Microsoft Windows Server 2012 Standard and Datacentre £540
18th Oct 2012 | 10:52
We put Microsoft's new server OS through its paces
The RTM of Windows Server 2012 took a little longer to become available than the RTM of Windows 8 but it was worth waiting for. This is a polished update of a definitive release of Windows Server that has improvements and new features for companies from small to large.
Some of the best features, take features that have been reserved for large companies with large budgets and large support teams and make them accessible to much smaller businesses; if you need continuous availability or thin-provisioned, de-duplicated storage, you can do it on budget hardware.
Standard and Datacenter editions
And you don't need to worry about which version of Windows Server you're getting; all the features are in both the Standard and Datacenter editions and the only difference is the number of virtual machines you can run.
You can run up to two VMs on two processors with Standard edition, which is about right for a production server and fits in with Server vice president Bill Laing's predictions that "people will buy many small machines not a few large machines" and manage them as if they were a single system.
Microsoft has described Windows Server 2012 as a cloud operating system, but don't be fooled into thinking there's nothing for on-premise servers. There are major improvements in key areas like virtualization and remote access, plus new tools for security; in fact there are many more improvements across the range of Windows Server features than we can cover in this review.
Yes, Windows Server has the Windows 8 Start screen but given that admins will be connecting remotely or spending their time in Server Manager, the new look shouldn't put you off this impressive upgrade.
If you're looking for a much simpler approach to a server, neither Windows Small Business Server nor Windows Home Server survive in the Server 2012 product line. Windows Server Essentials does, for up to 25 users, and it's much more approachable because you work with it through a Remote Web Access web browser, a Windows Phone app or the new Windows 8 companion app.
The Release Candidate of Server 2012 Essentials is available now and the final release should be out by the end of 2012 – although if you're looking for something that simple, you may want to wait until you can order it pre-installed on server hardware.
Perhaps the single most important feature in Server 2012 is Hyper-V 3 – which you can get for free with Hyper-V Server, if you're comfortable with the most minimal approach. This is the version where Hyper-V catches up with VMware and improves on it in some areas (including performance).
Virtualisation is simple to set up, and Hyper-V 3 supports 64 virtual processors and 1TB of memory in each VM. It also lets you virtualise more than ever before; not just compute and storage but even network switches; instead of buying a pricey Cisco router, how about getting the software to get the equivalent functionality running on a server you already have?
Predictive hardware error reporting (like warnings about memory errors that could indicate failing RAM) now works in Hyper-V, so it can proactively turn off problematic memory used by the VM. But if anything does go wrong – or you need to schedule maintenance – the 'shared nothing' live migration can move any VM and storage, together or separately, without shutting anything down.
Hyper-V works better with NAS devices, supporting SMB2, but if you have a storage array that supports ODX offload, then moving files and VMs around is stunningly fast because the data doesn't actually move; Hyper-V tells the storage array to move it but the ODX support means it just moves the pointers. That's not just faster but it doesn't use up all your network bandwidth either.
New Storage Spaces
The new Storage Spaces are another significant feature and the perfect match for Hyper-V. Thirty per cent of Windows Home Server sales have been to small businesses because it's a great, simple backup system that doesn't need the matched disks and long array rebuilds of traditional RAID arrays in NAS boxes.
Storage Spaces is the business-grade equivalent, built on the new Resilient File System (ReFS) which reduces the risk of data loss anyway; you aggregate any number of disks of any size into a storage pool and you can keep adding more drives without reconfiguring the Storage Space. You can use parity or mirroring and you can thin provision storage, so you can allocate all the storage you plan to buy, but start with what you can afford today.
Storage Spaces has limitations; you can't store more than the disks you already have can hold, and when you run out of space on a pool with parity enabled Windows Server 2012 takes it offline so you can add more drives. This makes perfect sense but has confused a number of testers, so you'll need to make sure you understand the implications of thin provisioning.
BYOD isn't going away, but if you think of it mainly as a trend that breaks the security of your firewall, you'll like the new Dynamic Access Control. This doesn't have the simplest or clearest interface but there are plenty of third-party tools arriving to help you automatically mark data for protection based on what's in it (phrases like 'company confidential') and the role of the people who should be able to see that kind of content (director and above or anyone in the legal team, say).
Dynamic Access Control works with any Information Rights Management settings you already have, so you could allow users to view but not edit, print or copy protected files. That's much more manageable that trying to create an access control group and keep it up to date or pretending that files you put behind the firewall will just stay there rather than getting copies onto USB sticks and cloud services. And blocked users get a message that tells them who to contact to get access rather than just an error message.
Remote access, remote management
Remote management is key to Server 2012; with Server Core now the default installation, Microsoft doesn't expect admins to be sitting in front of the server they're working on, and once you connect remotely into one server you can then manage multiple servers, setting up workflows that run across multiple machines and dealing with issues that affect more than one system. If a service is down on multiple servers you can select them all in Server Manager and right-click to restart the service on all of them at once.
