Windows Server 2012 – so what’s the big news?

Microsoft has revamped its server management platform to help organisations tackle near-future challenges like managing a private cloud and BYOD, as well as making improvements to its bread-and-butter infrastructure management.

Just how has Microsoft done that?

For a start, Microsoft has overhauled the Hyper-V virtualisation engine used by Server 2012, adding features to make it simpler for organisations to pool the storage, compute and networking available within their IT estate so they can be served up to support applications as and when they are needed.

Give me an example…

For instance, the new version of Hyper-V supports network virtualisation, multi-tenancy, storage resource pools, cross-premise connectivity and cloud backup.

Each host machine can support 2,048 virtual CPUs in Server 2012, compared to 512 in Server 2008 R2. It now includes support for up to 64 processors and 1TB of memory for Hyper-V virtual machine guests. Microsoft has also added a VHDX virtual hard disk format, which has a capacity of up to 64TB and features designed to provide additional resilience.

As well as supporting more active virtual machines per host and increased cluster sizes, Server 2012 has improved resource sharing when managing available CPU, storage and network bandwidth.

Live migration of virtual machines, where the physical servers and storage used by a virtual machine are switched while it the VM is running, has also been revised. Multiple live VMs can now be migrated between Server 2012 Hyper-V hosts that share no physical resources.

Hyper-V Replica also provides a cost-effective disaster recovery feature, allowing multiple snapshots of VMs to be stored on the Replica server.

You mentioned private clouds?

Server 2012’s ability to virtualise the hardware and networking stack and support private clouds is boosted by Hyper-V’s support for software-defined networking (SDN).

SDN allow the rules governing how network infrastructure hardware, such as switches, route traffic to set from a centralised control server – giving the administrator greater control over what packets of information are prioritised or blocked, and helping manage traffic loads in a more efficient manner.

SDN support should allow for rapid reconfiguration of how networks behave, allowing for policy-based service deployment and for expensive proprietary network hardware to be replaced by commodity alternatives.

What about storage?

Server 2012 provides the ability to rapidly scale and migrate virtualised storage, allowing users to thinly provision virtual storage pools – where virtual storage is allocated only when it is needed by rather than up front.

The Storage Spaces feature will be a boon to small businesses who haven’t got the time or money to devote to setting up dedicated storage area networks.

Storage Spaces allows users to use inexpensive hard drives to create a storage pool, which can then be split into separate virtual discs. The feature brings high-end storage capabilities to the SMB, such as thin provisioning and redundancy methods like three way mirroring or parity.

The release also supports enterprise-class features, such as continuous availability – files and apps always being available – and de-duplicated storage – where duplicated data is cleaned up.

On top of that Server 2012 introduces a new file system, ReFS or the Resilient File System. The system is designed to be massively scalable, supporting up to 16 exabytes in practice. Unlike NTFS it doesn’t include file compression, EFS and disc quotas, but adds data verification and auto correction.

How does Server 2012 compare to the competition on virtualisation?

With virtualisation of servers, storage and networking being so important to the modern data centre, it is perhaps one of the key features that Microsoft has to get right with Server 2012.

Analyst house Ovum advises that while Microsoft may appear to offer the cheaper virtualisation option with Hyper-V, and it now has capabilities that almost rival VMware’s vSphere, vSphere remains more technically advanced.

Also while Microsoft might seem to offer a cheaper platform for virtualisation, the analyst house says the difference is not so clear once VM density and storage costs are taken into account.

What about BYOD?

Server 2012 also provides a simpler way to manage the plethora of different devices that today’s workforce use to connect to corporate networks.

Dynamic Access Control (DAC), which is managed using Active Directory, allows administrators to set detailed rules for who can and can’t access files or directories. Access can be restricted to certain groups or job roles, or limited based on whether a device supports Information Rights Management encryption tools.

For instance a policy could be set to say ‘If employee X is connecting to corporate network using a HTC Wildfire from a public wi-fi hotspot then they can’t copy files from the server’.

DAC works with existing Information Rights Management settings, giving administrators control over the level of access, for instance letting users view but not copy a file.

Microsoft has also overhauled DirectAccess, the feature that allows users to securely access the likes of email servers and shared folders without having to go through a VPN, so that it’s simpler to configure and use, and can traverse NAT firewalls more easily.

