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Windows Server "8" Preview (Unedited, Complete Version)

In September, I wrote a lengthy preview of Windows Server 8 for the November 2011 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. That article had to be cut down for space considerations and because some of the material overlapped with other Windows Server 8 content in the same issue. Here for the first time is my full Windows Server 8 preview, in unedited form.

Windows Server "8" Preview

While the press is swooning over Windows 8 and its user experience advances for tablets and other personal computing devices, Microsoft has been quietly revving up the next version of Windows Server as well. And while Windows 8 is absolutely a major update for client desktops, Windows Server "8"--I'll drop the quotes from here on out; Microsoft says it's just a codename--is a blockbuster, and even bigger upgrade than is its desktop cousin.

Case in point: While Microsoft was able to communicate to reviewers all of the major changes in Windows 8 in a single day-long workshop, Server 8 required two longer, more grueling days of technical information plus a half-day hands on lab. There's just a lot going on with this release, and not surprisingly I need help communicating it all. So there are companion articles from Sean Deuby, Jeff James, and Mike Otey that cover the Active Directory, storage, and virtualization advances in this release, respectively, in more detail.

At a high level, Server 8 represents Microsoft's biggest attempt at recasting Windows Server for the future since, oh, Windows 2000. And where that release instituted the Active Directory domain services infrastructure with which we still work, Server 8 is about bringing the centralized management of server infrastructure to the on premise (and hybrid, or "cross premise") world. This work began, of course, with Windows Azure, and shouldn't have come as a surprise: Microsoft technical fellow Mark Russinovich all but telegraphed this sea change in a Tech Ed 2011 interview earlier this year.

Microsoft is perhaps overly-fond of buzz phrases--"cloud enabled IT" and "the consumerization of IT" are two of my recent favorites--but as with any generalization, there's some truth there. And the core tenet of the Server 8 mantra, while easily stated, is as obvious as it is profound. It goes like this: For the past decade or more, our server management tools have been largely focused on managing individual servers, and not on managing the wider infrastructure--groups of servers, essentially--that make up our IT environments. This is changing in Server 8, big time, and once you see how these changes are implemented, you'll wonder why it wasn't this way years ago.

Not that there aren't problems. As I'll describe in more detail below, some of the new Server 8 management interfaces are ugly and hard to use, not because they're different but because they're poorly designed. (They are, after all v1 products essentially.) My hope is that feedback will improve matters, and since the current Developer Preview release is pre-beta, that's not just wishful thinking. I heard again and again from Microsoft engineers that they are desperately looking for our thoughts on these changes and how we might want to see them improved.

OK, let's dive in.

Server 8: The Mile-High View

Windows Server 8 is a major new release of Windows Server that is being built in tandem with Windows 8, as were Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 previously. They share the same codebase, and the same underlying platform advances and technologies, and will likely ship simultaneously or nearly so. Microsoft isn't talking dates, of course, but what the heck, I don't work for the company. You should expect the Server 8 and Windows 8 products to ship to customers by September 2012 latest. This is based more on common sense and previous experience than with insider information, but there you go. These teams are pretty deliberate and, I think, predictable.

Microsoft has identified four key areas of advance in Server 8--virtualization, centralized server management, modern workforce, and a new app platform--and while that all fits very nicely on a PowerPoint slide, I see things a bit differently.

The big ticket item, as noted previously, is the centralization of server management through the proverbial single pane of glass, which sounds simple enough. But it's a bit deeper than just that. In previous Windows Server releases, Microsoft provide two key technologies that virtually no customers actually use (and yes, they have the telemetry to prove it): Server Core and PowerShell. So naturally, Server 8 is basically a giant bet on those two technologies.

Don't take that cynically, because like motorcycle helmet laws, this really is a case where people need to be protected against their own bad decisions. In the case of Server Core, admins have been reluctant for two basic reasons: Server Core supports only a limited set of roles and features (and can't be upconverted to "full" Server version) and is hard to use, thanks to its command line interface. But there was a germ of genius in Server Core, because we're not really supposed to sit in front of a server (physically or, via Remote Desktop, logically) to administer it. That's inefficient.