When you select multiple servers you get a combined view of events and alerts from all of them, which can be a big help in diagnosing issues. Equally important is the fact that all of this is based on standards that will allow third-party tools the same comprehensive access to remote management on Windows Server 2012 systems.
If you haven't tackled PowerShell yet, you're going to want to; there are over 2,400 new commandlets to work with including ones for Hyper-V 3. The Integrated Scripting Environment has lots of improvements - like Intellisense to help you get commands right - and several wizards let you copy the PowerShell script created from your choices to study or reuse.
Additionally you can program the secure multimachine workflow engine with PowerShell, so you could create a script to stop IIS, deploy a web app and then restart IIS, using workflow to make sure each script has completed before the next one starts.
Incidentally, IIS has improvements including support for HTML5 and Web Sockets, making it a much more appealing platform for hosting web applications and services. The Web Platform Installer tool is built in, giving you a fast way to get components and applications so you can go from a new installation to a functioning server far more quickly.
If you only have one server and you're not comfortable with remote tools, there's a more secure option between Server Core - which has better performance, is more secure and needs less patching because there simply isn't as much code running - and the full GUI; this gives you a GUI without Explorer and Internet Explorer.
There are remote access improvements for users as well. Remote Desktop is far faster; fast enough to use over a decent DSL connection and you no longer need specific graphics cards to get RemoteFX video support.
Direct Access goes from being only for network gurus with edge servers and IPv6 to a simple wizard you use to enable remote access to file servers without needing VPN. It remains a little more complex to set up for a small business than we'd like (we weren't able to get it working at all on one test network behind a typical small business firewall and NAT router), but like many Windows Server 2012 features it's much easier to work with than in Server 2008 R2.
Put the virtualisation, storage features and remote management together and you see why Server 2012 has so much potential. You can take a VM that's running on an SMB share with a storage pool of multiple drives and fail it over to another server, almost as fast as if it was physically connected to the other server, without any interruption. And you can do it all from the management tools on whatever server you've remotely accessed into, from your desktop PC or your Windows 8 tablet, without needing expensive and specialised server systems.
On the other hand, if you do have a more sophisticated network, Windows Server 2012 becomes the place where you manage external storage devices and network devices and everything else that connects to the server.
Working with Windows Server 2012
Everything you know about Windows 8 applies to Windows Server 2012; hover in the bottom left corner and you see the Start button, hover in the top left for the switching pane of other applications, hover in either corner on the right to get the charm bar. Windows-X still brings up a handy menu of tools including the admin command prompt and Device Manager.
You can open the Windows Store and install WinRT apps (you just have to log in with something that isn't the default administrator account and fill in a Microsoft account as usual). You can create groups of tiles on the Start screen; most of the tools you'll use are already there in a handy group.
Although Server Manager has the Windows 8 look, especially in the dashboards (which will also look familiar if you're using Windows Azure) many of the tools have more familiar interfaces.
You will need to be comfortable with Windows 8 if you want to use the Remote Server Administration Tools; although you can remotely access in to it from any system, currently the only version of RSAT for Windows Server 2012 runs on Windows 8. The two operating systems are designed to work well together and they do. But even if you're not planning to run Windows 8 on any of your PCs for the foreseeable future, you'll want to move to Windows Server 2012 more quickly, above all for the storage and virtualisation features.
Almost everything: whatever it is you want to do with Windows Server 2012, it's better in this version. Storage pools will be the standout feature for a lot of small businesses, because you can get enterprise class performance and management with consumer-cost storage.
If you only have one server, Hyper-V 3 is almost wasted, because the ability to move a running VM from one server to another with nothing but an Ethernet cable in between makes it a powerful and flexible option for both virtualisation and availability (and with Hyper-V Server remaining free, you're not going to be out of pocket if you don't need the rest of Windows Server on every system).
Simply being able to go back and forth between the command-line Server Core and a graphical interface on the same server without a time-consuming rebuild makes it easier to have a UI when you need to set up new server software and having a minimal system that needs fewer patches and reboots the rest of the time. There are no more confusions about which version to run; if you have a data centre, you get the Datacentre edition, otherwise you buy Standard and get all the features anyway.
Whatever you think of the replacement of the Start menu by the Start screen, the real problem is that the user interface can be inconsistent. The new look doesn't go all the way down, so when you start in the Server Manager and then suddenly get faced with a console full of MMC snap ins, the transition can be jarring. And that friendly grid of tiles could fool you into thinking everything will be plain sailing, when setting up Direct Access or some of the options in storage pools still require you to understand what you're doing in quite some detail.
More step-by-step wizards and more troubleshooting guides would be helpful here; as it is, you'll want to take a training course, invest in an in-depth guide or keep the relevant TechNet pages open in your browser as you get familiar with Windows Server 2012. On the other hand, this is a server you can run your business on, so it's worth taking the time to make sure you know how to make the most of it the powerful new features.
Windows Server 2012 doesn't just improve existing features, though it certainly does that, from PowerShell to network management and remote access; in particular Hyper-V catches up with and in many cases passes the competition. But it also brings high-end server technologies like continuous availability and storage pools at a budget price to any business that can afford commodity hardware.