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Windows Server 8: The Ultimate Cloud OS?

While Windows Client is getting all of the attention at Microsoft's BUILD conference, a powerful Cloud enabled operating system waits patiently in the wings with Server 8.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Since last Thursday, I was ordered under strict nondisclosure to keep my mouth shut. And that was really hard for me to do because I could barely contain my enthusiasm for what is probably the most significant server operating system release that Microsoft has ever planned to roll out.

Nothing from Microsoft, and I mean literally nothing has ever been this ambitious or has tried to achieve so much in a single server product release since Windows 2000, when Active Directory was first introduced.

Last week, a group of about 30 computer journalists were invited to Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond to get an exclusive two-day preview of what is tentatively being referred to as "Windows Server 8".

So much was covered over the course of those two days that the caffeine-fueled and sleep-deprived audience was sucking feature and functionality improvements through a proverbial fire-hose.

We weren't given any PowerPoints or code to take home -- that material will be reserved for after the BUILD conference taking place in Anaheim this week, and I promise to get you galleries and demos of the technology as soon as I can.

[UPDATE: I now have the PowerPoints, and I'll be updating the content of this article to reflect the comprehensive feature list.]

Still, I did take enough notes to give you a brief albeit nowhere near complete overview of the Server OS that is likely to ship from Microsoft within the next year. And it will definitely make huge waves in the enterprise space, I guarantee.

It's not fully known if "Windows Server 8" is just a working title or if it is the actual product name, but what was shown to us in the form of numerous demos and about 20 hours of PowerPoints will be the Server OS that will replace Windows Server 2008 R2.

Server 8 will unleash a massive tsunami of new features specifically targeted at building and managing infrastructure for large multi-tenant Clouds, drastically increased scalability and reliability features in the areas of Virtualization, Networking, Clustering and Storage, as well as significant security improvements and enhancements.

Frankly, I am amazed by the amount of features -- numbering in the hundreds -- that have been added to this product, and how many are actually working right now given the Alpha-level code we were shown. In all the demos, very few glitches occurred, and much of the underlying code and functionality appears to be very mature.

It's my perception based on the maturity off the code that we were demoed that we were shown features that have been under development for several years, possibly going back as far as the Windows Vista release timeframe, which leads me to believe that a great deal of stuff was dropped on the cutting room floor in the Server 2008 and Server 2008 R2 releases and was left out by Microsoft's top brass at the Server group until it was truly ready for prime time.

We did see some new UI improvements -- namely the new Server Manager, which has been designed to replace a lot of the MMC drill-down and associated snap-ins and is targeted towards sysadmins that need to manage multiple views of a large amount of systems simultaneously, based on actual services and roles running on the managed systems, using a "Scenario-Driven" user interface.

However, a lot of what we saw in terms of actual look-and feel was just standard old-school Windows UI, and a lot of PowerShell.

In fact, I would say that Microsoft is pushing PowerShell really hard to sysadmins because you can actually get some very sophisticated tasks done in only a single command, such as migrating one or multiple virtual machines to another host, or altering storage quotas.

Thousands of "Commandlets" for PowerShell have already been written, so as to take advantage of the scripting functionality and heavy automation that will be required for large scale Windows Server 8 and Cloud deployments.

This is not to say Windows 8 Server will be going all command-line Linux-y. There will be new significant UI peices, but Microsoft appears to have done their software development in reverse this time around -- build the API layers and underlying engines first, and then write the UI layers to interface with it afterwards.

They've got a year now to polish the UI elements, a number of which we were told had some commonality with the "Metro" UI shown at BUILD for the WIndows 8 client. As I said, we didn't get to see them at the special Reviewers Workshop, but I'll show them to you as soon as I am able.

Microsoft also stressed that many of the APIs for various new features, including their entire management API will be opened for third party vendors to integrate with and so they could write their own UIs.

One of the ways they are going to do this is by releasing a completely portable, brand-new Web-based Enterprise Management(WBEM) CIM server called NanoWBEM for Linux, written by one of the main developers of of OpenPegasus, which has been designed to work Windows Server 8's new management APIs, so that various vendors can build in the functionality into their products via a common provider interface.

