Windows Server 8

Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of something in the tech world that takes your breath away. For consumers, the iPad’s eye candy and extreme usability, for instance, have the power to change the way they relate to computers. For enterprise administrators, data center managers and system managers, the features and improvements in Windows Server 8 are right up there in significance. It’s really a game-changer in the world of server operating systems.

Last week, I participated in a two-day workshop where Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) engineers, managers and product architects shared their vision of Windows Server 8 and demonstrated its new capabilities. It quite frankly knocked my socks off. Because of the tie-in between the client version of Windows and the server version, we were not permitted to bring code home or play with the preview in our labs; however, that’s coming, and I’ll update this piece as soon as possible with a screenshot gallery showing the most interesting new parts of Windows Server 8.

Since a developer preview of Windows Server 8 comes out today, and we can all get our grubby little hands on it, here’s a guide to what to look for in the release that you’ll find interesting and exciting.

Overall design goals

Microsoft explains that during the initial planning phases for Windows Server 8, the company sought to create and improve features that center around these four specific OS design imperatives:

Provide a complete virtualization platform. Microsoft set out to put a fully mature hypervisor into the box. Hyper-V is now a fully isolated, multitenant environment. It also now includes tools to help deliver service-level agreement performance, enable billing for usage and metering to different business units and organizations, and offer self-service features for end users.

Hyper-V has been re-engineered to scale to thousands of virtual machines on suitable hardware with performance enhancements that allow hosts to intelligently deliver services. These features will be a boon for enterprises creating private clouds within their data centers or those that are offering cloud services to the public.

Enable the “modern work style.” That sounds buzzwordy, and it is, but step back to think about your end users, and even you as an administrator. Your users connect to your network from a variety of devices in a variety of locations. It might be a phone in the airport in Seattle, or a corporate notebook from the wireless network at a trade show — or it might be a tablet computer from their homes. Why isn’t their work environment stabilized and replicated anywhere and everywhere that users are connecting? And how do you ensure regulatory compliance in all of these disparate locations? How do you manage identities among all of these various devices, running different OSes and different hardware profiles?

In Windows Server 8, Microsoft strives to deliver the full Windows experience wherever a user wants to connect, while offering superior access control and audit capabilities based on strong identity-verification frameworks and data classification features.

Enable high availability while simplifying management. When you start thinking of data centers and clouds, images that come to mind may include racks of headless machines and tons of networking equipment, and then the hundreds or thousands of virtual machines that you probably have running within that infrastructure.

Windows Server 8 will expand the ability of the operating system to use commodity storage, networking and server infrastructure easily and efficiently, while using less power and increasing the ability to prevent failures from occurring and to recover from errors when they do happen. And management tools have been upgraded with new single-pane-of-glass views, PowerShell capabilities in full and exposed Web-service management endpoints that get you well on your way to full lights-out automation of your Windows Server infrastructure.

Make every application available in any cloud. Windows as an overall ecosystem, and Windows Server 8 in particular, will include frameworks, services and management utilities that let you manage workloads in your data center, then send them across to a private cloud and up to Windows Azure or whatever cloud service you choose, and then back again. All of this occurs with little, if any, downtime (in most cases), according to Microsoft.

The inclusion of open Web standards, Microsoft says, and the ability of Windows’ management tools to directly connect to other infrastructure via these standards-based interfaces means you can build, provision and manage your environment more easily and quickly than ever and ensure that it interoperates with any other players in the marketplace.

As we delve into how these design imperatives manifest themselves in the new features of Windows Server 8, you’ll see exactly how it all ties together.

The big move, graphically and intuitively

Perhaps the most significant user-facing change to Windows Server 8 is the fact that the GUI is no longer the preferred way to administer the operating system. Indeed, Server Core is now the default installation option. While you can add a GUI — and, new to this release, you can add a GUI temporarily and then remove it, like a shell option — it’s expected that most of your servers will run Core and that you’ll manage them remotely with some of the new tools and capabilities of Server Manager.

Since the product is now exposed in numerous ways via PowerShell and standards-based Web services, managing a fleet of servers — whether they’re Windows Server 8-based or on an older version of the operating system — is just as convenient from a single console as it would be to establish a Remote Desktop session into each of them. It just works.

The second most jarring change in Windows Server 8 is the radically redesigned Server Manager user interface. The client version of Windows 8 is full of the Metro interface, the beautiful but mostly unused user interface theme that debuted on the Windows Phone 7 series of handsets.

This Metro user experience is carried over into Server Manager, which offers very useful at-a-glance rollups of events and workloads across multiple servers, not just the one on which the UI is running. It lets you think in terms of what you want to do — put in a new DNS zone, or change DHCP settings — rather than considering where you have to do it and how to roll out that change.

Of course, true automation lies with the command line, and PowerShell has a huge part in Windows Server 8. There are over 2,300 new PowerShell cmdlets that cover the entire gamut of management operations under the operating system. Plus there’s improved remoting, so you can manage your whole infrastructure of Windows Server 8 machines from a script and, Microsoft claims, have it simply work like you’d expect to, with no weird firewall errors or communication problems.

There are more management and interface changes than this, but there’s much else to cover as well.

Virtualization changes

Hyper-V in this release continues its maturation as a compelling hypervisor platform. Reports indicate that in pre-preview testing, Hyper-V in Windows Server 8 supports up to 160 logical processors, 2 TB of RAM, 32 virtual processors and 512 GB of memory for virtual machines, along with support for guest NUMA and an end of the virtual-to-logical processor ratios.

