Review: Weighing Windows Server 2012

From network services and storage to virtualization and private cloud, the beefy new Windows Server leaves no server role unturned

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When you're exploring roles in Server Manager, you'll see several enhancements. One of the more noteworthy is DHCP Failover. Microsoft built this to comply with the IETF definition, and it allows you to configure DHCP servers as strictly hot failovers or in load-balancing mode. For straight failover, smaller networks can do this in a one-on-one mode, while larger installations can assign a single failover server to cover multiple production DHCP servers.

Load balancing, however, is the default mode. It's designed to work best for failover servers located on the same site, though they can span multiple subnets. True, this isn't as powerful as Windows Server's full-on failover/clustering capability, but having it as an integrated feature in the DHCP server role makes it much easier to deliver resilient DHCP services quickly.

Another key role to explore is Hyper-V. This one became notably beefier since Windows Server 2008, growing from 64 logical host processors to 320 with support for 2,048 virtual processors. Host memory support went from 1TB of physical memory to 4TB and memory per VM jumped from 64GB to 1TB, and you can now cluster up to 4,000 VMs. But Microsoft has more in mind with Hyper-V than simply pushing out its hardware limits, or even beefing up its networking and storage capabilities. Hyper-V is the foundation for Microsoft's much, much-promoted private cloud solution, which pairs WS2012 and System Center 2012.

Pillars of the private cloud
The combination of the two builds a stack that covers all the features you'd expect from a private cloud, including infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and hybrid cloud computing, but also adds a sophisticated service delivery capability that combines application management and data center orchestration. That combo allows you to manage applications as workloads rather than isolated tiers, and deliver them to users as admin-designed service offerings.

Users can select services from a self-service menu or portal and the private cloud will kick off associated back-end workflows automatically. This feature set takes the Microsoft private cloud right to the feature peak when it comes to today's private cloud offerings, and it's a feature set you'll need to evaluate in-depth if cloud computing (read: virtualization and automation) is on your agenda. To make that a little easier, Microsoft is offering a truckload of free and pay-based training via its MSDN, TechNet, and Learning sites.

All these high-level abilities are built in conjunction with System Center 2012. But Windows Server 2012 contains the foundation features necessary to make the private cloud happen. Hyper-V Network Virtualization is one such example, allowing administrators to build networks based on multitenant designs. Think of these as VLANs on steroids.

Using network virtualization, you can build multiple logical network topologies on top of your physical network infrastructure and parse them out among users and workloads, allowing you to move around network resources and workloads without having to change anything at the physical level -- and without users being the wiser or bumping into one another.

A little further into the future, you can see where this is headed: Complex network capabilities move into virt-space while the network physical layer moves toward an ever flatter design intended merely to provide capacity. That might frighten network administrators today, but as long as you stay current with network virtualization your job will just move into virt-space along with your network.

At the heart of Windows Server 2012's network virtualization is the new Hyper-V Extensible Switch. This looks like a very slick piece of code, but of course it's hot off the forge: You'll want to make sure it stands up to your network requirements before designing anything that needs the v-switch as a dependency.

In a smart move, Microsoft has made the v-switch an open platform based on the Network Device Interface Specification (NDIS), which means third-party network vendors can design plug-ins for value-add features. Expect to see a few of these available at Windows Server 2012's ship date, though I bet the bulk will come out some months after that. Such extensions will allow you to build v-switch-based network infrastructure for specific tasks such as firewall and intrusion detection, packet filtering and inspection, and more.

The many new storage-oriented features Microsoft has built into Windows Server 2012 should also turn your head. There are too many to cover in-depth in this space, but make sure to evaluate Virtual Machine Storage Migration, updated controls for Windows Storage Management, thin provisioning support, and the new Storage Spaces, to name a few.

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