A new Windows means a new Windows Server. We look at what's new in Windows Server 2012.
While Windows 8 gets much of the attention, it's not the only big change happening at Microsoft. Along with a new desktop operating system, it's is also renewing its server software, Windows Server 2012. Like Windows 8, this is a re-imagining of Windows, rethinking how we use servers, and how we're going to use them over the next decade or so.
That reimagining means that Microsoft is using Windows Server 2012 to address two key challenges for any business, from the smallest to the largest. Both are complex, and both could mean changing the way we implement networks and applications, and how we manage users and devices.
The first is making business networks ready for the cloud, whether it's working with private clouds in our own networks, or with public cloud services like Microsoft's own Azure. The second is the growing issue of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), where unmanaged, and often unmanageable, phones and tablets are used in corporate networks. There's also a lot of work around securing and managing storage, as your data isn't going to go away.
Re-imagining the server User Experience
Installing Windows Server 2012 brings up the first big change, as Microsoft has made the User interface-less, Server Core the default install option. That's not just because Server Core has a smaller attack surface and is easier to keep up to date, it's also due to Microsoft adding a lot more in the way of server automation via PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).
With over 2400 PowerShell commands in the new Server, and the ability to remotely execute commands on servers, Microsoft is expecting that many Windows Server 2012 systems will be managed by command-and-control servers using the new look multi-server Server Manager, by desktop PCs using the Remote Server Administration Tool (RSAT), or from its System Center management platform.
Of course it's still possible to install the full Windows Server user interface, and many small and medium sized organisations will prefer to work with the familiar desktop. At the heart of the server User Interface (UI) is a revamped and Metro-styled Server Manager. While in the past you probably just clicked it away, in Windows Server 2012, the Server Manager is a one-stop shop for managing and controlling not just one, but whole groups of servers. It's used to install server roles and features, as well as monitoring operations and handling errors and issues. It's not the only new feature in the Windows Server 2012 UI, as it's joined by a version of the Metro start screen first seen in the consumer version of Windows 8. In practice you're unlikely to use the start screen much – in Windows Server it's a tool for finding applications and tools which can then be pinned to the desktop taskbar.
There's a third user interface option, one with limited UI controls, which lets applications with their own UIs work on a server with few management tools (letting you have Server Core-like performance and security with applications that won't run on Server Core). You'll need to use the server management tools to remove most of the Windows Server UI once you've installed the applications you plan to run – as you'll lose the Explorer and Server Manager.
A server for the cloud
Microsoft's vision of the private cloud is one where services are deployed to virtual machines as and when they're needed. While much of that vision depends on its System Center management tools, the engine that drives it all is the Hyper-V virtual server tools – and the latest version of Hyper-V, 3.0, is part of Windows Server 2012.
Microsoft is well-known for getting things right in version 3, and that's true of Hyper-V 3.0. Most obvious is the raw power of Microsoft's Virtual Machine (VM) platform, with support for 64 virtual processors and 1TB of memory in each virtual machine (and up to 4000 VMs on a 64-node cluster).
What's less obvious are the tools that make it easier to manage virtual networks, including the option of adding third-party virtual switches, and to keep virtual networks from interacting. There's also improved support for live migration of VMs from server to server, with tools to offload file copying on storage networks.
Virtual machines don't need to be massive, or complex. Windows Server makes it easy to quickly create and use new VMs, for test and development, or to roll out new applications quickly. There's improved support for working with NAS storage, with SMB2 support as well as for additional storage networking protocols. It's also a lot easier now to migrate VMs to the cloud, with Azure now supporting Hyper-V VMs.
A server for BYOD
Whether you like it or not, your users are bringing their own devices into work – laptops, tablets and phones, or just their USB sticks. That's both a benefit, in terms of increased productivity, and a risk, with the prospect of data loss. How can you manage users' own devices without turning them into just another PC you have to manage?
The answer is right in the heart of Windows Server, built into Active Directory. You don't need to manage the machines, just the users and the information they're using. Windows Server 2012 introduces new features to help control information, in the shape of Dynamic Access Control. While it might not be the friendliest of tools to use (but we expect third-party developers to quickly develop applications that make it easier to define data classification rules), DAC works with Office and Windows Information Rights Management to control who can work with what file, and how and when.
Rules are based around the claims-based authentication tools built into Windows Server 2012's identity management features, and let you apply rules that are as coarse or as fine as you want – across an entire business, or an office, or to a department, or even to a specific individual.
Dynamic Access Control rules can be used to lock-down access to specific directories and file types, even to specific file metadata. Only approved users get access, and you're also able to audit just who's tried to open controlled files. Blocked users get a message that tells them a file is locked, and who to contact to get access. You're also able to apply more general rules, perhaps to lock-down files that contain confidential records or to comply with business regulations – and can tie controls into Information Rights Management (IRM) so that users can view but not edit files, ensuring that they can't be copied to another PC or to a memory stick – even keeping them from being emailed outside your business.