Today, we can run remotable admin tools against Server Core from other servers or from PC clients, but as you probably know, these tools aren't complete and it's a bit ponderous to manually connect to different individual servers.

So how does Server 8 overcome these Server Core limitations? First, Microsoft expects that, beginning with Server 8, admins will not ever sit in front a server to administer the box and that all of these activities will occur remotely. The new Server Manager is fully remotable and of course supports the management of multiple servers simultaneously. (As with files in Explorer, you can arbitrarily select servers on the go to apply changes to only the servers you want.) What was Server Core (and may still be called Server Core in Server 8) is basically a mode that can be moved in about out of. So Server Core 8, if you will, won't be the dead end it is today.

PowerShell has its proponents, but let's face it, this powerful but somewhat complex scripting environment hasn't really taken off with day-to-day admins and IT pros, at least not yet. To jumpstart acceptance, Microsoft is making many changes to PowerShell in Server 8, and if you haven't looked at this environment in a while, it's time to dust off some scripting skills. First, PowerShell is being integrated directly into Server Manager and other Server 8 admin tools, providing you with a pane of sorts that you can expand to reveal the underlying PowerShell commands that were run behind the scenes during a management tasks. This lets you copy and paste the code and reuse it later for your own automation scripts.

PowerShell has also been simplified with better command auto-complete (though a full-featured, Visual Studio-style auto-complete feature would be hugely appreciated; this isn't possible in the current text-based shell that's offered). And more crucially, perhaps, the number of built-in PowerShell commandlets jumps from around 200 in Server 2008 R2 to over 2300 in Server 8. Yes, Microsoft is serious about PowerShell this time.

Server Manager itself is hardly recognizable. It's been recast as a tiles-based, Metro-style app that bears no relation to the previous version and basically requires the full screen, and one with high resolution at that. (Which is fine because you'll be using this interface from your PC not while sitting in front of the server, right? Right.) If you're a fan of the MMC for some reason, you'll want to pause briefly for a moment of silence. It's still in Server 8 for legacy interfaces. But my understanding is that no new Microsoft admin GUIs will utilize that platform again.

Where Server Manager falls apart, in my opinion, is in the sub-screens that you visit when you need to actually get something done. The main Server Manager view is actually quite nice and, like most recent Microsoft server UIs, serves as a dashboard of sorts that provides you with a glanceable view of the overall health of your environment. It's got some nice color accents for a bit of contrast, and from a visual perspective, it's pretty successful.

Dive deeper--and, again, you'll need to--and this UI paradigm is squandered for a new interface that is monochrome and indecipherable, and broken up into curious boxes of functionality. More confusingly, the content in these boxes is often interconnected and, sorry, but it's not easily discoverable or usable. The most painful example of this is the NIC Teaming interface, which is a useful and simple feature now, but one requiring you to select an object in one box (a server) and then click a Tasks menu that's associated with another box (for network adapters) and is hidden until--get this--you mouse over it. It doesn't get any dumber than that, folks.

To be fair, the new Server Manager is, well, new. And my hope is that a groundswell of feedback (read: complaints) from admins and IT pros will trigger an improvement to these crucial interfaces. Several Microsofties expressed a willingness to listen and make changes. Cross your fingers.

Private Cloud

In Microsoft's view, a private cloud is centrally managed server infrastructure that may or may not include public cloud services which are also centrally managed from the same interfaces as the on premise assets. Basically, a formalization of what most enterprises are already doing, though Microsoft's private cloud vision involves a level of management that is likely uncommon in all but the most forward leaning environments today.

The underpinnings of this infrastructure is largely based on virtualization, and in Server 8, Microsoft has really gotten its virtualization mojo in gear. Server 8 includes Hyper-V 3, a major advance of the software giant's hypervisor-based platform that, by all accounts, actually leapfrogs the capabilities of the currently dominant VMWare-based virtualization solutions. (And does so while offering tremendous cost savings.)

That virtualization has advanced rapidly in the past three or so years is, of course, and understatement, what we're seeing in Hyper-V is the biggest change yet. Basically, everything is hot-pluggable now and can be changed with no service downtime at all. So you can move any application workload--Exchange, SQL Server, whatever--to a virtual environment and then dynamically assign resources like CPU cores, memory, and now storage on the fly.