While not strictly Open Source per se, NanoWBEM will be readily licensable to other companies, which is a big step for Microsoft in opening up interfaces into Windows managment.

Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) has also been enhanced considerably, as it now is capable of talking to WSMAN or DCOM directly. This makes it much easier for developers to write new WMI providers.

As to be expected of a Cloud-optimized Windows Server release, many enhancements are going to come in the form of improvements to Hyper-V. And boy are they big ones.

For starters, Hyper-V will now support up to 32 processors and 512GB of RAM per VM. In order to accomodate larger virtual disks, a new virtual file format, .VHDX, will be introduced and will allow for virtual disk files greater than 2 terabytes.

Not impressed? How about 63-node Hyper-V clusters that can run up to 4000 concurrent VMs simultaneously? No, I'm not joking. They actually showed it to us, for real, and it was working flawlessly.

Live Migration in Hyper-V has also been greatly enhanced -- to the point where clustered storage isn't even required to do a VM migration anymore.

Microsoft demonstrated the ability to literally "beam" -- a la Star Trek -- a virtual machine between two Hyper-V hosts with only an IP connection.

A VM on a developer's laptop hard disk running on Hyper-V was sent over Wi-Fi to another Hyper-V server without any downtime -- all we saw was a single dropped PING packet. We also observed the ability of Hyper-V to do live migrations across different subnets, with multiple live migrations being queued up and transferring simultaneously.

Microsoft told us that the limit to the amount of VM and storage migrations that could run simultaneously across a Hyper-V cluster was governed only by the amount of bandwidth that you actually have. No limits to the number of concurrent live migrations in the OS itself. None.

It should also be added that with the new SMB 2.2 support, Hyper-V virtual machines can now live on CIFS/SMB network shares.

Another notable improvements to Hyper-V will include "Hyper-V Replica" which is roughly analogous to the asynchronous/consistent replication functionality sold with Novell's Platespin's Protect 10 virtualization disaster recovery product. This of course will be a built-in feature of the OS and will not require additional licensing whatsoever.

The list of Hyper-V features goes on and on. A new Open Extensible Virtual Switch will allow 3rd-parties to plug into Hyper-V's switch architecture. SR-IOV for privileged access to PCI devices has now been implemented as well as CPU metering and resource pools, which should be a welcome addition to anyone currently using them in existing VMWare environments to portion out virtual infrastructure.

VDI... Did I mention the VDI improvements? Windows Server 8's Remote Desktop Session Host, or RDSH (what used to be called Terminal Server) now fully supports RemoteFXand is enabled by default out of the box.

What's the upside to this? Well now you can put GPU cards in your VDI server so that your remote clients, be it terminals or tablets or Windows desktops that have the new RemoteFX-enabled RDP client software  can run multi-media rich applications remotely with virtually no performance degradation.

As in, completely smooth video playback on remote desktops, as well as the ability to experience full-blown hardware-accelerated Windows 7 Aero and Windows 8 Metro UIs with full DirectX10 and OpenGL 1.1 support on virtualized desktops.

This will work with full remote desktop UIs as well as "Published" applications, a la Citrix. And no, you won't need Citrix XenApp in order to support load balanced remote desktop sessions anymore. It's all built-in.

RemoteFX and the new RDSH is killer, but you know what's really significant? You can template virtual desktops from a single gold master image stored on disk and instantiated in memory as a single VM and then customize individual sessions to have roaming profiles with customized desktops and apps and personal storage using system policy. That conserves a heck of a lot of disk space and memory on the VDI server.

And in Server 8, RDP is also now much more WAN optimized than in previous incarnations.

Can you say hasta la vista, Citrix? I knew that you could.

[Editor's Note: This is my personal opinion. As far as Microsoft is concerned, Citrix is still one of their most valued partners, and in has no way indicated to us that this new RDSH functionality is intended to replace XenApp.]

One of the demos we saw using this technology was a 10-finger multitouch display running RDP and RemoteFX, with the Microsoft "Surface" interface virtualized over the network. It was truly stunning to see.

