Microsoft claims that there are 300 new and improved features in Windows Server 8, but after a few days in Redmond watching demos and stepping through lab sessions, we wonder whether the marketing guys accidentally left off a zero. It's hard to name a Windows Server feature that hasn't been tweaked, streamlined, wizardised, or completely revamped. Whatever grudge you may hold against Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 8 will almost certainly make amends.
If you're a large shop struggling to manage hundreds of Windows servers, Windows Server 8 should ease the job. If you're a small shop trying to squeeze high-end capability from a low-end budget, Windows Server 8 has plenty for you, too. With Windows Server 8, everything from server deployment to high availability becomes smoother and more automated.
In fact, there's so much of note in the new OS, it's almost a crime to stop at the top 10, listed below in no particular order. Believe it or not, data deduplication for production file servers, native PowerShell support in Hyper-V, and virtual Active Directory didn't even make the list. Look at it this way: There will be even more surprises in store when you finally get your hands on a Windows Server 8 beta.
Server Manager not only gets a face-lift in Windows Server 8, donning the superclean Metro look, but opens the management horizon to the entire server environment. Pull in new servers (physical or virtual) to manage through Active Directory or DNS lookup, and Server Manager will inventory the server and add a new tile to the dashboard displaying its state. Other tiles roll up aggregates of information across multiple servers by server role and various attributes.
Views are search driven, so it's easy to pull up matching values across all rows. Search filters can be saved, so it's easy to create personalised dashboards or standard views for selected sets of machines. Instead of reaching across the screen to ye olde Task pane (RIP), you perform all actions directly on specific elements, by right-clicking and choosing from a contextual menu. Naturally, all of this remote, multiserver management goodness is built on PowerShell and WMI (Windows Management Interface). Considering Microsoft's boasts of 2,300 new PowerShell cmdlets, wizards should become more commonplace throughout the Windows Server ecosystem.
Friction-free server deployment
Windows Server 8 inherits Windows Server 2008's wizards for installing roles and features, but combines them in what Microsoft calls "scenario-based deployment." Installs can target local machines, remote machines, or virtual hard disks, with deployment to multiple machines automated through PowerShell cmdlets, WMI APIs, and "workflows" that handle suspending and resuming batch operations. Plus, you no longer have to second-guess that Server Core install. Instead of starting over from scratch, Windows Server 8 lets you move between Server Core and a full server simply by installing or removing components. You can even install the full server without the graphical shell because real servers don't have GUIs.
IP address management
Odds are you're using a spreadsheet or homegrown cobbleware to track your IP address allocations, and it's no fun at all. Windows Server 8 introduces a full-featured IP address manager that combines network discovery, static and dynamic address allocation, DNS and DHCP monitoring, and network auditing capabilities all in one place. Logging actual address usage, identifying conflicts, cross-referencing with hardware inventory, and providing an audit trail of all changes, the Windows IP Address Management Center goes way beyond record keeping. It has the potential to eliminate a huge time suck from your to-do list.
Dynamic Access Control
Today's folder-centric model for access control makes it all too easy for permissions to get garbled - and auditing is a horror. Dynamic Access Control doesn't replace your current file and folder permissions, but allows you to layer global policies and claims-based access controls on top of them. For example, you might create a rule to ensure that only members of the finance group can access finance department files and strictly from a managed device - and this rule could be enforced by all Windows Server 8 file servers (and only Windows Server 8 file servers) in your organisation.
Dynamic Access Control uses tags applied to the files by users, supporting applications (think Microsoft Office), and Windows Server 8 itself (automatic classification). To implement, you create claims definitions and file property definitions in Active Directory; any Active Directory attribute can be used for access control. Claims travel with the user's security token. In a nice touch, the system now goes beyond the annoying "access denied" message. Instead of the stone wall, denied users can be presented with a remediation link to open a help ticket or contact the administrator or file owner to request access.
