A Hands-on Look at Windows Server 2012

Wednesday Oct 3rd 2012 by Paul Ferrill
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With Windows Server 2012 finally officially available, now's the perfect time to delve a little deeper into the features and changes in the new server operating system that are likely to matter most to enterprises.

Microsoft has invested a ton of time and money getting Windows Server 2012 to the finish line. The sheer number of new and improved features makes it challenging to cover them all in any level of detail. This review will attempt to highlight the most important new features and delve a little deeper into those that matter most.

Design principles for Windows Server 2012 were driven by the three key themes of continuous availability, cost efficiency and management efficiency. It's easy to see how these design principles drove many different parts of the operating system from the new Server Manager and Windows Server 2012 Reviewits polished graphical user interface (GUI) to SMB 3.0 and the huge number of improvements to the file system.

Setup and Configuration

One of the first things you see at installation is the option to install either Windows Server 2012 with or without a GUI (see Figure 1 below). The GUI-less option is called Server Core and is Microsoft's preferred method for any server that won't have a human sitting in front of it. The idea here is to trim down the surface area that could make the server less secure and control it remotely with the new management tools. You can switch between the two installation types with a single PowerShell command:

Install-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Mgmt-Infra,Server-Gui-Shell –Restart

This will require a system restart, but once that's complete you should have the full GUI plus the Server Manager tool installed. If you have a system configured the way you want and you wish to remove the GUI tools, you could use the following PowerShell command: Windows Server 2012 - Figure 1

Uninstall-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Mgmt-Infra -Restart

If you choose the GUI option, you'll have what looks like a Windows 8 system with a few added icons. Once the installation completes and the system reboots you'll see the new Server Manager tool, as it will start by default. From there you have the ability to do the initial machine configuration, such as set the server name, change the time zone, connect to a domain and other housekeeping steps.

The base install only loads a few minimal services to get the system up and running. To add additional roles and services you must use the Server Manager tool or PowerShell. PowerShell also provides the remoting functionality necessary to execute commands on any server on the network.

You must enable the remote management capability on each server you wish to control. Windows Server 2012 - Figure 2This is an option available on the Local Server page of the Server Manager GUI (see Figure 2). It is enabled by default and will require domain administrator credentials to make any modifications on a remote machine.

If that's not enough, there's also a PowerShell Web Access gateway for connecting to remote machines using any Web browser. This would be really handy for times when you don't have access to a machine with VPN or direct access and need to make some type of administrator changes.

Manageability

Reducing the cost of managing servers from a labor perspective was something of a sub-goal underneath the theme of manageability. The solution comes primarily in the form of PowerShell 3.0.

You can use the functional Server Manager GUI tool to do most, if not all, of the management tasks, but behind the scenes, there is PowerShell doing the actual work. That means you have an integrated automation tool upon which all server management is built.

Novice administrators will appreciate the extensive number of Wizards available for adding features and roles. The Server Manager tool provides quick access to this feature from the main dashboard screen. Windows Server 2012 - Figure 3 You can easily see the range of server roles and features (see Figure 3) available by walking through this process.

The main Wizard allows you to skip right to a feature if that's where you want to go by clicking on the left-hand side of the screen on the word Feature. Once you check off the feature you want, another Wizard will launch to take you through the process of installing and configuring all the necessary details to get that feature installed and running.

PowerShell 3.0 scripts, or cmdlets, provide a wide range of management functionality. In fact, Windows Server 2012 ships with over 3400 PowerShell cmdlets.

Typing at the command line may be intimidating for some, but it brings with it the ability to accomplish much in just a single line of code. The following line of PowerShell creates a new 100GB virtual disk and replaces clicking through Windows Server 2012 - Figure 4 five Wizard screens to accomplish the same task:

New-VirtualDisk -StoragePoolFriendlyName BigData -FriendlyName UserData -Size 100GB

For PowerShell newbies there's an Integrated Scripting Environment (PowerShell ISE) with a built-in command help facility, making it possible to explore the wide range of cmdlets in a more guided manner. You can start typing in the Name box (see Figure 4) and you'll get a list of every command matching what you've typed to that point.

If you click on one of the entries, you get additional help in the lower half of the Commands pane showing the different parameters available. Required parameters are marked with an asterisk to let you know they must be provided.

