Windows Server 2012: RTM review

Windows Server 2012: RTM review

Summary: Microsoft is looking ahead to a future of private and public clouds, where information is everything, and users can access it however they want. Is Microsoft's latest server OS up to the job?


The heart of the Windows enterprise ecosystem isn't the desktop, or the tablet, or even the smartphone. It's Windows Server — the old reliable that sits in the datacentre and just keeps ticking along, managing your files, handing your email and running your business. You might think that meant you'd never need to upgrade — but businesses and the technologies they use change, which means that Windows Server (which was released to manufacturing on 1 August and became available on 4 September) needs to change too.

On the desktop, with Windows 8, that change is obvious, with a new touch-oriented user interface and a new programming model. In the datacentre, with Windows Server 2012, there's also plenty of change: Microsoft is looking ahead to a future of private and public clouds, where information is everything, and users can access it in any way they want. It's a brave new world of work — but is Microsoft's latest server up to the job?

The Road to RTM: Windows Server 2012 RC,
Windows Server 8 Beta,
Windows 8 Server Developer Preview

Start me up
Turn on Windows Server 2012 for the first time, and you're presented with a server version of the Windows 8 Start screen, complete with Store. You'll need to login with a fresh administrator account to access the store (it won't work with the default administrator user). Click on any of the tiles, and you're taken straight to the familiar desktop, and a new modern-style UI for the multi-server Server Manager. This is where you'll spend most your time, as it's where you'll add and manage features, launch tools and watch for alerts. Much of what Server Manager does is encapsulated in PowerShell cmdlets, and it's well worth getting to grips with PowerShell 3.0 as it's how you'll manage UI-less Server Core installs — as well as using it to remotely manage all the servers in a network (in conjunction with the tools in System Center 2012).

The Server Manager Dashboard gives you a quick overview of the servers currently being managed, the services they support and their current state. Green means all is good, red indicates issues that need investigating — in this case some errors from a Best Practice Analyzer scan. (For more Windows Server 2012 RTM screenshots, see our gallery.)

If you prefer to use a desktop PC to manage Windows Server 2012, Microsoft has released a preview of its Remote Server Administration Tools, which bring Server Manager and other server tools to Windows 8. With RSAT on desktop PCs it's a lot easier — and a lot more secure — to deploy servers using Server Core, as your management tooling can run independently of your servers.

Going virtual to the private cloud
The heart of Microsoft's private cloud strategy is Hyper-V. With the latest version of the hypervisor, there's not just feature parity with VMware, but plenty of new features that take advantage of the latest hardware. This allows Microsoft to support massive clusters of compute and memory, and to work with storage hardware to speed up VM migration. The cloud isn't just about virtualisation, and much of Microsoft's work in the new Hyper-V is about using it to deliver a compute fabric to sit alongside the Windows' new storage fabric. While Windows Server 2012 gives you a lot of virtualisation features out the box, you will need to implement System Center 2012 to get the most out of any private clouds you build — especially if you're planning on using template-driven service definitions to manage and deploy servers and applications.

Hyper-V brings a new, more resilient, virtual hard disk format. You can use the Edit Virtual Hard Disk tools to upgrade to the new format — but remember to merge snapshots first. 

Microsoft is introducing a new format for its VHD virtual disks with Windows Server 2012, with VHDX. It's more efficient, and able to support much larger disk sizes. You can convert existing disks to VHDX format, using Hyper-V's disk edit tool, but you'll need to merge any snapshots before making the conversion.

Hyper-V also contains the seeds of a major change for Microsoft's virtualisation platform. It's now possible to swap out the basic virtual switch for more complex third-party tooling such as Cisco's Nexus soft switch. By opening up the Hyper-V virtual network to tools like this, Microsoft is giving the hypervisor the tools it needs to become part of a software-defined network (SDN) — allowing rapid reconfiguration of networking features to handle policy-based service deployment. It's hard to overstate just how big a feature this is, as SDN is an important component of both public and private clouds. Support for SDN switches inside Hyper-V goes a long way to making Hyper-V the basis of a dynamically-managed private cloud rather than just another infrastructure component.

Managing, storing and accessing information
Storage is the other part of Microsoft's private cloud platform, and Windows Server 2012 introduces a new way of working with disks — as well as a new file system, ReFS. Using the File and Storage Services tools in Server Manager you can quickly build a thinly provisioned virtual storage pool, with support for mirroring on mismatched consumer drives. It's an approach that means you can quickly add new drives to a pool, and manage directly attached and network storage, as well as storage array networks, from the same console. When tied in with the service management tooling in System Center 2012, it's a quick way of rapidly deploying services as well as handling live migrations of existing virtual servers.

With ever more mobile users, managing information access and security is increasingly important. Although VPNs remain an effective tool for controlling access to servers, Microsoft introduced Direct Access in Windows Server 2008 R2. Using IPv6 tunnelling to securely extend an intranet to mobile devices, Direct Access was complex to set up and hard to use in conjunction with many SME networks, as it had difficulties traversing NAT firewalls. That's all changed in Windows Server 2012, with a revamped Direct Access that addresses many of its predecessor's shortcomings. The new version will work with single-homed servers, and with NAT devices, defaulting to using IP-HTTPS to traverse most common firewalls.

Configuring remote access is as easy as walking through a simple wizard. You'll need to know the configuration of your network, and the public name used to connect to the service (which will set up the appropriate certificates).

Direct Access is also a lot easier to configure and deploy, with a simple wizard (you can configure both Direct Access and a VPN in four or five clicks) and a graphical management console. Policies are automatically pushed out to domain-joined devices, and you can configure details of support contacts as well as naming the connection.

BYOD deployments need better file management tools, and Windows Server 2012's Dynamic Access Control replaces complex ACLs with rule-based file and directory policies. Using Dynamic Access Control you can build rules that control access to files based on user claims — whether they're part of a group or a role, and whether their device supports Information Rights Management encryption tools. Dynamic Access Control is managed using Active Directory, but works with non-domain joined devices, as it uses user properties rather than devices.

Ready for the datacentre, today
Windows Server 2012 is a powerful tool, and an easy upgrade from Windows Server 2008 R2. We were able to upgrade a server in less than an hour, including upgrading Active Directory schema for an entire small-business network. All existing applications carried on running, including websites and applications, although we did choose to upgrade the virtual hard disks of a small private cloud once we were up and running. A simplified set of SKUs makes it easier to choose and licence your servers, and the latest Hyper-V release turns even the smallest office server into a full-fledged private cloud — complete with software-defined networking and storage pools.

Microsoft has done an excellent job on Windows Server 2012. It has managed to add new features and new tools, while still working as a drop-in replacement for earlier Windows Server releases. That's going to make it a lot easier to get up and running with a new server OS, while giving you an ideal migration path to tomorrow's world of private and public clouds. It's not often that we describe a server operating system as a must-have upgrade, but if ever there was one, this is it.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Reviews, Servers

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • lots of ZD bloggers dis Microsoft

    Judging by your review, rumors of Microsoft's impending demise are premature. This server software looks amazing.
    • looks amazing?

      why would you care what you server interface looks like? I wanna know the functionnalities, how stable it is and how much time/productivity will be lost before I can do my job as fast on windows server 2012 as I can on 2008 R2. What it looks like is irrelevent.
      • Why I like the look

        The Server Manager Dashboard puts a lot of information in front of you in a way that you can see what is happening without clutter. Color coding problems saves lots of time because you see in a glance what you need to pay attention to. Ou waste lots of time and lose producivity when you are forced to visually wade through wasted pixels. Transit systems and airports are learning that the sensory overload of too many signs makes it hard for people to get around. Microsoft is figuring out the same thing.
        I gurantee that finding needed information about the network takes up extra time because of the visual layouts on the displays in front of administrators.
  • It is great, but looks cr...

    One of the greatest Server OSes ruined by the Metro crp UI. Maybe what Microsoft is trying to tell me is that I should install it on my Acer W500 tablet, or maybe they have simply gone nuts.
    • Lol wut?

      You mean your servers run nice pretty GUIs? How wonderful!

      But seriously, don't have a GUI on a server.
      • Some of us do not use scripts all the time...

        UI does matter on any edition of the OS, otherwise the server edition will not have the option to have one.

        You obviously do not have the same requirements as a lot of people out there. For example, for development and testing purposes some people do run Windows Server on their desktop. One of the reasons is HyperV, why do you think MS added that feature to Windows8?

        Also I like administering my servers using the UI not the command prompt. Otherwise I may as well use UNIX and that one of the main points of using Windows, a simple UI that is easy to learn and do your job.

        Metro changed all that and suddenly you have to use scripts and key combinations to find your way around any edition of the OS. This is a push towards UNIX mentality which I am trying to avoid for the past 20 years of my career. Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 is a generation of Windows I will gladly avoid. In my new request for 9 monster servers at work for next year, I did request Windows Server 2008 R2 so when I occasionally have to interact with them I will not have to mess around flashing rectangles to do my job.
        • Did you actually use it ?

          My bet is a sound NO. The way to manage and interact with the OS has not changed dramatically. The only big chance is the absence of the start menu, for the rest it is business as usual. Of course using third party tools (which are free of charge) you can make Server 2012 look and act the same as 2008R2 without loosing the new features and benefits (which are downright impressive).

          Of course the new server manager indeed will let you manage any server from your desktop instead of actually having to rdp into the server.