Active Directory is also part of managing users' own devices. You can use the cloud-federation features in Microsoft's Intune cloud management platform to push management policies to iOS, Android, to users' Windows 8 devices, and to Windows RT tablets. Intune uses the familiar Exchange Active Sync tools to handle policy delivery – and users who don't accept the policies won't be able to get mail or connect to network resources.
There are also improvements to Remote Desktop Services, with no need to install a server-hosted Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) to get the benefits of the RemoteFX video support. There are also plenty of networking improvements, with tools to help manage IP addresses more effectively, and a new version of the Direct Access remote connection tools that makes it a lot easier to set up secure connections to network resources over the internet.
Protecting your files
A lot of small businesses have been using Microsoft's original Home Server to protect their files. It lets you build a pool of standard disks that kept multiple copies of your files, with no need to worry about RAID or managing storage networks.
Storage demands just keep growing, and while the underlying technologies are different, you can use Windows Server 2012 to build your own scalable resilient storage systems using everything from local disks to network attached storage to storage area networks.
Windows Server 2012 includes a new Resilient File System (ReFS) to reduce the risk of file loss, along with tools to simplify building storage arrays. There are also tools to hander data de-duplication built into Windows, keeping storage needs to a minimum. You're also able to use and manage encrypted storage for your most valuable data, with Windows Server handing key management and working with self-encrypting hardware.
Microsoft's new Storage Spaces feature uses storage virtualisation to aggregate any number of disks into a storage pool. There's support for thin provisioning, so you don't need to have all the physical disk space that you've defined – a 100TB Storage Space need only have 10TB of disk to start with. You can just add the extra disk space as your storage requirements grow, without having to reconfigure your storage. Data can be mirrored, so there's more than one copy of each file on different disks in a storage pool.
While Windows Server 2012 has the same backup and recovery features as Windows Server 2008R2, Microsoft is also testing an optional cloud backup service. Looking like the familiar Windows backup tools, the only difference is that you're paying a subscription to ensure an off-site backup of critical files in addition to your current backup processes.
While we've only seen the high-end Datacenter release of Windows Server 2012 so far, there's much in here for the smaller business. You don't need to be building private clouds or supporting BYOD programmes – this is a server with at least one essential feature for every business, many of which we haven't touched on here.
While there have only been hints of the capabilities of other versions of Windows Server 2012, and a teaser of a small business Essential release, Microsoft's latest iteration of Windows Server is shaping up to be an essential installation for businesses of any size. It's well worth downloading the trial version and installing it in a virtual machine, just to see what's coming next – you're likely to be installing the final version in the next year.
The new Windows Server 2012 in pictures
Adding new features
Windows Server 2012's role and feature management tools don't just install the feature you've chosen – they install all the dependencies needed to ensure the server runs. Choose a role, and you'll see the full list of services and applications that need to be installed.
Microsoft's new IIS web server
Microsoft's web server comes with a link to the company's Web Platform Installer – so you can download applications and components, and have them ready to run in a matter of minutes.
The new Server Manager in Windows Server 2012
Server Manager is the heart of Windows Server 2012, and it lets you control not just one server, but a whole farm. Of course there's still the option to drill down into your local server to help diagnose issues and to ensure that everything is running well.
Managing Storage in Windows Server 2012
The new storage features in Windows Server 2012 can be managed directly from the Server Manager, giving you one place to build Storage Pools and assign physical disks to your virtual storage.
PowerShell cmdlets in Windows Server 2012
With 2400 new PowerShell cmdlets in Windows Server 2012, you're going to need to understand and work with Microsoft's management scripting technologies. The built-in scripting editor will help you develop, debug, test and run your management scripts.
The new optional cut-down interface
Windows Server 2012 gives you the option of a minimal user interface, where application management tools are still available. Use the Remove Features tool to strip out the server management GUI, and the Windows Server graphical shell.
Windows Server 2012 has Server Manager at its heart
Server Manager is the heart of Windows Server 2012. It's where you'll control the roles and features of a server, managing just how your server runs – and even manage whole networks of physical and virtual servers.
Windows Server 2012 goes Metro
Like Windows 8, Windows Server 2012 has a Metro start screen. While Server boots straight into the desktop and Server Manager, you can use the start screen to launch applications and tools – with the option of working with touch screen controls.
Find a feature in Windows Server 2012
Need to find a feature in Windows Server 2012? Click to the start screen and just start typing. The built-in search tools work across installed apps, tools, files, and even the web. It's surprisingly simple.