Last year, Microsoft unleashed to the world a major new release of Windows Server, dubbed Windows Server 2012. Although the consumer-focused variation of this product – Windows 8 – has been largely denounced as a failure, Windows Server 2012 has been generally heralded as a massive leap forward in the IT world, with new features that pushed Microsoft into new directions and new spaces. In other words, Windows Server 2012 has been a great success story.
But even the best success is never sufficient in the ever-changing world of IT. In early June, Microsoft announced the successor to Windows Server 2012, which the company is calling Windows Server 2012 R2. Don’t let the R2 moniker fool you, though.
Improved storage capabilities
When Microsoft released Windows Server 2012, people were generally surprised at how much storage mojo the company managed to cram into the product. From a brand new version of SMB – and an impressive one at that – to the new Storage Spaces storage virtualization technology built right into the product, Microsoft certainly left its mark on the storage industry. In R2, the company is releasing significant tweaks to what shipped in Windows Server 2012.
Automatic storage tiering in Storage Spaces
Not all workloads are created equal. Some workloads demand different levels of performance in order to operate. There are many ways to deal with these kinds of workloads, such as implementing hybrid storage, but in a traditional world, many organizations have opted to deploy different kinds of storage with different tiers of performance and capacity. For example, an organization might deploy a large array of SATA disks when capacity is important or they might deploy an array of solid state disks when performance is the critical factor.
This tiering mechanism, once initially configured, is fully automated. There is no need for an administrator to have to poke around the server looking for files to move to faster storage.
Dual parity in Storage Spaces
In Windows Server 2012 R2, administrators can create storage spaces that are a bit more robust than the ones available today. Specifically, it’s possible to create up to two parity copies of data for additional protection. Of course, administrators should bear in mind that this feature is not “free”. The cost: Additional I/O operations are required to write this information three times (original and two parity).
Enhanced data deduplication
Data deduplication is a powerful data reduction tool that can enable virtualization administrators to extend the life of their storage arrays by many years. Deduplication looks for commonalities in data blocks (or files) and replaces those commonalities with pointers to a single master copy of the data. In some situations, data deduplication and yield storage capacity savings in excess of 80%.
Microsoft first jumped into data deduplication in Windows Server 2012 by adding post-process deduplication to Windows Server. Post-process deduplication is a deduplication method by which files are written to storage as normal. However, afterwards and on a schedule, Windows initiates a process to perform the deduplication. The primary drawback to this method is that, initially, all of the disk space needed to store the files will be required. The other kind of deduplication – inline deduplication, in which files are deduplicated as they’re written to storage – is not a native feature of Windows.
In Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft has taken deduplication one step further by enabling administrators to apply this technology to virtual hard disk files. This kind of data reduction can result in both capacity and performance gains and is another way that Microsoft is continuing to enhance their virtualization credibility.
Disaster recovery opportunities
In Windows Server 2012, Microsoft included Hyper-V Replica as a formidable component included with the new Hyper-V. That tool enables asynchronous replication of a virtual machine running in an organization’s data center to disaster recovery or secondary sites across the WAN. From a data protection point of view, the benefits of Hyper-V Replica are very obvious. As a free component in Windows Server 2012, even SMB organizations can take advantage of this technology.
Hyper-V Replica changes
In Windows Server 2012, the Hyper-V Replica carries with it the limitation that replication takes place every five minutes. With the new Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 R2, administrators can now indicate that replication should take place every 30 seconds, every five minutes, or every 15 minutes. This change enables organizations to get a bit more or less granular with replication and better match the environment to WAN bandwidth realities.
Windows Azure Hyper-V Recovery Manager
But, what good is a replica if you can’t manage it easily when an outage happens to take place? That’s where the cloud-based Hyper-V Recovery Manager comes into play. As mentioned, this is a cloud-based service. To be exact, it runs on Windows Azure. This is a good thing as it presents organizations with an always on recovery manager not dependent on any private data centers being available. This Azure-based service controls the failover activity taking place in the organization and ensures that services remain available.
In this case, the public cloud (Azure) is well-leveraged and can provide customers with features that would otherwise require establishing a hot site or full DR site, which can get prohibitively expensive, particularly for smaller organizations.
Microsoft is also throwing IT staffers a lifeline when it comes to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives. Unfortunately, BYOD has been a challenge for many. With Windows Server 2012, Microsoft is adding two technologies that will help IT better support this staff demand.
Workplace Join is a “light” version of the full domain join process and allows a user to associate his mobile device with Active Directory for the purpose of aligning it with organizational policies regarding mobile devices, with the recognition that the device is the user’s property. Of course, in most organizations, even for personal devices connected to a corporate environment, IT still wants and needs some level of control and this is what Workplace Join provides. With Workplace Join, IT is able to require users to register and enroll their devices in order to ensure that only authorized users and devices are accessing corporate resources and to make it easier to track when problems happen to occur.
Although Microsoft took a baby step toward helping organizations implement BYOD with Windows Server 2012 – Dynamic Access Control – it didn’t go nearly far enough. In Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft is adding a feature called Work Folders. When working with files in these folders, a device (currently Windows Phone devices only, but coming to iOS and Android) automatically replicates the files back to a data center and back out to a user’s other devices. So, everyone gets what they need. IT has a copy of the file in the corporate data center and the user has it on all of his devices. If the need arises, a Windows device will have the intelligence to wipe just work files and leave personal ones intact.
Even though this is “just” an R2 release, Microsoft is certainly demonstrating its commitment to continuing to add new features to the Windows Server product on an annual basis. The company expects to release Windows Server 2012 by the end of the year.