          Those 9 monster servers should of course be equipped with the latest and greatest, I am surprised your employer lets you get away with this, as you are installing a three year old os with lesser features, simply because you are too lazy or ignorant to keep up with times..
          • 2008R2 4ever

            I have used all beta/preview releases of Windows Server 2012 from day one, great OS, rubbish UI (same applies to Windows 8 Desktop).

            Thes Win2008R2 servers are installed for my project, my budget pays for those, so I decide what goes on them, as long as it is still supported I can install whatever I like. I do not really need the new Server 2012 features that badly anyway. And yes I can configure it remotely but I also need to login to them every now and then and I don’t want to have to deal with rectangles.

            So according to you Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise cannot make good use of 40 cores 80 threads, 256GB of memory system with 8 NIC cards? That is an interesting statement, let’s ask Microsoft about that.
          • Nowhere did I claim that

            Of course, smb 3.0 alone is worth the upgrade, and again the desktop is still a mere click away, it is downright silly to disqualify a much better os just on the Ui, which you might use only once or twice. I would simply revert to a core machine if the workload enables it, less binairies, less attack surface, and contrary to 2008R2 you can switch between them in a heartbeat.
          • You are not an admin!

            mil7 -- I get it now! You are not a server administrator!!!!

            You are just somebody using servers for your project, with no real understanding about server management or administration in an Enterprise environment. Now your total dependance on GUI makes a lot more sense.
        • ...said by somebody who never used UNIX

          mil7 -- methinks you have never actually used UNIX. Yes indeed a lot can be done (and is done by real server administrators) with scripting. There is also a full GUI...and oh yea, in many UNIX environments YOUR CHOICE of GUI!

          As far as trying to avoid command-line. Hey, you sound more like a user than a systems administrator! Oh yea, I use GUIs all the time. But for some things typing the command is a whole lot faster than navigating a GUI.

          Before you start popping off about operating systems and pretending to know the "mentality" of them, you might want to actually spend some time using them.
          • time and command line

            The command line is fine if you know the commands. If you don't, what could take seconds results in hours spent trying to find the command to type. I've worked on Linux casually for many years, and gradually migrated to GUIs as they became available, simply because it was faster and more reliable than trying to remember a command and all of its options. GUIs also have the advantage of display the status of whatever you are interested in, so that you don't need to remember another command to query it. With Windows, on the other hand, we started with GUIs and may be migrating to command line, using commands that we never knew in the first place, so it is even harder than remembering Linux commands. Arrogantly putting people down because they don't work on a particular server heavily enough to keep those obscure commands fresh in memory is not helpful.
          • Command line AND GUI - a nice choice to have

            It's really very easy to give users the choice of both, I used to spend my time admiring the freedom of choice I had for how I used windows. Now I spend my time cursing the morons who have removed it.
  • Simply AMAZING...

    Of course, I was running this years ago. My MCSE's were told to deploy and deploy without prejudice. That being said, the official release was a wild and crazy event here! As a top flight CIO, I mandated all IT staff stay after hours and forced a celebration. To kick it off, my rep entered the data center with the GOLD MASTER DVD. I then started blasting "For Those About To Rock..." by AC/DC. With that, the party kicked off in earnest. It was obvious the staff was overwhelmed as nobody said a word all night while my rep and I demoed our Windows 8 Phone devices.
    Mike Cox
  • super release it is...

    with all the news and the spotlight the client gets, the server SKU gets shadowed in terms of the importance it deserves... Server 8 or 2012 is a super release and is going to smoke the competition...
  • Who cares?

    More than 90% of the servers are powered by much more secure Linux not this virus nightmare crap
    • Impressive.

      I'm impressed you have been able to go to every existing business in the world and could count accurately enough to know the percentange. If you say 90%, then it must be true.
    • LOL!

      75% of servers are powered by Windows, Not linux.

      It's in the sales figures, but you go ahead and keep pulling numbers out of your butt. We get a good laugh off of you.
      William Farrel
    • "Virus Nightmare Crap"?

      Given that you don't run a browser (or Adobe Reader, or any of the other common attack vectors) on a server, I'm curious how you might see viruses on Windows Server. The SDL has made Microsoft's server software the most secure in the business (for example compare SQL Server's patching record to Oracle's).
    • In your dreams

      I'm an old geezer, and yes I like UNIX. I like VAX better, but that is another conversation.

      having said that, I'm falling over in hysterics with that 90% number. You dream that last night...perhaps a "dream within a dream"???

      Sorry dude, but UNIX as a whole does not approach 90%, let alone the Linux subset. And as far as security goes, a server is only as secure as the administrator running it. UNIX is not natively more secure than Windows. Oh sure, some distributions of Linux (say BSD) have been very specifically tweaked for security. But plain vanilla installation...sorry, just ain't so.