Windows 8 Server: Hands-On First Impressions

Mar 27, 2012 (08:03 AM EDT)

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Windows 8 Beta: Visual Tour
Windows 8 Beta: Visual Tour
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Windows Server 8 debuted in beta form earlier this month, so it's time to start paying attention to what you can expect to see when Windows Server 8 goes gold. We can't think of any release of Windows Server that Microsoft hasn't claimed is the most significant release ever. But to be fair, Windows 8 does promise to include some cool enhancements and new features that might make deployment worthwhile in the shorter term.

Of the hundreds of new features that Microsoft is packing into Windows 8 Server, only a few are truly impactful in our opinion. Here's a Cliff Notes version of the high-impact features that I think could actually make a difference in your environment in late 2012 and beyond.

1. Finally, an improved DHCP server

A downed DHCP server can create mass hysteria and send employees running to IT with baseball bats in hand (it's happened to me). Microsoft's historical unwillingness to provide High Availability for DHCP has been a royal pain in the butt for many IT admins, and it's been a boon to the third-party vendors (Infoblox, for example) who have stepped in to fill the void. While Microsoft is understandably sensitive about stepping on the toes of partners and innovators, the Windows team finally started to extend DHCP in Server 2008 R2 by making it a cluster-aware application in the eyes of Windows Failover Clustering services. However, Windows 8 Server sports a much more robust DHCP Server, and implementation looks simple.

Here's how DHCP in Win8 Server is different: You can configure two servers running the DHCP Server Role to work in an Active/Active (load balanced) or in an Active/Standby pair. Setting up DHCP clustering is really easy. You simply right-click the IP scope that you want to provide HA for, select Configure Failover, and follow a quick, wizard-driven set of prompts to complete the cluster.

One negative in Server 8 Beta is that you can only cluster a scope across two DHCP servers. But Microsoft's emphasis on this limitation in the beta versions implies that it may not be a limitation when it goes gold; for many environments, a simple 2-node DHCP cluster may suffice anyway. Another disappointment is that one of the DHCP servers in the cluster must be a Domain Controller. No room for a deep dive on DHCP here, but keep an eye out for our future coverage with detailed hands-on testing.

[ Learn how Windows 8 Server Core could reduce storage costs for enterprises building a private cloud. See Windows 8 Server Core Promises Cheaper Clouds. ]

2. A poor man's ISE for PowerShell

When Microsoft first released Exchange 2007, Exchange admins everywhere nearly rioted in the streets when they discovered that the only way to manage public folder client permissions was through PowerShell. The ensuing battle between scripting wonks and pragmatic sysadmins unfolded quickly. On the one hand, Windows Server is supposed to be easy to manage, so why try to turn Windows into Linux by forcing people to use PowerShell? On the other hand, we can't expect Microsoft to develop a UI to account for each and every big business system management use case in existence.

The conventional wisdom is that if you're not a scripting wonk, and if you don't need to automate the creation of 1000 accounts a day, then you really don't need to learn or use PowerShell. Thankfully, Microsoft is finally starting to find a well-balanced middle ground. It's eliminating the requirement to use PowerShell where it can, and in Windows 8 server, it's providing a first-generation Microsoft-supplied ISE to manage PowerShell.

One of the biggest issues that point-and-click administrators have with PowerShell is navigating the vast database of Commandlets available along with their parameters. The new PowerShell ISE is really cool because it auto-completes Commandlet names, and it also provides a bubble that depicts how to structure the parameters that the Commandlet requires. The PowerShell ISE supports scripting tabs and color-coding of syntax, so in some ways writing PowerShell scripts now feels like working in Visual Studio. The only thing that bugs us here is that there's no detailed Commandlet description built into the ISE, so you have to fish for what the Commandlet actually does outside of the ISE. In addition to the ISE, there are many new Commandlets available (like a DHCP Server module, for example) that should help nuts-and-bolts administrators do their job more efficiently in Win8.

3. Hyper-V is no longer crippled

Catching up to VMWare in the hypervisor market isn't exactly child's play from an engineering perspective, so let's not bash Microsoft for trailing the pack here for the last few years. There's a perception that Hyper-V is still an inferior hypervisor, and in some respects it still is--but that gap is narrowing.

Here's a short list of our favorite Hyper-V improvements in Windows 8 Server Beta:

--You can now trunk multiple VLANs across a Hyper-V virtual switch attached to a single physical NIC.