Reliability

One of the first places you see this theme is in the area of storage. Windows Server 2012 introduces a new concept called Storage Spaces. This is the name for the software-based storage system and in large part replaces, or at least makes unnecessary, RAID for reliable storage.

Storage Spaces manages all disk drives attached to the server using, at the top level, the concept of a Storage Pool. Storage Pools have from one to many physical disks attached and available as a resource from which Volumes can be created.

Individual Volumes may be initialized using one of three layouts: simple, mirror or parity. Simple distributes data across available disks with no redundancy. Mirror makes a copy of data at a "chunk" level and distributes the copies across multiple drives.

Parity uses additional error checking information for each "chunk" and then distributes them across multiple drives. Both mirror and parity require a minimum of two physical disks, while simple will work with a single drive.

Windows Server 2012 - Figure 5 Another piece of the reliability puzzle centers on the use of clustering to provide both resilient compute and storage resources. In previous versions of the Windows Server operating system you had to purchase an Enterprise level of the software to get the clustering feature. Now you can get it in the Standard edition. This makes it possible for small-to-medium businesses to take advantage of the power of clustering to provide reliable services that are available all the time.

Virtualization in the form of Hyper-V takes a prevalent place in the overall approach to providing reliable systems and services. It is now possible in Windows Server 2012 to create a virtualized Domain Controller (DC) and have it reside on a cluster.

In the past this key piece of Microsoft's security architecture had to reside on a physical machine. Redundancy was provided by a Backup Domain Controller (BDC) that had to be on a separate physical machine. Now you can create a virtual DC, host it on a cluster and remove both the previous physical DC and BDC machines.

Windows Server 2012 also includes an update to the venerable Server Message Block (SMB) protocol in the form of SMB 3.0. This new release was totally rewritten with reliability and scalability in mind.

SMB 3.0 includes a failover capability that redirects a connected client to a new server in less than three seconds in the case of a failure. To achieve this functionality, both the client application and the server share must be running either Windows 8 or Windows Server 2012. This is primarily due to the low-level drivers that handle the communication and include the ability to detect a failed path through the use of something called a Witness service.

These new features in SMB 3.0 make it possible in Windows Server 2012 to store Hyper-V workloads on SMB shares. When you add in the new Cluster Shared Volumes (CSV) feature, you have high availability compute and storage resources using commodity hardware.

There are some minimal requirements for the commodity hardware, including SAS disks for storage, but nothing exorbitant. It's easy to see how the new reliability features alone will be worth the upgrade to Windows Server 2012 for many customers.

Scalability

Windows Server 2012 brings a huge number of new features to the table in the area of scalability. The laundry list of things such as number of processors, maximum memory and more looks like this:

  • Logical Processors – 640

  • RAM – 4 TB

  • Failover Cluster Nodes – 64

  • Number of Hyper-V instances – unlimited in DataCenter edition

NIC teaming is a feature that has been present in older versions of the OS but has been updated in Windows Server 2012 to provide even more functionality. Previously this feature required identical NICs in order to properly bond together. Windows Server 2012 removes this requirement and adds the ability to use any available network path to increase overall throughput.

One of the new concepts here is something called a scale-out file server. You start with an initial hardware configuration in a cluster arrangement and simply add more nodes and storage to increase capacity.

Users see one set of resources attached to the cluster and don't have to worry about connecting to specific systems or shares. The cluster provides the resources and handles any and all failures without loss of service.

The DataCenter edition of Windows Server 2012 supports an unlimited number of Hyper-V instances with the only real restriction being hardware-related. For performance reasons you wouldn't want to allow more virtual machines than your server is capable of handling. Windows Server 2012 supports only two Hyper-V instances, although you can cascade licenses to add more if necessary.

Windows Server 2012: The Bottom Line

Windows Server 2012 is a massive release and delivers many new features and capabilities along with an extensive set of enhancements for existing functionality. New improvements to features like CHKDSK will thrill system administrators everywhere. While the jury may be out for a while on corporate adoption of Windows 8, it's pretty clear that Windows Server 2012 will catch on quickly.

 

Paul Ferrill, based in Chelsea, Alabama, has been writing about computers and software for almost 20 years. He has programmed in more languages than he cares to count, but now leans toward Visual Basic and C#.

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