What's in Windows Server 2012 R2 for small businesses
7th Oct 2013 | 22:30
All that R2 can bring to your biz
The new version of Windows Server is shipping soon, and it combines solid improvements to key features like storage, virtualisation and high availability so your server systems can keep running, with much wider support for users who want to connect to your business systems with iOS or Android as well as with Windows or Windows RT devices.
This is Microsoft acknowledging that we're using much more than PCs to get work done these days, but still giving IT admins options for controlling access and protecting information.
These connections use the new remote access role in Windows Server 2012 R2; this gives you a way of letting iOS, Android, Windows RT and even Windows 8.1 users do a workplace join instead of joining your Active Directory.
The first level of this gives you a record of which devices are connecting to your systems and lets you publish web apps through the Web application proxy so only your users get access; the second level lets you control settings on those devices – not as many as with Group Policy.
Of course, much of the software your business uses are probably Windows programs rather than Web apps. For the first time, Microsoft is now creating official remote desktop clients for iOS, Android and Mac OS X (they will be in the relevant app stores by the end of October).
You'll need to have remote access client access licenses for all your users, but this cuts out at least one of the steps for supporting multiple platforms. (This is definitely Microsoft thinking about other platforms; if you need to run Linux in a virtual machine, R2 has far more features to make that work well, including dynamic memory and being able to back up VMs without pausing them.)
If you need access to files from your server while you're travelling, without a remote connection, the new Work Folders feature will sync a folder from a share on the office file server – and update it with your changed documents, without you having to connect via VPN. When Windows Server 2012 R2 ships that will work with Windows 8.1; in the first half of 2014, Microsoft will release clients for Windows 7 and iOS (Windows 8 users will need to upgrade to Windows 8.1).
Work folders still isn't a replacement for offline files, because it syncs the whole file when something changes, not just the changes, and it tries to sync the whole folder on the file server. It does know when there are too many files to fit on your device and it won't try to copy them all, but at least in this version, you can't pick and choose the files you want to sync unless you're prepared to put them in a separate folder (admins can pick one specific folder inside your home directory on the server as the one that syncs, but that means thinking about the folder structure more than most people want).
Talking to the work folders team at Microsoft, they're aware of the issues – and of the fact that Microsoft has multiple sync options with offline files, work folders and SkyDrive Pro. As future Windows Server updates arrive, selective sync is high on their list of improvements – but we're not expecting the next version of Windows Server to arrive as quickly as R2 did.
Adding Azure to Server
The release version of Windows Server 2012 R2 looks very much like the preview; what's changed is the quality of the code underneath it, which seems smoother and snappier. It's impressive how much Microsoft has added to Windows Server in just a year, without any drop in quality.
The speed of development for Windows Azure is helping here. And the influence of Azure is visible, not just in the Azure Pack – which lets a company or a hosting service bundle up resources like storage, memory and the ability to run virtual machines into a portal that looks just like Azure, so you can set up a Linux VM or a WordPress site on a Windows Server system exactly the way you would on Azure – but in the blurring of the lines between what's in Server and what's a service.
When you log in to an app using Workplace Join, the sign-in screen looks like the Azure or Ofice 365 sign-in screen – because the connection happens through Azure.
If you want to make it easier for employees to log into Office 365 and Salesforce and other cloud services using the same accounts they use to sign in to Windows, you can use the free Azure Active Directory service to set up single sign on for specific people for specific apps. You can even hide the details of the cloud logins – so you can let people sign in to your company Twitter account but they won't be able to take the password with them and embarrass you in public if you sack them.
If you want to make employees use their smartphone to prove they're the person logging into your network or using your apps over the Web, you can use Microsoft's new multi-factor authentication tool with your own Active Directory; make people accept a phone call to the number listed in AD or type in a code they get by text message. You don't have to run that in Azure or pay extra for it, but you do have to get it from the Azure site. Slowly but surely, Microsoft is bringing Windows Server and Azure closer together, mostly in ways that make sense.
Microsoft is also bringing System Center (and Intune) and Windows Server closer together; especially if you're looking after a larger network or you want to manage PCs, phones and tablets in the same way – sending out certificates and VPN connections or creating a company portal that lets you offer apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 users in the same place - you'll need System Center as well as Windows Server 2012 R2. For smaller businesses the Server Manager interface is enough to manage everything from storage spaces to work folders, although you still also have to use almost a dozen extra tools for specific features like managing virtual machines.
If you only have a few users and devices, the Server Essentials version of Windows Server 2012 R2 has far more features in the dashboard interface, including better file history integration for Windows 8, the option to back up the server to Windows Azure, management tools for phones and tablets that let you force users to set a PIN or remote wipe lost devices and a simple wizard for creating storage spaces. You can create Office 365 users straight from the dashboard or use security and distribution groups to organise users.
That's more useful if you're virtualising Server Essentials (a new option in this release). You can run Server Essentials as a virtual machine on Server Essentials itself (so if your server hardware ever fails, you can just move it onto new hardware from your backup and carry on from exactly the same point) but you can't use any other VMs at the same time. If you need to run more than one virtual machine, you can now run Server Essentials as a role on the standard version of Windows Server to get the simple dashboard; that lets you have to 100 users, when you'll definitely want groups.
What is a R2 release?
Windows Server alternates 'year' releases like 2012 with R2 updates. We asked principal program manager Jeff Woolsey what the difference is. "The way we think about R2 is that we're going to keep the kernel changes to a minimum and we're going to be very surgical about that. We will include new code, but we won't make wholesale changes to the kernel." That means you get new features (like storage spaces that mix SSDs with standard hard drives and automatically put your most frequently accessed files on the SSD).
Plus an R2 version doesn't cost quite as much as a version where the year changes. The big saving is that if you have client access licences for Server 2012 features, you don't need to buy more CALs. And if you buy Windows Server on a volume licence (which even small businesses can do), the upgrade is free; otherwise Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard and Essentials are both the same price as Server 2012. If pulling in more cloud features and giving your users more mobile options fits what your business needs, R2 is a logical upgrade, when your budget and schedule allow.