Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of something in the tech world that takes your breath away. For consumers, the iPad's eye candy and extreme usability, for instance, have the power to change the way they relate to computers. For enterprise administrators, data centre managers and system managers, the features and improvements in Windows Server 8 are right up there in significance. It's really a game-changer in the world of server operating systems.

Last week, I participated in a two day workshop where Microsoft engineers, managers and product architects shared their vision of Windows Server 8 and demonstrated its new capabilities. It quite frankly knocked my socks off. Because of the tie-in between the client version of Windows and the server version, we were not permitted to bring code home or play with the preview in our labs. However, that's coming, and I'll update this piece as soon as possible with a screenshot gallery showing the most interesting new parts of Windows Server 8.

Since a developer preview of Windows Server 8 comes out today, and we can all get our grubby little hands on it, here's a guide to what to look for in the release that you'll find interesting and exciting.

 

Overall design goals

 

Microsoft explains that during the initial planning phases for Windows Server 8, the company sought to create and improve features that centre around these four specific OS design imperatives:

Provide a complete virtualisation platform

 Microsoft set out to put a fully mature hypervisor into the box. Hyper-V is now a fully isolated, multi-tenant environment. It also now includes tools to help deliver service level agreement performance, enable billing for usage and metering to different business units and organisations, and offer self-service features for end users.

Hyper-V has been re-engineered to scale to thousands of virtual machines on suitable hardware with performance enhancements that allow hosts to intelligently deliver services. These features will be a boon for enterprises creating private clouds within their data centres or those that are offering cloud services to the public.

Enable the "modern work style"

That sounds buzzwordy, and it is, but step back to think about your end users, and even you as an administrator. Your users connect to your network from a variety of devices in a variety of locations. It might be a phone in the airport in Seattle, or a corporate notebook from the wireless network at a tradeshow, or it might be a tablet computer from their homes.

Why isn't their work environment stabilised and replicated anywhere and everywhere that users are connecting? And how do you ensure regulatory compliance in all of these disparate locations? How do you manage identities among all of these various devices, running different OSes and different hardware profiles?

In Windows Server 8, Microsoft strives to deliver the full Windows experience wherever a user wants to connect, while offering superior access control and audit capabilities based on strong identity verification frameworks and data classification features.

Enable high availability while simplifying management

When you start thinking of data centres and clouds, images that come to mind may include racks of headless machines and tons of networking equipment, and then the hundreds or thousands of virtual machines that you probably have running within that infrastructure.

Windows Server 8 will expand the ability of the operating system to use commodity storage, networking and server infrastructure easily and efficiently, while using less power and increasing the ability to prevent failures from occurring and to recover from errors when they do happen. And management tools have been upgraded with new single-pane-of-glass views, PowerShell capabilities in full and exposed web service management endpoints that get you well on your way to full lights out automation of your Windows Server infrastructure.

Make every application available in any cloud

Windows as an overall ecosystem, and Windows Server 8 in particular, will include frameworks, services and management utilities that let you manage workloads in your data centre, then send them across to a private cloud and up to Windows Azure or whatever cloud service you choose, and then back again. All of this occurs with little if any downtime (in most cases), according to Microsoft.

The inclusion of open web standards, Microsoft says, and the ability of Windows' management tools to directly connect to other infrastructure via these standards-based interfaces means you can build, provision and manage your environment more easily and quickly than ever and ensure that it interoperates with any other players in the marketplace.

As we delve into how these design imperatives manifest themselves in the new features of Windows Server 8, you'll see exactly how it all ties together.

 

The big move, graphically and intuitively

 

Perhaps the most significant user-facing change to Windows Server 8 is the fact that the GUI is no longer the preferred way to administer the operating system. Indeed, Server Core is now the default installation option. While you can add a GUI, and new to this release, you can add a GUI temporarily and then remove it like a shell option, it's expected that most of your servers will run Core and that you'll manage them remotely with some of the new tools and capabilities of Server Manager.

Since the product is now exposed in numerous ways via PowerShell and standards-based web services, managing a fleet of servers, whether they're Windows Server 8-based or on an older version of the operating system, is just as convenient from a single console as it would be to establish a Remote Desktop session into each of them. It just works.

The second most jarring change in Windows Server 8 is the radically redesigned Server Manager user interface. The client version of Windows 8 is full of the Metro interface, the beautiful but mostly unused user interface theme that debuted on the Windows Phone 7 series of handsets.

This Metro user experience is carried over into Server Manager, which offers very useful at-a-glance rollups of events and workloads across multiple servers, not just the one on which the UI is running. It lets you think in terms of what you want to do, put in a new DNS zone or change DHCP settings, rather than considering where you have to do it and how to roll out that change.

Of course, true automation lies with the command line, and PowerShell has a huge part in Windows Server 8. There are over 2,300 new PowerShell cmdlets that cover the entire gamut of management operations under the operating system. Plus there's improved remote access, so you can manage your whole infrastructure of Windows Server 8 machines from a script and, Microsoft claims, have it simply work like you'd expect to with no weird firewall errors or communication problems.

There are more management and interface changes than this, but there's much else to cover as well.