Just a few of the new features to expect in Windows Server 2008 R2

Windows Server 2008 R2 logoIn case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Microsoft’s conference season – PDC this week, WinHEC next, TechEd EMEA the two weeks after that… lots of announcements – and I’m missing them all!

Luckily, last week I got the chance to catch up with Ward Ralston (a Group Technical Product Manager in Microsoft’s Windows Server Product Group) and he gave me the rundown on what to expect from Windows Server 2008 R2.

For those who are not familiar with Microsoft’s release cycles for server operating systems, ever since Windows Server 2003, the company has aimed to release a major update every 4-5 years with an interim second release (R2) in between. Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 R2 share the same basic code but R2 includes SP1 and new functionality. Similarly, I would expect Windows Server 2008 R2 to include SP2 and it certainly has some goodies for us.

One of the reasons for an interim release is to take advantage of new hardware advances and changes in the overall IT market and one significant point to note is that Windows Server 2008 R2 will be 64-bit only. That’s right – no more 32-bit server operating system – and that is A Good Thing. We all have 64-bit hardware (and have had for some time) but many IT administrators don’t realise it, and install 32-bit operating systems even though driver support is no longer an issue (at least for servers) and most 32-bit applications will run quite happily on a 64-bit operating system.

The main themes for the Windows Server 2008 R2 release are: improved hardware, driver and application support; taking advantage of ever-increasing numbers of logical processor cores and new power management features; improvements around virtualisation, power management and server management; new technologies to lay the foundation for the next version of Windows; and a unified release focus – with the Windows 7 client and Windows Server 2008 R2 providing engineering efficiencies to work “better together”.

There are many new features in Windows Server 2008 R2 and, first of all, is the area of most interest to me – virtualisation. Windows Server 2008 R2 includes the second release of Hyper-V with new features including:

  • Live Migration to allow virtual machine workloads to fail over between cluster nodes with no discernable break in service. I still argue that this is not a feature that organisations need (cf. want) for their server infrastructure but as the dynamic datacentre and virtual desktop infrastructures (VDIs) become more commonplace, it makes sense to support this functionality with Hyper-V (besides the fact that competitors can already do it!).
  • A new clustered shared volume file system (codenamed Centipede) which sits on top of NTFS and allows multiple cluster nodes to access the same storage.
  • Support for 32 logical processors (cores) on the host computer (twice the original limit with Hyper-V), paving the way for support of 8-core CPUs and improved consolidation ratios.
  • Hot-addition and removal of storage (allowing VHDs and pass-through disks on a SCSI controller to be added to a virtual machine without a reboot).
  • Second level translation (SLAT) – moving past Intel-VT and AMD-V to take advantage of new processor features (Intel Nested Page Tables and AMD Enhanced Page Tables), further reducing the hypervisor overhead.
  • Boot from VHD – using a kernel-level filter to take a virtual hard disk and boot from it on hardware – even without hardware support for virtualisation.

Microsoft also spoke to me about a dynamic memory capability (just like the balloon model that competitors offer). I asked why the company had been so vocal in downplaying competitive implementations of this technology yet was now implementing something similar and Ward Ralston explained to me that this is not the right solution for everyone but may help to handle memory usage spikes in a VDI environment. Since then, I’ve been advised that dynamic memory will not be in the beta release of Windows Server 2008 R2 and Microsoft is evaluating options for inclusion (or otherwise) at release candidate stage. These apparently conflicting statements, within just a few days of one another, should not be interpreted as indecisiveness on the part of Microsoft – we’re not even at beta stage yet and features/functionality may change considerably before release.