Large Hyper-V clusters
Windows Server 8 leaps into VMware territory and beyond with support for as many as 63 hosts and 4,000 VMs per cluster. Backing up the raw numbers are a slew of features that improve performance, manageability, availability, and security in large environments: cluster-aware patching, storage resource pools, thin provisioning, storage offload for data transfers, BitLocker encryption for cluster volumes, data deduplication, and live storage migration.
For the first time, you can team NICs from different vendors, with or without LACP support on your upstream switch. Windows Server 8 also brings Fibre Channel support to Hyper-V guests. You can configure multipath I/O or cluster guests with Fibre Channel for high availability, yet still make use of live migration.
Flexible live migration
Windows Server 8 introduces live storage migration, the ability to migrate virtual hard disks or configuration files for a running VM without interruption. And it removes shared storage as a requirement for migrations. You can now migrate VMs using nothing more than an Ethernet cable; first, the virtual disk is moved, then the running VM. The only requirement is that the hosts belong to the same domain.
There's no longer a cap on the number of migrations you can perform simultaneously, apart from the limitations of your hardware. Windows Server 8 also lets you queue migrations in a single operation that moves VMs one at a time. And you can specify priority VMs to avoid failures when a cluster becomes oversubscribed. If a cluster is loaded with more VMs than it can handle in a failover scenario, Windows Server 8 will shut down low-priority VMs to allow high-priority VMs to run.
Advanced virtual networking
If you've chafed against the lack of promiscuous mode in the Hyper-V virtual switch or pined for the virtual networking capabilities in VMware, you'll be happy to know that Microsoft has dived in with both feet in Windows Server 8. Microsoft seems to have matched the VMware vSwitch feature for feature - port ACLs, private VLANs, per-vNIC bandwidth reservations, QoS, metering, OpenFlow support, VN-Tag support, network introspection - all without requiring expensive network devices. The switch will support third-party extensions for inspecting, filtering, modifying, sampling and inserting packets, with management of the extensions integrated into Hyper-V.
One of the best features of virtualisation is easy disaster recovery, but this isn't as simple as it could be in Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V. The clumsy process for setting up virtual machine replication in R2 gives way to a simple wizard in Windows Server 8. After you choose the virtual disks to replicate and the location for the replicas, you have the option of syncing immediately, scheduling the sync, or writing the replica to a local disk - if you want to bring up the replica on a big USB drive and ship it to the other end for the initial load. The result is an asynchronous, application-consistent snapshot that's no more than five minutes behind the primary VM. You can even specify the IP settings for the failover environment within the replica, and failback is supported.
SMB for server apps
Windows Server 8 gives a big boost to small businesses and branch offices by extending support for Hyper-V virtual hard disks and SQL Server database files to SMB2 file shares. Translation: You can run your virtual machines and SQL database from a commodity file server, no special storage system required. To protect your Hyper-V and SQL workloads, you can create "continuously available" SMB file server clusters that provide transparent failover. That's high availability made very cheap and very easy.
VDI for the rest of us
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure will change the world - but not until it becomes a whole lot simpler to do. Setting up and managing virtual desktops on Windows Server 2008 R2 pales miserably to Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop, for example, and implementing Citrix is no walk in the park. Windows Server 8 takes a big step forward toward reducing the complexity and costs of a VDI deployment.
RemoteFX no longer requires a hardware GPU and remote connections appear to be much lighter-weight than in R2 (about 10 percent of R2 bandwidth in Microsoft's demo). Admins have per-user control over RDSH (aka Terminal Server) resource allocations. They have a single admin tool for full deployment, as well as a single unified way to deploy RDSH sessions, pooled (stateless) virtual desktops, and personalized (stateful) virtual desktops.
The virtual hard disks (a new format called vhdx) are specifically designed to store the changes and customizations users might want to make to the "gold image" that IT provides them. Although you can still store the virtual hard disk files on just about any SMB share, Microsoft is promising considerably better performance than the previous methods of storing roaming profiles that have given this technology a black eye. Bravo, and let the VDI wars begin ... again.