants above the limit. IIS hooks in directly with the Windows kernel to adjudicate the use of CPU resources. In IIS 7, all you could do was kill the worker process if limits were exceeded, but these throttling options allow more graceful degradations of service under heavy loads.
Dynamic Access Control and Access-Denied Assistance
Windows' all-new Dynamic Access Control system helps control access to data on file servers more granularly than access control lists typically allow. Part of the new system is the Access-Denied Assistance feature, which allows you to proactively help users who try to access a folder for which they have no permissions.
You can customize the error message that is given (as shown in the slide). Users can request assistance directly from within the error message by configuring an email that will be sent to both the folder's owner and the administrator, with pertinent information that makes it very easy to grant permissions for legitimate requests.
This saves help desk calls and allows users to self-remediate while making sure access is still tightly controlled.
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