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

It may feel like a wolf chasing you through the woods at night -- yet another Windows Server migration closing in on its prey. This is one migration you'll want to look at very closely before trying to pull it off. It's a great time to start serious evaluation, since the Windows Server 8 beta has graduated to the Release Candidate stage and its full and final name: Windows Server 2012. And yeah, the Metro GUI stuck.

I'll do the Metro GUI dance in a bit, but first things first. Not much has changed since the beta, which is great on two levels: First, it means a stable code progression -- a bunch of tweaks would have implied depth coding at the post-beta stage, which is never good news. Second, it means all the cool features that have us excited about Windows Server 2012 will stay in the final release, not disappear in a late-stage dose of reality.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Windows Server 2012: All the coolest featuresTechEd 2012: The key insights for Windows admins | The 10 best new features of Windows Server 2012 | Download the Windows 8 Deep Dive PDF special report | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Installation is even smoother than at the beta stage. Back then I had some driver difficulties with the late-model Dell server on which I was doing a clean installation. This time, I ran it as a virtual machine in VMware Workstation 8 on an HP Envy 15. I screwed the pooch on the first installation, but then I came across a great blog post on installing Windows Server 8 beta on VMware and found it works just as well for the RC iteration.

There's little apparent difference from beta to RC in the installation wizard save for one thing: What was listed as Small Business Server (SBS) in beta is now listed as Microsoft Windows Essentials 2012 at RC. There have been rumors of big changes for SBS coming this year, and the new name seems to lend some credence. I guess we'll see at the SBS announcement, which, if past history is any indication, will be three to six months after Windows Server 2012 ships.

Server Manager über alles
Post-installation, Windows Server 2012 boots directly into the beefed-up Server Manager. It's here that you'll choose roles and add features for your WS2012 machine, not during the installation process as in Windows Server 2008. For most administrators, Server Manager (not the tiled GUI) is where you'll spend the bulk of your time when managing Windows Server 2012, so all the fuss over Server Metro is kinda lost on me.

There are several improvements to Server Manager in this release, but the one I like most is its ability to manage multiple servers as logical groups. You can group servers on whatever criteria suit you: subnet, department, geographical location, you name it. Server Manager can use Active Directory to build these server groups and assign user and administration rights. Couple that with remote server management, and it's going to be much easier to organize and deal with large server farms from afar.

You'll also be manipulating Active Directory via Server Manager, and you'll notice that Microsoft has evolved the heart of its identity management system. The most obvious new change is AD's Dynamic Access Control (DAC) tool set. DAC lays a rules-based framework not just on network resources, but on specific information. This covers not just AD-based access to data files and folders, but also integrates with Windows' Rights Management permissions.

That combination will let administrators design more granular data access structures than ever, covering not just file access but also control over printing, saving, sending, and other capabilities. The AD portion also lets administrators group data in logical subsets, such as grouping a set of files (with accompanying permissions) that are all connected to invoicing, for example. You can construct these subsets based on content or metadata.

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