--Live migration of a virtual machine in previous incarnations of Hyper-V could only be done in a shared storage scenario. Now you can perform live migrations to any Hyper-V host. Perhaps more importantly, you can now live-migrate multiple VM's on a single instance of Hyper-V (the same host) simultaneously.

--Hyper-V hosts will now support up to 160 logical CPUs and 2TB of RAM, and VMs can now be configured to support up to 32 virtual CPUs and 1TB of memory. (And Microsoft is not relating pricing to memory, as VMware has done.)

--You can present native fiber channel storage directly to a Hyper-V guest VM.

--The new Hyper-V Replica feature asynchronously replicates VM's to a host offsite (or elsewhere) to provide HA in the case of a sudden and abrupt loss of the primary Hyper-V host. Note that cutting over to a replica requires manual intervention, unless otherwise automated by a script or third-party tool.

In a purely technical head-to-head competition, vSphere still wins, but the improvements listed above put Hyper-V only a few steps behind. Ironically, Hyper-V's future success isn't primarily tied to its capabilities at all, but rather to whether there is remaining ill will among VMWare customers related to vRAM licensing changes earlier this year. In Windows Server 8, Hyper-V is now actually a viable (and free) alternative to vSphere for IT shops that are completely married to Windows Server.

4. DirectAccess, without the need for IPv6!

When I first heard about what DirectAccess was designed to do, I nearly hit the ceiling jumping for joy at the promise of a Microsoft-supplied, clientless VPN solution. In simplest terms, DirectAccess clients communicate with a DirectAccess server that acts as a traditional IPSec gateway for providing complete remote access to the domain from any location. DirectAccess beats traditional VPN offerings, because complete access to the domain can be established prior to logon, and that allows IT to enforce security policy, execute logon scripts, and remotely manage clients regardless of physical location. The main problem with the first incarnation of DirectAccess was that it was cumbersome to deploy and it required that you deploy some IPv6 in your environment. Perhaps the coolest improvement that Microsoft made to DirectAccess in Windows 8 is removing the requirement to run multiple IP stacks in order to make it work. In addition, certificate-based authentication is no longer a mandate; you can authenticate using your AD credentials. You can now even join a brand-new PC to the domain from outside the network boundary; however, it must be running Windows 8 in order to take advantage of this feature.

If you consider all of the remote access challenges that big business has with respect to remote user management (password expiration, group policy enforcement, software distribution, to name a few), DirectAccess has the potential to solve those problems quickly and at minimal cost. DirectAccess was a flop in Server 2008 because it was cumbersome to deploy, but we anticipate deployments picking up steam quickly once Windows Server 8 hits the street.

5. Server management

Microsoft is definitely headed in a better direction with the overhaul that it's made to the traditional server management tools in Windows Server 8. First, in the Windows Server 8 beta, there is no traditional start menu or cumbersome navigation required to reach server management tools. For the most part, you have only two options: Server Manager and PowerShell. As a result, the new Win8 Server UI doesn't feel like a desktop PC anymore.

If you work in an environment that contains hundreds of servers, then you already know how cumbersome it is to perform certain tasks. Checking logs, adding or removing roles, starting or stopping services, or executing a shell script are all often more efficiently done by connecting to the individual server itself to perform the task. Windows 8 offers a much more elegant way to manage servers, by giving the administrator the option to add pools of servers to a management group for single pane of glass management.

So, for example, you could create a server pool that contains all of your Exchange servers and see all event logs from each of those servers in one view, which of course is huge for troubleshooting a large environment. The same goes for adding roles or manipulating servers for remote machines; all of it can be done from any Windows 8 server in the environment (that's servers, not workstations, at least for now.) As a result, you won't find yourself RDP'ing to individual servers that much anymore in Windows 8 for management because on the whole, it's not necessary. You can also natively run Powershell scripts against remote Windows 8 hosts, which makes running complex scheduled batch jobs against several systems easy.

While Windows Server 8 has a lean look and feel, the OS itself is still a monstrosity of a compilation with an ISO image size of 3.5GB (compared to just under 3GB for Server 2008 R2.) But at least it appears that all of those millions of lines of code are coming together into a much improved server platform. There's a lot to like about the direction that Microsoft is taking Windows Server 8. In the coming months, we'll see if we can break Windows Server 8 by putting the OS through some thorough testing. Stay tuned for the results.

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