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Microsoft released two versions of Windows Server 2012 in September. The Standard edition accommodates organizations that primarily use dedicated, physical servers to support proprietary applications or databases.
Alternately, administrators in highly virtualized environments can opt for the Datacenter edition. Microsoft also is releasing Windows Server 2012 Essentials, a version tailored for smaller organizations.
The Standard and Datacenter versions each provide a foundation for running more processors, higher volumes of memory and greater storage reserves than the existing Windows Server 2008 Release 2 edition. For example, the OS now supports twice as many CPU cores — a total of 320 — than in the early release. The new version also handles 4 terabytes of memory, again twice the old maximum.
The tech specs may sound impressive, but what do these changes mean for the day-to-day requirements of IT managers? Here’s a closer look.
Clouds, whether private, public or hybrid, are on the IT roadmaps of most organizations these days, and Windows Server 2012 provides appropriate underpinnings for bringing those plans to life.
“All of the key capabilities of cloud computing are found in the new release as defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology,” says Mitch Tulloch, author of Introducing Windows Server 2012. “In other words, you've got broad network access, on-demand self-service, resource pooling, measured service, rapid elasticity — the whole nine yards.”
These capabilities mean the OSs can take IT managers a step closer to achieving the cloud ideal of making an entire data center look like one large pool of computing and storage capacity, Desai adds. “Rather than requiring an administrator to do a lot of work, you have systems that automatically manage the infrastructure.”
In addition, Windows Server 2012 can be optimized for hybrid clouds by accessing public cloud services, including Microsoft Azure. “This allows the Windows platform to run in a traditional data center architecture or as a guest in a cloud provider in a hybrid manner,” Schulz says.
Other features important for cloud environments include security enhancements in Windows Server 2012. For example, IT managers can connect to cloud services using a common identity and management framework.
With identity federation, the OS maintains security for applications that reside either on premises or in the cloud with consistent, centrally managed authentication and authorization services, according to Microsoft. In addition, virtual private networks (VPNs) secure communication between data centers and cloud providers.
Server manufacturers are taking notice of the various cloud options now available in Windows Server 2012. HP announced an expansion of its Converged Cloud portfolio, which offers pre-integrated configurations of Windows Server 2012, Microsoft System Center 2012 and other HP and Microsoft technologies. The package is designed to make it easier for organizations to launch private and hybrid cloud environments, according to HP.
“As customers move to private clouds, they are looking for a simplified approach that minimizes risks, increases their flexibility and allows for greater cost savings,” says Stephen DeWitt, senior vice president for HP’s Enterprise Group. “Through this relationship with Microsoft, we’re providing customers with a trusted, single-source experience to provide them an easy on-ramp to cloud.”
“The HP Converged Cloud solutions with Windows Server 2012 give organizations a clear path to go beyond virtualization and accelerate their journey to the cloud,” adds Michael Park, corporate vice president of Windows Server marketing at Microsoft.
Microsoft added new capabilities to its virtualization platform, Hyper-V, which analysts say makes it more competitive with alternatives such as VMware vSphere. For example, the latest iteration of Hyper-V significantly increases support for host processors, memory volumes and virtual machine (VM) workloads. The platform can now accommodate up to 32 virtual processors and one terabyte of memory for Hyper-V guests, while a new virtual hard disk format supports capacities up to 64T.
Windows Server 2012 also offers new features for managing virtualized environments. With Microsoft’s Share-Nothing Live Migration, IT managers can create or copy a VM on one Hyper-V host and migrate it to another Hyper-V host without interrupting service to end users. Windows Server 2012 accomplishes this by mirroring writes to the source and destination storage while the move is occurring.
“This offers the ability to move live, running virtual machines using nothing but the software and the networking stack that ships with Windows Server 2012,” Desai says. “As a result, organizations can use just the built-in file server to do automated live migrations of virtual machines to set up clusters and to migrate between storage resources. In the past, managers needed shared storage using, for example, storage area network technology and all the necessary hardware to support it.”
Some IT managers may see benefits in new tools for managing physical and virtual servers. “The ability to make IT more efficient is a particularly important aspect of Windows Server 2012 because it is so much more automation friendly,” says Don Jones, a principal technologist with the consulting firm Concentrated Technology and an instructor with CBT Nuggets, an IT training company.
The biggest news for server management is that the latest edition of Microsoft’s PowerShell scripting framework now enables IT managers to control their server environments exclusively through command-line instructions (see “Command Central”).
Windows Server 2012 also continues to offer Server Manager for less complex server environments and for IT administrators who prefer a graphical user interface (GUI) to command-line instructions to launch and maintain servers. Tulloch says the new Server Manager is the right option for managing a few dozen servers.
“If you want to deploy Remote Desktop Services or DirectAccess, the new Server Manager guides you through the process, making it a lot easier than before,” he says.
Unlike with previous versions, administrators can now use it to control multiple servers at once. “I can see all the servers I manage within a single console,” Desai says. “In the past, I could manage more than one server but only by manually connecting to each server as I needed to make changes.”
Another update that is getting attention is Windows Server 2012’s expanded Server Message Block network communication protocol. Known as SMB 3.0, the updated Windows file sharing protocol can encrypt information to secure data transmission. It also supports Remote Direct Memory Access, which means two properly configured servers can establish memory-to-memory data transfers to reduce transmission overhead.
“Microsoft is scaling Windows file sharing to be more of an enterprise play, on a par with NFS — the Network File System, an open industry standard,” Schulz says.
He adds that SMB 3.0 has also been beefed up to provide better data protection and resiliency. For example, IT managers can use SMB to group multiple network interface cards together for load balancing and failovers if one of the units runs into trouble. Also known as NIC Teaming, this strategy could be performed in the past if Windows Server users added third-party tools rather than those found within the OS itself.
Microsoft says IT decision-makers can now use Windows Server 2012 to store application data on continuously available SMB file shares. Known as Storage Spaces, the feature allows IT managers to use commodity-priced hard disks to create resilient pools of storage, Tulloch says. This might alleviate the need for expensive SAN devices in some cases. Microsoft says that Storage Spaces provide storage virtualization capabilities for single-node and scalable multinode implementations.
Other new storage optimizations provide other benefits. “There are some small improvements that can make a huge difference, such as not needing to take a large volume offline to run CHKDSK on it to detect and repair file system problems,” Tulloch says. “That small change can save organizations hours, maybe days, of downtime for their servers.”
According to industry insiders, Windows Server 2012 represents a giant step forward for Microsoft. Whether a single server for a small office or a new data center environment, it can help IT managers meet an organization's unique needs.