The release date for Windows Server 2012 R2 has been announced. Windows Server 2012 R2, as well as Windows 8.1 will hit general availability on October 18th 2013. The preview of both releases has been available since June 2013, so we have had some time to play with the release for a while. What will the combination of the R2 release of Windows Server 2012 and the 8.1 release of Windows client bring to Remote Desktop Services (for both Session-Based and Virtual Machine-Based)?
With Windows Server 2012, the focus areas were the RDP protocol, simplifying and improving administrative experience and cost savings related to storage. With Windows Server 2012 R2 release, Microsoft has further build on the 2012 release and has focused on the following three areas.
- Improving the user experience
- Improving the admin experience
- Decrease storage and network-related costs
Improving the user experience
With Windows Server 2012 the main focus with regards to user experience was the Remote Desktop Protocol itself. The Remote Desktop Protocol 8.0 has been hugely improved compared to the 7.1 version. RDP 7.1 was good enough for LAN connections, and not that good for WAN. RDP 8.0 completely changes that. RDP 8.0 can be used over WAN connections, even with low bandwidth, with latency and packet loss.
With Windows Server 2012 R2, the main focus in regards to user experience is eliminating some of the remaining gaps between the experience with Remote Apps and locally installed applications. There also have been improvements in the Remote Desktop App, available in the Microsoft Store.
Before Windows Server 2012 R2 (in combination with Windows 8.1 on the client side) there were some issues with user experience for Remote Apps. First of all, if you drag a Remote App you would see a black border following the border of the Window. And during the dragging the contents of the Remote would not show, instead you would be represented with just a border. Secondly, a Remote App would not be able to show a live preview when hovering over the icon in the taskbar. Thirdly, when using a Remote App on a tablet or other touch enabled device and turning the tablet to switch from landscape to portrait (or the other way around) the Remote App would in fact disconnect and reconnect. This has all been fixed in Windows Server 2012 R2 (in combination with RDP 8.1 on the client-side). This makes the user experience of Remote Apps a lot closer to experience with locally installed applications.
Besides these improvements on Remote Apps, a Full Desktop session now dynamically adapts to a change of resolution on the client side (without a disconnect and reconnect). This means no more scrollbars and easy switching or resolution when turning display.
The Remote Desktop App that was introduced in Windows 8 has also improved. For clients running Windows 8.1, a new version of the Remote Desktop App is available which now supports the ability to edit, refresh and delete a sign up for Remote Apps and Desktops. Previously the Remote Desktop App did not hold this functionality and you would have to switch back to the classic control panel to perform these actions. The Remote Desktop App in Windows 8.1 now also contains new quick shortcuts to show the on screen keyboard or switch from touch to a mouse pointer.
Windows Server 2012 R2 also comes with nested RDP support. This means that you can now run Remote Desktop Sessions inside a Remote Desktop Session. And yes, you have probably done this before Windows Server 2012 R2; however it was never fully supported up until now. Scenarios where I think this could be interesting are when publishing a Remote App inside a Full Desktop session.
Improving the admin experience
In Windows Server 2012 a brand new single pane of glass admin solution was introduced to Manage Remote Desktop Services using the Server Manager. This management console is fully based on PowerShell which means all actions performed in this console can also be performed using PowerShell cmdlets. In Windows Server 2012 some new features have been added to fill some of the gaps and further improve the administrative experience.
The ability to shadow (remote control) a user on a RD Session Host server has been around for a long time. Typically, helpdesk or support departments would use this feature to help end users with issues in their sessions. Administrators were able to view and interact with the session to help solve issues. In Windows Server 2012 this feature was deprecated, leading lead to a lot of questions. Many people were really surprised about this feature not being available anymore and I’ve seen cases where the decision was made not to move to 2012 because of this. Microsoft took note of this feedback and reintroduced shadowing in Windows Server 2012. Besides, the reintroduced shadowing is also improved. It’s now also possible to shadow Remote Apps, which previously did not work properly and was officially not supported. The shadowing functionality has moved to the mstsc client which means you can also use the command line to start the shadowing.
In Windows Server 2012 R2 RD Gateway pluggable authentication is also introduced. This allows custom authentication routines to be used with RD Gateway. For example building a two-factor solution on top of RD Gateway is now possible which allows doing token-authentication to the RD Gateway which works seamlessly with RD Web Access or RDP file launching.
Windows Server 2012 R2 now also allows you to install and run the RD Connection Broker role (the central role of any RDS deployment) on a domain controller. Since Windows Server 2012 the preferred way to install Remote Desktop Services is by using the new Scenario Based installation (rather than a role based installation). This however means that as a minimum the RD Web Access and RD Connection Broker would also be installed. There have been requests in the community on guidelines to configure and maintain just the RD Session Host role. Microsoft therefor launched a guideline on how to use the RD Session Host role without a RD Connection Broker.
Finally, the RD Session Host role supports an in place upgrade to the R2 release.
Decrease storage and network-related costs
With the R2 release, Microsoft has made huge steps to reduce the costs for both storage and network. Deduplication was introduced in Windows Server 2012. With R2, you can use deduplication with actively running VM-based Session Collections when the virtual hard disks (VHDs) of these VM’s are accessed via Server Message Block (SMB) from a file server running Windows Server 2012 R2. This means a huge storage capacity reduction. Microsoft claims that the reduction can be as big as 90%!
In regards to network-related costs two improvements have been made in the R2 release. The RemoteFX protocol (RDP 8) was already introduced in Windows Server 2012. In the R2 release Microsoft has reduced the bandwidth needed for media streaming and claim this can go up to 50% less bandwidth. The second improvement is with the reduction of bandwidth for non-video content. With R2 you can offload all progressive decode processing to AVC/H.264 hardware if available to allow lower-end CPU devices to have better user experience and lower bandwidth.
Personally I’m excited about the upcoming R2 release. The improvements might seem small but can in some cases be crucial to make the decision to move to the Windows Server 2012 platform. The change in Microsoft’s product life cycle management allows them to provide updates and new functionally much faster and Windows Server 2012 R2 (and Windows 8.1) are the first result of that! Mark your calendars; the release date is the 18th of October!