Windows Server 8 Beta

Private clouds are the main focus of Windows Server 8, which is now available as a public beta. However, there's something in it for everyone from the smallest home office to the largest international company.

You might think that Microsoft's cloud investments were limited to its online services and its cloud platform Azure. But being 'all in' on the cloud is about more than running massive datacentres. It's also about helping businesses find their own routes to the cloud, whether in Azure's public cloud, or their own private cloud deployments — deployments that could be one, two or a dozen servers.

Private cloud, public cloud
It's that cloud investment that's at the heart of Windows Server 8, now available as a beta download from Microsoft's TechNet. Like its client sibling, this is the second public release of Microsoft's next-generation server OS. Also like the client, this is the first that's not targeted at developers — and Microsoft expects businesses to use the beta to pilot deployments and experiment with its new private-cloud-focused features.

There's a lot to the Windows Server 8 Beta. We touched on many of its features in our look at the Developer Preview, but Microsoft hasn't stopped adding new functionality. One thing to remember is that you'll need to learn PowerShell to use Windows Server 8. All the management tools generate PowerShell, and the built-in PowerShell IDE is one of the most important management tools in the OS.

There's no change from the Developer Preview to the way you'll work with Windows Server 8. The Metro Start screen is here to stay, and like the client OS, the start orb is gone, replaced by mouse gestures and the Windows key. There's also touch support, if you're using a touch-enabled monitor, or working through Remote Desktop on a touch desktop or tablet. Once you've logged onto the server you'll spend most of your time in the new Server Manager, with its Metro-like look and feel.

Server Manager is the heart of Windows Server 8: it's where you'll set up and manage both local and remote servers, with tools for managing groups of servers and giving you an at-a-glance view of issues and problems

Installation and Server Manager
You can install Server 8 with a GUI, or as a GUI-less Server Core. There's also the option to selectively remove elements of the UI, letting applications that have a UI run, while removing administration tools and the Explorer. There's a good reason for this approach, with much of what you'd need to do to administer a Server 8 system now available through PowerShell (and all that available using remote WMI). Microsoft has also delivered its Remote Server Administration Tools alongside the beta, meaning you can now manage a group of Server Core systems from a desktop PC with a local copy of Server Manager. If you're running a private cloud, there should be no need to log onto each and every server — for one thing they'll be deployed on demand, managed and scaled automatically, and delivering services rather than applications.

Where previous versions of Windows Server had many different management tools, you can do nearly everything from the new Server Manager. If it doesn't contain the function you need, it'll launch the appropriate tool. It's also a one-stop shop for managing several servers. Administrators can be assigned groups of servers (perhaps all those associated with a specific service), and Server Manager will give them one place where they can see just what's happening — and where they can find the tools to resolve any problems.

Virtualise, virtualise
Windows Server 8 is Microsoft's first cloud operating system. With a new version of Hyper-V baked into the OS, you're expected to run all your servers virtualised, managing them through RSAT and the System Center 2012 management tools. Hyper-V itself gets an update from the Developer Preview. If you've got a really powerful server, a VM can now work with up to 1TB of memory, and up to 64TB of virtual storage. A host can handle up to 160 logical processors per Hyper-V host, as well as 1,024 VMs per host, 64 nodes per cluster, 4,000 VMs per cluster and 32 virtual processors per VM. That's an impressive set of specifications, which also mean that Microsoft has carefully considered what's needed to run a scalable cloud platform.

Windows Server 8's Storage Pools let you build massive virtual storage arrays from commodity hardware, with thin provisioning and support for the new ReFS resilient file system

Store it, virtually
Storage Pools remains one of Windows Server 8's most important features. The ability to handle thin provisioning of drives and virtual storage arrays at an OS level is a big move forward for all sizes of business. Businesses will be able to quickly expand their storage to respond to changes in demand without having to change drive mappings or build complex storage arrays. Instead, you can take any disks — be they local direct-attached storage, NAS storage or a full-blown SAN — and pool to create thin-provisioned virtual disks, often with much less physical storage than provisioned. Disks in a pool can be any size, there's no need for balanced RAID arrays, and you can just buy the storage as you need it.

One of the biggest changes in the beta is the arrival of a new file system. Known as ReFS, Microsoft's Resilient File System is design to work with commodity drives, while still giving you data integrity. Used in conjunction with Storage Pools, it's a technology that gives Windows Server 8 off-the-shelf storage capabilities comparable to high-end storage arrays, without requiring dedicated controllers. You can't use it for boot volumes though, as ReFS is designed purely for storage. ReFS will scan file metadata and correct errors, with data stored in multiple locations — much like the storage pooling technology in Microsoft's first-generation Home Server.

Combining ReFS and Storage Pools makes a lot of sense. Resilient storage is increasingly important, and the ability to do this in commodity drives can save a lot of money, while still allowing consolidation around a private storage cloud. With ReFS you can get the performance and integrity of a high-end RAID system without the additional costs. Combined with Hyper-V 3.0 and the tools in the upcoming System Center release,o you've got the foundation of a private cloud that lets you treat a virtual infrastructure as a platform, rather than just a more complex set of operational problems. Other storage-related features are tools for handling data deduplication and for managing access to files based on content.

Although cloud is the focus of Windows Server 8, there are many, many more features (the reviewer's guide is over 200 pages long). Some, like an improved version of Offline Files with an Always Offline feature, are targeted at end users, while others, such as the new tooling for working with IP addresses, help manage large networks. With Windows Server running all sizes of network, there's something here for nearly everyone who needs a server, from the smallest home office to the largest international company. It's a big product — possibly bigger and more important than the Windows 8 client — and one that will certainly have more impact on what you do as a business, and how you go about doing it.


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