Windows Server 2008 R2 offers numerous improvements that should make life easier for a lot of admins. Brien Posey runs down the key features.

Windows Server 2008 R2 brings some powerful tools and features that may be good news for your budget, your service levels, and the flexibility of your IT department. Here are some of the most significant changes and enhancements.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Better support for the latest server hardware

Windows Server 2008 R2 is the first version of Windows Server to completely abandon the 32-bit architecture. Along with the move to a 64-bit only architecture, Microsoft has designed Windows Server 2008 R2 to support up to 256 logical processors. Similarly, Microsoft has redesigned Hyper-V so that it can support up to 32 logical processors. The original version of Hyper-V was limited to using 16 logical processors.

Windows Server 2008 R2 has also been designed to manage memory better than its predecessor did. Microsoft has accomplished this by providing support for the enhanced page tables features found in the latest processors. Specifically, this means that Windows now supports Second Level Translation (AMD) and Nested Page Tables (Intel).

2: Improved power management

These days, everyone is on a budget, and one way of improving the bottom line is to reduce your organization’s electric bill. Windows Server 2008 R2 makes this possible in a couple of ways. First, there are some new group policy settings that allow for more granular power management on computers that are running Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2.

More important, Windows Server 2008 R2 can manage a computer’s power consumption at the logical CPU core level. This means that logical CPU cores that are being underutilized can be dynamically put to sleep until they are needed, thereby decreasing the server’s overall power consumption.

3: IIS 7.5

Windows Server 2008 R2 includes the latest edition of Internet Information Services (IIS). While IIS 7.5 isn’t an earth-shattering release, it does have some nice new security features. For instance, URLscan 3.0 — renamed Request Filter Module — has been included in IIS. Microsoft has also provided IIS with its own dedicated copy of the Best Practices Analyzer.

4: PowerShell 2.0

Windows Server 2008 R2 has been bundled with PowerShell 2.0. This new version of PowerShell, which can also be downloaded for the original Windows Server 2008, offers a couple of hundred new prebuilt cmdlets.

The ironic thing about PowerShell 2.0 is that even though it’s a command-line environment, Microsoft offers a GUI interface you can use for developing new cmdlets. This interface provides various debugging and testing tools, in addition to syntax highlighting.

5: Direct Access

Anyone who has ever had to support remote users knows what a hassle it can be, and yet today almost everyone expects to be able to work remotely. Thankfully, Microsoft has simplified the process by adopting a new remote access philosophy. In Windows Server 2008 R2, there is no longer a distinction between a local connection and a remote connection. Essentially, all connections are treated the same, and Windows handles the logistics behind the scenes. The feature that makes this possible is known as Direct Access.

6: Virtual Desktop Integration

The Terminal Services feature has been available in Windows Server for many years now, but Windows Server 2008 R2 offers an enhanced Virtual Desktop Integration (VDI). There are two main advantages to this. First, hosted applications now appear on the Start menu, alongside applications that are installed locally. A user would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a local and a hosted application. The second advantage is that graphics functions (and some other I/O functions, such as keyboard and mouse) are now handled by the user’s desktop. This means that each session consumes fewer server resources, thus allowing those resources to be used more efficiently.

7: Branch Cache

One of the best new features in Windows Server 2008 R2 is called Branch Cache. The idea behind this feature is that users who work in branch offices must often access files that are stored on remote file servers. These files must traverse the WAN link each time they’re accessed. Since many organizations have to pay for the WAN bandwidth they use, remote file access can become expensive.

The Branch Cache feature caches files on a local server. That way, files do not have to be remotely accessed unless the file has changed since the cached copy was last updated. This can help reduce the cost of bandwidth, and it can improve performance for the users of the branch office, since many file read operations will now occur locally. Even remote file reads should be more efficient because the WAN link is less congested.

8: Windows Server Backup

Most large organizations have traditionally relied on third-party backup applications. However, many smaller organizations have been stuck using Windows Server Backup (previously known as NTBACKUP). When Microsoft released the first version of Windows Server 2008, it made the decision to completely rebuild Windows Server Backup. Unfortunately, the end result was less than stellar. In R2, Microsoft has done a lot of work to Windows Server Backup to make up for the shortcomings.

9: The Best Practices Analyzer

Earlier, I mentioned that IIS now has its own dedicated copy of the Best Practices Analyzer —  and it seems as though the Best Practices Analyzer has finally come of age. Microsoft has extended it so that it can now analyze each of the available server roles.

10: Hyper-V

I already noted that Hyper-V has been redesigned to take advantage of up to 32 logical processors, but there are other notable improvements as well. The one that has received the most press is a feature called Live Migration, which allows you to move virtual machines between hosts with no downtime. A lesser known, but equally impressive new feature is the ability to add a virtual hard drive to a virtual machine without having to reboot the virtual machine.

Check out 10 Things… the newsletter

Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic’s 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.