IT managers might be excused if the significance of last summer's release of Windows Server 2012 didn't fully hit home. Analysts say organizations may have glossed over some of the more groundbreaking elements in the first major upgrade of the server OS in three years.
"Some may see this as just another evolutionary release of Windows Server, but there's so much more to it than that," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst for Server and StorageIO Group, a consulting firm.
"At the heart of what's new is how Windows Server has been extended in terms of feature functionality, scalability and performance," Schulz says, "whether for traditional server environments or for private and hybrid clouds."
The Big Four
Analysts say the biggest changes to Windows Server come in four key areas — cloud computing, virtualization, server management and networking and storage management. Because of the breadth of new features, individual organizations may evaluate the new release according to different criteria and unique challenges in their IT environments.
"There are more features for automating the common pain points in the typical data center, whether that means managing physical servers or virtual machines, or managing the infrastructure that supports these servers," says Anil Desai, an independent IT consultant.
Microsoft released two versions of Windows Server 2012 in September. The Standard edition accommodates organizations that use primarily dedicated, physical servers to support business applications or databases. Alternatively, administrators in highly virtualized environments can opt for the Datacenter edition.
The Standard and Datacenter versions each provide a foundation for running more processors, higher volumes of memory and greater storage reserves than the existing Windows Server 2008 Release 2. The OS now supports twice as many CPU cores (a total of 320) than the earlier release. The new version also handles 4 terabytes of memory; again, twice the old maximum.
A Cloudy Embrace
What do these changes mean for the day-to-day requirements of IT managers? "All of the key capabilities of cloud computing, as defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are found in the new release," says Mitch Tulloch, author of Introducing Windows Server 2012. "In other words, you've got broad network access, on-demand self-service, resource pooling, measured service, rapid elasticity — the whole nine yards."
Those capabilities mean the OS can take IT managers a step closer to achieving the cloud ideal of making an entire data center look like one large pool of computing and storage capacity, Desai says.
51% The percentage of IT pros who cite virtualization capabilities as Windows Server 2012's most important new feature (49% cite features for enabling private clouds)
SOURCE: Enterprise Strategy Group (September 2012)
Windows Server 2012 can be optimized for hybrid clouds by accessing public-cloud services, including Microsoft Azure. "This allows the Windows platform to run in a traditional data center architecture or as a guest in a cloud provider in a hybrid manner," Schulz says.
Other features include security enhancements that allow IT managers to connect to cloud services using a common identity and management framework. With identity federation, the OS maintains security for applications (both on-premises and in the cloud) with consistent, centrally managed authentication and authorization services, according to Microsoft.
Server manufacturers are taking notice. HP is expanding its Converged Cloud portfolio to offer pre-integrated configurations of Windows Server 2012, Microsoft System Center 2012 and other HP and Microsoft technologies. The package is designed to make it easier to launch private- and hybrid-cloud environments, according to HP.
Hyper-V Bulks Up
Microsoft has also added new capabilities to its virtualization platform, Hyper-V, which analysts say make it more competitive with alternatives such as VMware vSphere. The latest iteration significantly increases support for host processors, memory volumes and virtual machine workloads, and the platform can now accommodate up to 32 virtual processors and 1TB of memory for Hyper-V guests. A new virtual hard disk format supports capacities of up to 64TB.
With Microsoft's Shared Nothing Live Migration, IT managers can create or copy a VM on one Hyper-V host and migrate it to another Hyper-V host without interrupting service to end users. Windows Server 2012 accomplishes this by mirroring writes to the source and destination storage while the move is occurring.
Users also have the ability to move "live, running virtual machines using nothing but the software and the networking stack that ships," Desai says. "They can use just the built-in file server to do automated live migrations of virtual machines, to set up clusters and to migrate between storage resources."
Marquette University, which took part in Microsoft's Rapid Deployment Program to test Windows Server 2012, had virtualized its data center using primarily VMware. Later, it also began to use Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2. As VMware's licensing costs grew prohibitive, the focus shifted to Hyper-V. "We've been watching Hyper-V come to feature parity with VMware, and every VMware feature we need is now in Hyper-V," says Marquette Systems Administrator Aaron Ott. "We're not putting any new virtual machines on VMware."
The biggest news for server management is that the latest edition of Microsoft's PowerShell scripting framework now enables IT managers to control their server environments exclusively through command-line instructions.
Windows Server 2012 also continues to offer Server Manager for less complex server environments and for IT administrators who prefer a graphical user interface. Unlike with previous versions, administrators can now use the updated Server Manager to control multiple servers at once.
Windows Server 2012's expanded Server Message Block network communication protocol (SMB 3.0) can encrypt information to secure data transmission. It also supports Remote Direct Memory Access, which means two properly configured servers can establish memory-to-memory data transfers to reduce transmission overhead.
IT managers can use SMB to group multiple network interface cards for load balancing and failover if one unit runs into trouble. The strategy, also known as NIC Teaming, in the past could be performed under Windows Server only by adding third-party tools, rather than simply within the OS.