On September 8th, shortly before the public unveiling of Windows 8 client, I headed over to Redmond for a two-day meeting where Microsoft talked about what's in store for Windows Server 8. According to Microsoft's Bill Laing, Corporate Vice President for the Server and Cloud Division, the server team implemented over 300 new features, all of which "target businesses that are moving to the cloud and manage servers and devices, whether they're physical or virtual, on-premise or off-premise."
Microsoft's server roadmap
Let's be clear about one thing: Windows Server 8 is a major release. 300+ features and a big architectural change seems mind-blowing (and also scary) for CTOs and admins in charge of managing hundreds of servers. We're dealing with heavily modified fundamentals here. Existing server technologies, roles and features have been expanded; with a big emphasis on cloud, servicing and simplified automation/management. Oh and by the way, Microsoft moved the obviously cloud-focused Azure team into the same organization, which should speak for itself.
So where are we on the roadmap?
Microsoft explained to us that the planning for Windows Server 8 began 16 months ago and (as of Mid-September) they're nearing the end of the development phase, which isn't quite as finished as I originally thought. Although they didn't talk specifics, I expect a beta of both the server and client at the end of the year and a release candidate in early 2012, with a release to manufacturing sometime in April or May. Again, Microsoft is at the end of the development and feedback stage, in which they performed 6000+ customer requirements and more than 26,000 customer surveys to find out and evaluate what businesses want. Bill Laing made it clear that they've tried hard to listen to customers this time and not overpromise and underdeliver (hello, Vista). So what's in store? Let's dig in to the absolute highlights of the reviewers workshops.
The new server dashboard revealed
One of the most obvious changes of Windows Server 8 is the brand-new dashboard: Microsoft wants to do away with the typical Server welcome screen and old-style MMC management.
Though I was told this is nowhere near final, the new "Windows 8 Server Dashboard" features a Metro-style user interface and Windows Phone 7-like tiles. The goal: give admins at-a-glance alerts on their server roles and manage local, virtual and connected servers via one single interface. It shows all current roles of the server in one window and allows admins to instantly check for problems and alerts.
Say, for example, you're managing a server that acts as Fax server (among other roles). In that case, you're getting a specific tile called "Fax Server" that includes bullet points such as:
These bullets will get highlights in the case of an event. Once the Fax Server encounters errors or other events (a problem with the print spooler service for example), you're going to see a red warning sign next to "Services". By clicking on it, you'll get both an overview of the alerts and several troubleshooting options.
Event filtering helps you blend out events that you don't want to see, such as basic or recurring "Information" events or events that don't concern the operation of your server. By eliminating all of that clutter, the new dashboard also allows you to manage multiple servers at the same time, by aggregating information from all connected Windows Server 8 machines into the new Metro-style interface.
While the initial screen looks nice and tidy, when you go deeper into the UI you'll find dialogs and windows that remind you of Windows NT's early days. Plus, I heard rumblings that Microsoft might revamp this entire thing, which would be odd since we're at the very end of the development cycle. Again, this is the current state of things and I'm not sure how much of this is being changed.
In Windows Server 8, literally everything seems to be manageable using PowerShell scripting. Most features shown to us at the reviewers workshop were built to be managed by PowerShell first and UI second. For example, data duplication still has only a very basic UI, while about 80% of its true potential can only be managed using the little blue PowerShell.
In version 3 of PowerShell, Microsoft upped the number of commands to over 2300 commands, all designed to let the admin folks without tons of developer experience manage and automate their servers. The server team also made it clear to us that they wanted to reduce the learning curve for PowerShell by using suggestive mechanism. Say, for example, that you want to create a new folder share and want to give it a unique description. PowerShell allows you to do that remotely or locally just by typing commands such as "New", "Share", "Path" and "Description" -- a pull-down menu shows lets you choose the appropriate commands.
Hyper-V: "Version 3 kills them all"
In an unusually aggressive move, Microsoft bragged about Hyper-V, claiming that "once we get to version 3, we kill them all." And I think they're on to something.
Hyper-V 3 in Windows Server 8 sports some pretty hefty performance improvements and balancing that's sure to make the virtualization crowd go wild. The server team made sure that CPU power, memory, network I/O and storage I/O are automatically balanced or can be balanced based on admin policies. They've also beefed up the maximum usage of hardware resources immensely. Windows Server 8 Hyper-V supports 160 processors and up to 2 TB of RAM (physical) and 32 CPUs and 512 GB memory per virtual machine.
And thanks to new features such as Guest NUMA and the ability to remove virtual CPUs, it allows for a more dynamic performance management of Hyper-V. In essence, guest NUMA allows the guest operating system to make smarter (and controllable!) decisions about thread and memory allocation.
Scaling has also been an issue in Hyper-V in the past: even by adding more virtual CPUs, you couldn't really expect the performance to scale accordingly. In Windows Server 8's hypervisor, that's changed. Microsoft promises scaled performance with every V-CPU you add. Until we've gotten our hands on the new Hyper-V, we have to take their word for it, though.
On the networking side of things, Hyper-V got some impressive feature that improve network performance such as, Single Root I/O, Dynamic Virtual Machine Queue (DVMQ), Receive Side Scaling (RSS) and Ipsec Task Offload, all designed to allow for a more effective bandwidth allocation, priorization and throttling when needed.
There are also a handful of storage enhancements found in Hyper-V 3.
Besides multiple performance fixes, such as multipath I/O, we're going to see three big new features coming in 3.0. First, there's the new VHDX format. This new format supports sizes of up to 16 TB and is more resilient to corruption. Plus, the user defined metadata is already included and it gives admins support for larger block sizes to adapt to workload requirements. Another big one is Live Storage Migration, which moves any VHD files, saved states and other VM metadata from one machine to another without the need to take it offline. That's actually quite amazing since you won't experience downtime during servicing (such as SAN Upgrades or regular migrations). For that to work, the machine will automatically be mirrored and synchronized during runtime. Once the copy process is done, it will be deleted on the source machine. The VM keeps on running, with no interruption with the exception of one millisecond of network connectivity loss, when the adapter switches from one machine to another.
And Hyper-V replica allows you to seamlessly duplicate virtual machines (or just single VHDs) without the need to take the virtual machine offline. As Steven Sinofsky confirmed in his September 7 blog post, there are very strict hardware requirements, so Hyper-V will solely run on the latest generation of Intel and AMD CPUs.
The last feature I want to mention is Hyper-V Network Virtualization. It allows you to run multiple virtual networks on physical network: each virtual network has the illusion of running as a physical fabric in and of itself.
This article, "Windows Server 8: Highlights of the upcoming server OS," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook
Sandro Villinger is a contributor to ITworld. For more by Sandro, see: