Windows Server 2012 R2 Review: It's the Little Things that Count

Tuesday Jul 23rd 2013
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Has Microsoft's Windows Server 2012 R2 left VMware behind in terms of virtualization technology, and what BYOD features does 2012 R2 have in store for enterprises?

For those expecting radical changes with the arrival of Windows Server 2012 R2, we have to say, sorry, you're simply not going to get that. Instead, Windows Server 2012 R2 introduces lots of small changes in some key areas, which all together add up to make the server OS update an even more robust and scalable operating system.

Discussing the full list of new features would take an article much bigger than this, so we have chosen to concentrate on two main areas: the changes to Hyper-V and the updates that make the server OS suitable for creating and managing BYOD (bring your own device) policies, often described as the consumerization of IT.


New Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V Features Leave VMware Behind

Windows Server 2012 R2As an MCT I am constantly informed on courses that VMware is the much better Virtualization technology in comparison to Hyper-V. With the release of Server 2012, however, Microsoft closed the gap on VMware to within an inch. And now with the release of Windows Server 2012 R2, I believe Microsoft has not only closed the gap, but has left VMware behind.

Shared virtual hard disks

There's good news if you're looking to cluster guest operating systems, as R2 now allows you to share Microsoft's VHDX virtual hard disk format files as storage for your clustered applications. In previous versions, guest OS clustering required your storage method to be exposed to the guest OS, so if the shared storage was on an iSCSI target, then the iSCSI initiators on each guest OS needed to be aware of and connected to the same target. With R2, the guest OS connects to the VHDX without needing the storage method to be defined.

Additionally, R2 now makes it possible to re-size a VHDX file that is attached to a SCSI disk, all while the virtual machine running it remains online.

Storage quality of service on VHDs

The new storage quality of service (QoS) feature in R2 allows users to specify a minimum and maximum I/O load for each virtual hard disk, helping to ensure that the storage throughput of one virtual hard disk doesn't impact the throughput of another.

Virtual machine export on the fly

Previous versions of Server 2012 required administrators to power-down the VM when exporting a virtual machine, which always required unwanted downtime. Hyper-V has been updated in the Windows Server R2 release to support the exporting of virtual machines or their check points while the virtual machine is still running.

Virtual network adaptor and storage protection for Failover Clustering

Hyper-V has been enhanced to detect and deal with network connectivity failures such as faulty switch ports, or faulty network adaptors. In R2, when a Failover Cluster detects a problem in a particular node, another node in the cluster will automatically start to provide the service, and the nodes are continuously monitored to verify that they are working properly. If they are not working, they restart or move the service to another node.

Additionally, Hyper-V can also monitor unmanaged storage used by the clustered virtual machines, so if a VM loses access to an unmanaged drive the Cluster Shared Volume (CSV) functionality fails over to provide a consistent, distributed namespace for the nodes to access the shared storage.

Hyper-V Replica adds a third server and cloud backup option

With Hyper-V Replica — first introduced in Widows Server 2012 — administrators could create an offline copy of a virtual machine on a 2nd Hyper-V server, and if that first server failed, the replica could be brought online, restoring services.

With the introduction of Server 2012 R2, there's now the ability to extend replication to a 3rd disaster recovery server, and should the primary VM fail and the second server take over, then R2 will now automatically replicate that server to the remaining server. Also, replication in R2 allows users to set the frequency of replication and gives the additional choice of replicating in to Windows Azure, or another cloud-based replication provider.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Enables Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

Like it or not, more and more users expect to be able to access their work files and applications from anywhere and at any time, regardless of what device they are working on and regardless of whether that device is domain joined or not.

With the release of Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft has introduced several new features to allow admins to securely grant access to corporate applications and data for those users who want to bring their own device (BYOD).

Firstly, this involves allowing devices to be associated with the company's Active Directory environment. Secondly, it uses that association to provide single sign-on capabilities to seamlessly access content and applications, either internally or from the net.

Workplace Join for sharing files and folders

Using Workplace Join, users can associate their personal devices to the domain to access files and folders. Workplace Join is made possible using the new device registration service (DRS). When a device connects with Workplace Join the DRS creates a device object in Active Directory and hands out an authentication certificate, which is then subsequently used to confirm the identity of the device, without the device needing to join the domain.

Web Application Proxy for apps and services outside of the firewall

Web Application Proxy is a new Remote Access role service in Windows 2012 R2, and when used in conjunction with Workplace Join, administrators can provide end users located outside the organization with access to applications and services running on servers inside the organization.

Work Folders for file synchronization

Work Folders add to the functionality provided by Workplace Join and allow users to sync files on a Windows Server 2012 R2 file server with folders on their own device, and provide administrators with the ability to centrally manage the files and folders.


One Thing to Mourn

While Windows Server 2012 R2 has introduced new features in areas such as group policy, IPAM, Remote Desktop Services, DHCP and more, there is one area that has been de-emphasized that I'm particularly sad about. And when Microsoft de-emphasizes a feature, it is very rare we see further development on it.

Network Access Protection (NAP) has been de-emphasized in Windows Server 2012 R2. It isn't a feature that I have seen deployed extensively, but it is one that I believe had so much promise. With the rise of Direct Access, WSUS, NPS and other 3rd party technologies such as CISCO Network Admission Control, it seems that duplicating work with NAP was likely seen as unnecessary. File it under "a good service that didn't fulfill its potential."

Author Bio: Mike Brown is the Lead Windows Server Instructor for Firebrand Training and is a Microsoft Certified Trainer. When not in the class room, Mike is writing a range of How-to and information articles on Windows Server 2012.

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