Windows Server 2012 packs so many new features large and small that any Microsoft shop looking to gain advantages in cost and functionality will have to seriously consider upgrading this year.
What's more, the product is winning high marks for its flexibility and support of cloud architectures, leading Microsoft to crown it the Cloud OS. When introducing that concept last year, the company's server chief Satya Nadella defined Cloud OS as a blend of Windows Server 2012 and Windows Azure cloud service, each optimised to support large data centre infrastructures that embrace a combination of traditional corporate-run data centres, private clouds and public clouds.
The result, Nadella says, is a more flexible environment that will make it possible to add and remove capacity as needed and take advantage of the economy of public clouds. The change would be transparent to end users; resources become available as summoned regardless of where they actually reside. And because of the variety of options where resources might be housed, businesses can make decisions about which option is best for which type of data and application.
All other things being equal they can choose, for example, the best method based on price.
While Microsoft itself is using Windows Server 2012 in its Azure cloud, other cloud service providers are also climbing on board. Rackspace and Amazon Web Services have fired up services that include as many as 31 different Windows Server 2012 virtual images for customers to choose from.
Windows Server 2012 offers service providers and enterprise buyers alike a host of major advances, including:
- PowerShell: Microsoft has expanded the number of PowerShell commands 10-fold, making it possible to control just about all aspects of the server from command lines rather than the graphical user interface. The latest version also enables scheduling when jobs run, making it possible to batch them ahead of time to run later.
- Dynamic Access Control: This sets policies at the server that could, for example, deny access to a confidential file that is being accessed via remote desktop or even from a corporate laptop if it's connecting from a home network. In the past, access would be denied with no explanation, prompting help-desk calls. With a Windows 8 client the user is told why access is being denied rather than just being denied access.
- Storage Spaces: This scheme allows amassing all types of storage into a single body that can be subdivided and allocated to separate tasks, resulting in more efficient use of total storage. The collections of storage media are called storage pools from which virtual disks can be carved out. These virtual disks are called storage spaces. Storage spaces can allocate more space than the actual capacity of the pool. This is accomplished via thin provisioning, in which blocks of storage are only claimed from available pools when actually being used by virtual machines. Data is kept from overflowing virtual disks by freeing up capacity whenever files are deleted or an application decides that such capacity is no longer needed. Anything stored in a space is mirrored on a separate physical disk. Pools can be clustered across more than one node, and pools can fail over to another physical node within the cluster.
- Hyper-V Replica: This asynchronous replication of virtual machines in Microsoft's virtual environment enables replicating VMs in branch offices, say, to other branches or disaster recovery sites. Because it is asynchronous, these replications can be scheduled for low-traffic times or times when WAN costs are lowest. The replication also respects available bandwidth, limiting how much it uses in order to maintain performance of other traffic on the same connection.
- VDI without a server GPU: Formerly Windows Server required a graphical processing unit as part of the server hardware in order to support USB peripherals on the endpoint. Windows Server 2012 creates virtual GPUs from server CPUs, easing the hardware requirements.
- More live migration options: Within Hyper-V, virtual machines as well as data can be moved, but also VMs can be moved from server to server both within server clusters and among different clusters.
- Best practices analyser: This tool regularly scans all servers for possible misconfigurations and advises on changes to make in order to keep them in line with best practices.
- Improved SMB: The network communication protocol used by the server - Server Message Block - has been streamlined to support faster transfers.
- Management: Server Manager within Windows Server 2012 can now handle more than one server at a time.
Using Windows Server 2012 with Windows 8 clients also offers some unique features. "There are areas where benefits and features light up between the two of them," says Jason Leznek - director of Product Marketing, Windows Server & Management. For instance, when used together they can eliminate the need for public-key infrastructure to make secure Direct Access connections, which reduces overhead. And when virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is used to support tablets, the server enables touch features, something that previous Windows Server versions did not.
The question is, how compelling are all these new features and capabilities? A large number of enterprises either just completed or are working on transitions from Windows XP to Windows 7 because support for XP ends in the spring of 2014. They may not be ready to tackle a server transition so soon after swapping out desktops, but the expanded support for virtualisation could push many over the top, especially for those using VDI to support bring-your-own device programs.