What about automation?

Automation through the platform is greatly expanded, with PowerShell – Microsoft’s scripting platform for Windows administration – able to be put to wider use than in Server 2008. Server 2012 supports some 2,400 Cmdlets, far more than 2008 – and a full set of Cmdlets for Hyper-V. There are also improved tools for editing PowerShell commands and copy and modifying scripts.

What else is new?

The Server Message Block (SMB) protocol has also had a overhaul from Server 2008. The new version of SMB supports new file server features, such as SMB transparent failover, SMB Scale Out, SMB Multichannel, SMB Direct, SMB encryption, VSS for SMB file sharing, SMB directory leasing, and SMB PowerShell.

What installations are available?

The two base installation types are Windows Full Server or Server Core. Full Server boots into the Windows desktop, and comes with a Windows-8 style touch-orientated, tiles-based Start menu. Server Core boots to a command line. However, in a change from its predecessors, Server 2012 allows both versions to swap between versions without having to do a fresh install, making it easier to use swap between a GUI and the command line.

How easy is server management?

For a graphical overview of the data centre estate there is the new Server Manager dashboard, which is accessible remotely via any Windows 8 device.

The dashboard gives administrators an overview of the servers being managed and their current state, as well as the services they support. Green means no problems detected while red indicates a potential problem that needs to be followed-up. Physical and virtual servers can be grouped by shared features or function, for instance to allow users to monitor all database servers. Server Manager also includes a new Windows 8 style tile-based UI.

The Windows Task Manager also has a new look. Running processes can be grouped by type and expanded for more information, while Microsoft has attempted to make utilisation easier to gauge at a glance by reflecting usage in the colour each process box is shaded. In addition CPU loads, memory usage and other resource consumption can be graphed. The Users tabs shows how much resource each connected user is consuming, while a services tab is also now included in Task Manager.

How painful is the upgrade process?

The upgrade process to Windows Server 2012 has been streamlined. When TechRepublic’s sister site Zdnet upgraded a server, including upgrading the Active Directory schema for a small-business network, from Server 2008 R2 to Server 2012 it took under an hour.

What versions are there?

There are four versions of Windows Server 2012 – Foundation, Essentials, Standard and Datacenter – aiming to cater for infrastructures ranging in size from small business to large corporate.

Foundation is a stripped-back server OS with no virtualisation support, while Essentials is a replacement for Windows Small Business Server Essentials. The Standard edition is designed for larger physical infrastructures with minimal virtualisation, while as the name suggests, Datacenter edition is designed for data centres, and can support highly virtualised private clouds. Both Datacenter and Standard support all features of Server 2012, they only differ on virtualisation rights.

The Standard and Datacenter editions went on sale on 4 September. Foundation edition is available installed on hardware and Essentials will go on sale by the end of this year.

What about licensing?

Each licence for Windows Server Foundation can be used by up to 15 users and Windows Server Essentials up to 25 users. The number of permitted Standard and Datacenter users is set by the number of relevant Client Access Licenses (CAL) an organisation holds.

Foundation and Essentials are licensed per server, and Standard and Datacenter per pair of processor chips.

Only two virtualised instances of the Standard edition are permitted to be run on the host machine, while each Datacenter licence allows an unlimited number of virtualised instances to be run.

There are many factors that influence pricing but Microsoft’s open no level estimated retail price is $4,809 for Datacenter, $882 for Standard and $501 for Essentials. As mentioned, Foundation is OEM only.

Any price hikes?

One bit of bad news is the price of users accessing services on servers running Server 2012 is due to rise. Microsoft recently confirmed that from December it will be increasing the amount charged for CALs, which give permission for users to access services on servers running Microsoft software.

Microsoft CALs come in two flavours, they are either licensed per device or per user. The price of user CALs will rise 15 per cent – according to Microsoft Large Account Reseller Softcat – while the cost of device CALs will stay the same.

Duncan Jones, principal analyst with Forrester Research, said that the price increase could lead to some customers deferring plans to upgrade server software.

What are the hardware requirements?

The minimum requirements for Server 2012 is a 1.4GHz 64-bit processor, 512MB of RAM and 32GB of disk space.

Server 2012 is also the first version of Windows Server that does not have a an edition for Itanium-based systems.