Looking at some of the other improvements that we can expect in Windows Server 2008:

  • On the management front: there is a greater emphasis on the command line with improved scripting capabilities with PowerShell 2 and over 200 new cmdlets for server roles as well as power, blade and chassis management – working with vendors to deliver hardware which is compatible with WS-Management – and new command line tools for migration of Active Directory, DNS, DHCP, file and print servers; Server Manager will support remote connections, with a performance counter view and best practices analyzer (similar to the ones which we have seen shipped for server products such as Exchange Server for a few years now); and a new migration portal will expose step-by-step documentation for migration of roles and operating system settings from Windows Server 2003 and 2008 servers to Windows Server 2008 R2.
  • Power management was an improvement in Windows Server 2008 and R2 is intended to take this further with features such as core parking to reduce multi-core process power consumption (only using the power required to drive a workload) as well as centralised control of power policies (allow servers to throttle-down during quiet time, using DMTF-compliant remote management interfaces).
  • Active Directory Domain Services is improved with: a new management console (with PowerShell integration) to replace the disparate tools that have existed since early NT 5.0 betas; a new AD recycle bin to aid with recovering deleted objects; improved support for offline domain joins (similar to the pre-staging support used in Windows Server 2008 for RODCs); improved management of user accounts and identity services (manage service accounts); and improved authentication assurance in Active Directory Federated Services.
  • IIS continues to improve with: server core support for ASP.NET; an integrated PowerShell provider (more than 50 new cmdlets); integrated FTP and WebDAV support (previously provided as extensions); new IIS Manager modules (e.g. to support new FTP, WebDAV, request filtering and ASP.NET functionality); configuration logging and tracing (building on IIS 7.0′s feature delegation functionality by providing the ability to centrally log and audit changes made by site managers and web developers); and extended protection and security (channel-binding tokens to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, hardened accounts to prevent application spoofing, and improved management for custom service accounts).
  • Scalability and reliability improvements with: improved multi-processor support, reduced Hyper-V overhead and improved storage performance; greater componentisation – server core installations will support more roles and will also support ASP.NET within IIS as Microsoft.NET Framework support will be added (which also allows PowerShell to run on server core installations); DHCP failover, with the ability to pair DHCP servers as primary and secondary servers (based on an IETF draft for the DHCP Failover protocol); and DNS Security, using DNSSec to validate name resolution and zone transfers using PKI to secure DNS records (preventing the interception of DNS queries and return of illegitimate responses from an untrusted DNS server – a real issue with huge potential impact across multiple platforms that was recently highlighted by security researcher Dan Kaminsky).

Finally, whilst there has always been a good, better, best story for integrating the latest client and server releases with Microsoft products, Microsoft is really pushing “better together with Windows 7″ with the Windows Server 2008 R2 marketing. New features like Direct Access and Branch Cache are intended to take existing connectivity technologies and couple them in a less complex manner, connecting routed VPNs over firewall-friendly ports with end-to-end IPSec whilst improving branch office performance by caching HTTP and SMB traffic. Read-only DFS improves branch office security (in the same way that read-only domain controllers did for Windows Server 2008). Then there’s more efficient client power management, BitLocker encryption on removable drives and the new DHCP Failover and DNSSec functionality mentioned previously – I’m sure as we learn more about Windows 7 the list will continue to grow.

So, when do we get to use all this Windows Server 2008 R2 goodness? Well, Microsoft is not yet ready to release a beta and, based on previous versions of Windows Server, I would expect to see at least two betas and a couple of CTPs before the release candidates – but the product team is currently not committing to a date – other than to say “early 2010″ (which, incidentally, will be 2 years after Windows Server 2008 shipped). They’re also keen to point out that, although Windows Server 2008 R2 is being jointly developed with the Windows 7 client operating system, there are no guarantees that the two will release together – maybe they will, maybe they won’t – read into that what you like, but some are predicting a late-2009 release for Windows 7 and I would expect the server product to follow a few months after that. No-one needs to get a new server operating system out in time for the holiday season but they do want it to be rock solid.

Of course, at this early stage in product development, there could still be a number of changes before release. Even so, with these new features and functionality, Windows Server 2008 R2 is certainly not just an insignificant minor release.

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