A number of network improvments have also been implemented that improve Hyper-V as well as all services and roles running on the Server 8 stack, which includes full network virtualization and network isolation for multi-tenancy environments.

This includes Port ACLs that can block by source and destination VM, implementations of Private VLANs (PVLAN), network resource pools and open network QoS as well as packet-level IP re-write with GRE encapsulation and consistent device naming.

Multi-Path I/O (MPIO) drivers (such as EMC's PowerPath and IBM's SDDPCM) when combined with Microsoft's virtual HBA provider can also now be installed as virtualized fiber channel host bus adapters (HBA) within virtual machines, in order to take better advantage of the performance of enterprise SAN hardware and for VMs to have direct access to SAN LUNs.

Windows Server 8 will also include improved Offloaded Data Transfer, so that when you drag and drop files between two server windows, the server OS knows to transfer data directly from one system to another, rather than passing it through your workstation or through another server.

"Branch Caching"performance has also been improved and reduces the need for expensive WAN optimization appliances. Microsoft has also implemented a type of Bitorrent-like technology for the enterprise in branch offices that enables client systems to find the files they need locally on other client systems and servers instead of going across the WAN

The NFS server and client code within Server 8 has also been completely re-written from the ground up and is now much faster, which should be a big help when needing to inter-operate with Linux and UNIX systems.

Server 8 will also include built-in NIC teaming, a "feature" that has always been a part of Windows Server but has been provided in the past by 3rd-party vendors. With the new NIC teaming feature, network interface boards from different vendors can be mixed into bonded teams of trunked interfaces which will provide performance improvements as well as redundancy.

No more need for 3rd-party utilities and driver kits to do this.

Storage in Server 8 has also been greatly enhanced, most importantly the introduction of data de-duplication as part of the OS. Based on two years of work at Microsoft for just the algorithm alone, de-duplication uses commonality factoring to hugely compress the amount of data stored on a volume, with no significant performance implications.

Naturally, this also allows the backup window for a server with a de-duplicated file system to be reduced dramatically.

Oh and chkdsk? Huge storage volumes can be checked and fixed in an on-line state in a mere fraction of a time that it took before. Like, in ten percent of the time it used to.

Server 8 will have built in support for JBODs, as well as new support for SMB storage using RDMA (Remote Direct Memory Access) networks, allowing for large storage pools to be built with commodity 10 gigabit ethernet networks rather than much more expensive fiber-channel SAN technology. Microsoft also demonstrated the capability for Server 8 to "Thin Provision" storage on JBODs as well.

Clustered disks can now be fully encrypted using BitLocker technology and the new Clustered Shared Volume 2.0 implementation fully supports storage integration for built-in replication as well as hardware snapshotting.

And we saw a bunch of new storage virtualization stuff too. I didn't take good notes that day, sorry.

I'm sure I'm leaving out a large number of other important things, including an all-new IP address managment UI (appropriately named IPAM) as well as some new schema extensions to Active Directory that greatly improves file security when using native Windows 8 servers. And all of the new stuff that's been added to IIS and Windows's networking stack in order to accomodate large multi-tenant environments and hybrid clouds.

By the end of the second day at the Windows Server 8 Reviewer's Workshop I was literally ready to pass out from the sheer amount of stuff being shown to us, and my brain had turned to mush, but all of this should whet your appetites for Server 8 when I finally have some code running and can actually demonstrate some of this stuff.

While Microsoft has certainly gotten its act together with its last two Server releases in terms of basic stability, has brought it's core OS up to date with Windows 7 and has made a good college try at virtualization with early releases of Hyper-V, I haven't been truly excited about a Windows Server release in a long time.

Call me excited.

In my opinion, Server 8 changes everything, particularly from a complete virtualization and storage value proposition. CIOs are going to be very hard pressed to resist the product simply from all the stuff that you get built-in that you would otherwise have to spend an utter fortune on with 3rd-party products.

Are these new features worth the wait? Should Microsoft's cloud and virtualization software competitors be worried? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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