This all comes into play when you consider scaling up — especially in a cloud scenario. Why does NUMA, or non-uniform memory access, matter? Essentially, as a developer, you want to make sure processors are scheduling threads locally and allocating memory as best they can. You want to avoid crossing node boundaries to avoid latency, slow caching and other performance-impacting symptoms, since allocation and latency depends on the memory location relative to a processor.

High-performance applications detect NUMA and communicate with the OS. With guest NUMA, Hyper-V presents NUMA topology within a virtual machine, allowing the guest OS and applications to make intelligent NUMA decisions about thread and memory allocations.

Indeed, virtualization in Windows Server 8 even one-ups physical hosting. With new predictive failure-analysis capabilities, through firmware or processor signaling, the operating system can find out when errors are occurring. In this way, virtualized workloads actually exceed physical capabilities since the OS can do some intelligent page analysis when memory is virtualized and not physically allocated. In essence, the very fact that you’re running Hyper-V in the first place means you have an extra layer of resiliency that isn’t present with physical hardware.

There’s a lot more to talk about specifically in this area; I’ll find out more as I spend more time with the developer preview.

Networking enhancements

Overall, the Windows Server 8 team has attempted to marry the provision of networking services with the right level of storage and management. This manifests itself in the brand new Hyper-V virtual switch that handles network traffic between virtual machines, the external network and the host operating system.

This virtual network switch allows for deep content security and filtering, traffic monitoring and analysis, very deep integration with your existing network infrastructure, support for virtual appliances and, on top of it all, an intuitive management interface. It’s also extensible, so your partners can easily build high-quality extensions for capturing traffic, filtering that data and forwarding that traffic elsewhere in the network.

Even in the core networking sense, improvements abound. For example:DHCP availability is business critical, and in a lot of senses, it’s a single point of failure. Windows Server 8 delivers DHCP failover support in the box.DHCP has been improved, with policy-based IP address assignment. You can provision differentiated network parameters based on client/device classification. You can also assign IP address ranges to clients based on what type of device they’re using, and assign lease durations to clients based on the same criteria.

There’s a complete IP address-management solution in the box in Windows Server 8, saving you from the monolithic spreadsheets that comprise your IP address management nightmare. Fully integrated with Active Directory, with complete IPv6 support, this software is agentless, supports automatic network discovery, allocates addresses and tracks those allocations, and supports easy migration from your current tracking tools whether that’s automated, or just in an Excel spreadsheet.

More of course to come on all of the different facets of networking that the new release touches.

Storage improvements

As we say in the south, there are more storage improvements than you can shake a stick at in Windows Server 8. The Windows team has been closely working with cohorts at Microsoft Research to improve the efficiency for data storage. They’ve come across new de-duplication technologies — kind of like Microsoft Exchange’s single-instance storage — that can reduce storage on any given volume by anywhere from 30 per cent to 90 per cent. This isn’t compression; this is searching for like components of files and removing duplication across volumes.

In addition, clustering gets some new functionality around scale and manageability. Windows Server 8 supports an industry-best 4,000 VMs per cluster and can now scale out to a massive 63 nodes in a cluster. In addition, Microsoft has extended cluster-shared volumes to Windows server workloads and now supports BitLocker-based volume encryption for shared cluster disks.

And to shouts of glee from administrators everywhere, CHKDSK is not an all-day process anymore. CHKDSK repair now takes less than eight seconds on a volume, with one corruption among three hundred million files, compared with times measured in hours in Windows Server 2008 R2.

Again, there’s more in storage to talk about, but those are the big highlights at this point.

Access control: What’s new?

Administrators deal with information governance challenges on a daily basis. With users and data growing seemingly exponentially, computing becoming distributed, new government and financial-service compliance rules multiplying, and budgets stagnant or shrinking, there’s real pain on the part of enterprises everywhere when it comes to controlling access and distribution of sensitive corporate information.

The new dynamic access-control features allow companies to have the right compliance tools to avoid violating laws, see into their data shares and archives and control what’s stored there, and get a full audit capability that lets others see the performance of these policies. This is all while making it almost brain-dead simple for a user to be in compliance, or get in compliance. The administrator applies appropriate access policies, audits access to information, automatically protects information using encryption, and applies relevant retention controls to that data.

How does this work? In four ways:

1. The user can identify data via manual tagging — a user in Word tags a document as, for example, PCI-sensitive information. The administrator can also define automatic tags so that any document stored on a particular share is instantly tagged and classified a certain way. You can also tag based on applications.

2. Via these tags, central access policies are defined. You can use a regular Express-based language to define conditions for access based on claims for a user, claims from a device and the file tags themselves. Users can also request remediation when they are denied access, instead of just being booted and left wondering.

3. As the tags and access policies develop on the infrastructure, administrators can define central audit policies across all of their file servers. Much like the set of policy tools that has been included in Windows Server for group policy for many years, there is a what-if simulation tool that lets you see the effects of proposed changes to access, tags or both.

4. Data is automatically protected, in that Office documents get Rights Management Service (RMS)-based protection based on their tags, and non-Office file objects can have RMS protectors written for them.

And much more…

There’s a laundry list of features and capabilities I haven’t even touched on in this piece, simply because they’ve not been exposed to the light of day yet. Suffice it to say, Windows Server 8 changes everything — assuming all of the changes remain in the final build of the OS. It takes the operating system an order of magnitude higher than it’s been before and makes data centers fully ready for lights-out management, easy scalability and agile provisioning and support.

Time will tell, but this could well be the operating system against which everyone else is judged.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include a variety of books on Windows clients and servers, including Learning Windows Server 2003. You can reach Jon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jghassell.

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