You want scalability and reliability? Hey, it's a new Server release, so all the numbers are going up. Hyper-V 3 supports 160 logical processors on a server, up to 2 TB of RAM, up to 32 virtual processors per VM, and 512 GB of RAM per VM.  And the scaling Microsoft is seeing is near linear as you move from 8 virtual procs to 16 and then 32. It supports NUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Access) for memory and processor core partitioning and resulting increase in performance and reliability, and Guest NUMA for even better efficiency within the VMs themselves. And it includes predictive failure analysis and can isolate hardware errors down to individual VMs so that the entire virtual environment isn't affected.

In addition to the Live Migration functionality Microsoft added to Server 2008 R2, Server 8 includes Live Storage Migration, in which a VM is migrated while running, with no downtime and transparently to the guest OS (in the VM). It works with local disks, file storage solutions, and SANs. And it's pretty amazing to see in action. (There's also a new virtual disk format called VHDX that supports up to 2TB virtual disks and provides better performance than the creaky old VHD format while being more resilient against corruption.)

And then there's Hyper-V Replica, the one Server 8 feature that Microsoft discussed before the Developer Preview. Hyper-V Replica provides in-the-box disaster recovery for Hyper-V with various forms of supported failover, including a shared recovery sites model that should be useful for enterprises with branch offices as well as hosters.

Finally, I'd like to highlight some networking improvements that are related to Hyper-V, including a new extensible virtual switch with NIC teaming support, providing continuous availability to VMs. In a multi-tenant environment, where individual virtual environments must be separated from others for security and compliance reasons, the Server 8 networking stack provides the needed network isolation as well.

Files and Disks

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 WHS fans, many of whom have ignored the second-generation (and Drive Extender-less) WHS 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 while these changes may seem similar to Drive Extender conceptually, they are better and more reliably implemented. (There are other storage advances in Server 8, of course.)

NTFS has been updated, of course, and can now heal itself through a new File System Checker that can scan and repair online with minimal downtime. (You can also schedule repairs for those more prickly cases.)  Check Disk (CHDDSK) corruption fixing has been dramatically improved, too, from an average of 100 minutes for a disk with 100 million files in Server 2008 R2 to under 8 seconds with Server 8.

A new Data Deduplication feature works transparently to compress used disk space by removing not just duplicate files but parts of duplicate files. The savings vary by workload, but are dramatic: User document folders are roughly 30 percent the size before dedup, and VHD libraries see a whopping 90 percent improvement.

A new feature called Spaces, or Storage Spaces, provides Drive Extender-like storage abstraction with storage pools that are comprised of whatever arbitrarily attached storage you care to use. But this isn't just for physical resources: Spaces can be used in virtualized deployments as well, and you can mix and match with storage pools that target the host machine or virtual environments. Spaces also works with all the other new storage enhancements, like SMB 2.2, SMB2 Direct, NFS v4.1, failover clustering, and so on.

Looking Ahead

There's scratching the surface, and then there's just bouncing off the surface and making only the smallest possible impression. I've done the latter here, simply because Server 8 is so big, so major a change, that it's literally hard to conceptualize all at once. It will be weeks if not months before the weight of what's changing here fully sinks in, and of course I'll need more hands-on time with the product itself. This is available now, in Developer Preview form, to anyone who's interested in seeing the future today. (Visit for the download links.)

I'll be exploring the many, many other areas of improvements in Server 8 in the months ahead, as will my various Windows IT Pro cohorts. And this article is perhaps most notable for what I haven't described yet. Dynamic Access Control.  Network virtualization. BitLocker-encrypted cluster disks. Many, many new Active Directory features. IIS advances and web platform investments. RemoteFX changes including new software GPU support. DirectAccess simplification and upgrades. The list just goes on and on.

So it's clear even at this early stage that Microsoft is making a monumental sea change to Windows Server with this release, and drawing a line in the sand that will divide this new world from the pre-8 world of before. It's scary, and it's exciting, but most of all, it's just necessary. And I can't wait to get started.


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