Windows Server 2012: The Mile-High View

Microsoft’s server OS has evolved from functional to fantastic

For the past decade or more, server management tools have largely focused on managing individual servers rather than the wider infrastructure of IT environments (i.e., groups of servers). One of Windows Server 2012’s (formerly code-named Windows Server 8) main goals is to bring the centralized management of server infrastructure to the on-premises (and hybrid, or “cross-premises”) world.

Server 8 is being built in tandem with Windows 8; they share the same code base and the same underlying platform advances and technologies. Although Microsoft hasn’t publicized any release dates, I expect both OSs to ship by September 2012 at the latest. Microsoft has identified four key areas of advancement in Server 8: virtualization, centralized server management, modern workforce, and a new app platform—but I see things a bit differently.

As I already noted, the big-ticket item is the centralization of server management. In previous Windows Server releases, Microsoft provided two key technologies that virtually no customers actually use: Server Core and PowerShell.

Admins have been reluctant about Server Core for two reasons: Server Core supports only a limited set of roles and features (and can’t be converted to the full Server version), and its command-line interface makes it difficult to use. We can run remotable admin tools against Server Core from other servers or from PC clients—but these tools aren’t complete, and it’s a bit ponderous to manually connect to different individual servers. Server 8 overcomes Server Core’s limitations. Its new Server Manager is fully remotable and supports simultaneous management of multiple servers. The former Server Core (which might still be called Server Core in Server 8) is simply a mode that can be enabled and disabled on the fly.

Although PowerShell has its proponents, it still hasn’t taken off with day-to-day admins and IT pros. In Server 8, PowerShell is integrated directly into Server Manager and other Server 8 admin tools, giving users an expandable pane that reveals the underlying PowerShell commands run behind the scenes during management tasks. This lets you copy and paste code to reuse later for your own automation scripts.        PowerShell is also simplified, with better command auto-complete. Finally, the number of built-in PowerShell cmdlets jumps from around 200 in Windows Server 2008 R2 to more than 2,300 in Server 8. (For more information about PowerShell advancements, see “What’s New in Windows Server 8 Active Directory.”)

Server Manager has been recast as a tiles-based, Metro-style app that bears no relation to the previous version. It requires the full screen—as well as a high-resolution screen. The Microsoft Management Console (MMC) is still in Server 8 for legacy interfaces, but from what I understand, no new Microsoft admin GUIs will use the platform.

Where Server Manager falls apart is in the sub-screens that you visit when you need to actually get something done. The main Server Manager view is quite nice; it serves as a dashboard that provides you with a glanceable view of the overall health of your environment. But when you dive deeper, the UI is monochrome, indecipherable, and broken up into curious boxes of functionality. The content in these boxes is often interconnected, but it’s not easily discoverable or usable. A painful example is the NIC Teaming interface: It requires you to select an object in one box (a server), then click a Tasks menu that’s associated with another box (for network adapters), which is hidden until you mouse over it.

Microsoft’s little lamented Windows Home Server product shipped with at least one major conceptual innovation: Via its Drive Extender technologies, users could ignore drive letters and pool local disk storage, accessing it as a single entity. Furthermore, Drive Extender offered a simple take on RAID’s data redundancy functionality by duplicating all files on a second physical disk.

Drive Extender was a good idea, but the implementation wasn’t exactly enterprise-ready. And after testing this technology on its new-generation small business servers, Microsoft discovered it wasn’t compatible with many server apps and didn’t work reliably. So it was scrapped, to the chagrin of Windows Home Server fans, many of whom have ignored the second-generation (and Drive Extender–less) Windows Home Server 2011 release.

But there was a reason behind this madness: Over in the core Server group, Microsoft engineers were working on storage innovations of their own. And although these changes might seem conceptually similar to Drive Extender, they’re better and more reliably implemented in Server 8 (for more information, see “Windows Server 8 Storage Feature Overview”).


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