Lost somewhat in all the excitement around the Windows 8 Consumer Preview from almost two weeks ago is that Microsoft also released the Windows Server 8 Beta. This product is no less revolutionary than its client-side stable mate, and although I haven't written much about this release yet, I've already installed it on a couple of physical servers for testing and am quite pleased with the changes I see since the Developer Preview.
The Big Picture
From a mile-high view, Server 8 has been refined a lot since the Developer Preview, but the changes don't seem as dramatic as those that have been implemented in the Windows 8 client. This is, I think, by design. As a server OS, Server 8 relies less on user experience doo-hickery than does a client OS, so the core bits were all in place a long time ago.
If you're familiar with the Windows Server 8 Developer Preview, you won't be surprised to discover that the major themes remain the same, but in this milestone, everything is more fleshed out and complete. Some UIs, notably Server Manager, have improved dramatically. There are of course a few new technologies, like the Resilient File System, or ReFS. And there are some user experience crossovers with Windows 8 that many will find unfortunate.
If you're not intimately familiar with the Windows Server 8 Developer Preview, then please take the time to read my exhaustive overview in "Windows Server '8' Preview (Unedited, Complete Version)." In that article, I hit all of the high points of this release, which really haven’t changed at all over the ensuing months.
Multi-server management from a single pane of glass. Arguably the biggest conceptual change in Server since, oh, Active Directory, this means that admins and IT pros won't move from server to server physically (or virtually through RDP) to manage individual servers. Instead, they'll do that all from the same place, a single instance of Server Manager running on a client PC. And that doesn't mean logging in and out of servers, it means grouping them and managing them as one. Yes, it really works. And yes, once you've seen it, you'll never be able to go back to the old-fashioned, single-server tools from yesteryear.
Remote management. Remember the phrase "It's a server, not a surfboard?" Well, in Windows Server 8, this has been simplified to "It's a server. Period." So you don't sit in front of it and use it interactively, you manage it remotely. To this end, Server Core is the default installation type, and the RSAT tools will ship concurrently with the product. No more excuses, people.
PowerShell is (almost) everywhere. Microsoft's powerful scripting engine is almost everywhere in Server 8 and is now a full-fledged member of your admin toolkit, and not a sad, incomplete add-on. It's integrated into Server Manager so that all of the actions you perform can spill out PowerShell cmdlets that you can repurpose for automation.
Mature virtualization. Remember how VMware's virtualization solutions are more mature and complete than Microsoft's? Yes? Good, now forget that, because it's not true anymore. Hyper-V 3.0 provides the scalability, hot-pluggable everything, live migration goodness that you want, and it leapfrogs VMware in some key areas. It's the real deal.
Storage. There are some impressive storage improvements in Server 8, including ReFS, Storage Spaces, and more.
What's New in Server 8 Beta
Leaping ahead to the Windows Server 8 Beta, which Microsoft described to me as an “IT Pro Preview” to give it a name more similar to that of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, here are some of the more interesting changes.
A more mature Server Manager. In the Server 8 Developer Preview, Server Manager was a monochrome mess, with a confusing UI that was as hard to use as it was to look at. In the Beta, you immediately see the benefits of just adding some contrasting colors. But more important, Server Manager is more usable -- and useful -- than before.
First, it's matured into that single tool that will get many admins and IT pros through the day. Part of that improvement is tied to a new minimal server mode, which is basically Server Core plus Server Manager. So you get a new Tools menu that provides a handy list of virtually any sub-tool you could need.
Not everything is perfect. In some cases -- many, really -- the UI is sufficiently flat to obscure such things as progress bars -- which are far too hard to see -- or the next step in a wizard. During a number of familiar processes – such as promoting a domain controller -- I often found myself staring at the screen because it wasn’t obvious what needed to happen next.
RSAT in-line with Server and Client. In what I believe is a first, Microsoft will deliver its Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) for Windows Server 8 and Windows 8 at the same time as those OSs, and not months later, giving admins and IT pros fewer excuses to sit down in front of servers or use remote desktop. The beta version of RSAT is available now. No excuses.
ReFS and Storage Spaces. Aimed at very big disks, high resiliency, and high scaling, ReFS is based on NFTS and will eventually replace that file system. For now, it’s available only for the file server role, but it can also be used in tandem with the new Storage Spaces feature, which allows you to create pools of storage out of disparate, multiple disks, complete with redundancy and, optionally, parity. (Storage Spaces works with NTFS disks too, of course.)
SMB encryption. You can optionally enable encryption on SMB connections, protecting data from attacks on untrusted networks with what I’m told is a very small performance hit.
Windows Server 8 Beta is a huge release with a lot more going on, but I’m out of space. No worries, though, I’ll be testing and writing more about this release in the weeks ahead. I recommend that you check it out as well. You can download the Windows Server 8 Beta from the Microsoft Server and Cloud Platform website. The Beta version is Server 8 Datacenter and is 64-bit only, and it comes in both ISO (3.5GB) and VHD (2.5GB) formats.