Windows Server 8 brings changes, improvements

Windows Server 8 brings a plethora of change to Microsoft’s plans for the cloud, storage and networking.

Windows Server 8 features a laundry list of new technologies, significant enhancements and much more. One of the most notable changes is how Microsoft is looking to embrace the cloud; Server 8 offers enhancements that are certain to make federation of cloud services much easier and also adds significant support for private and hybrid cloud technologies.

From a technical perspective, many of those enhancements tie directly into Microsoft’s virtualization platform, Hyper-V, which has become the basis for much of the technology foundation for Windows Server 8. Hyper-V has been re-engineered to offer more automation, easier provisioning and better isolation. What’s more, Microsoft’s new management paradigm brings simplicity to virtualization that was often absent from previous versions of Windows Server and Hyper-V.

Simplicity and ease of use/management is a key theme, demonstrated by how easy it is to move instances of virtualized operating systems across hosts, as well as create resiliency policies and provision IP addresses. Microsoft has embraced an ideology of “it just works” with Windows Server 8; one path the company has taken to reach that goal is to divorce the GUI management console from the server.

In other words, Windows Server 8 is designed to be managed from an administrator’s endpoint, and not on the server itself. That management methodology offers several advantages. For example, Microsoft was able to demonstrate the ability to concurrently manage multiple servers from the new server manager console. Since the console runs on an endpoint, it can be attached to several servers at once, eliminating the monolithic style of management used in the past.

What’s more, Microsoft is fully embracing the command line interface (CLI) with PowerShell, which sidesteps the management GUI altogether. PowerShell allows administrators to forgo the GUI and execute commands and scripts directly from a command prompt. In fact, PowerShell 3.0  has exploded from 300 cmdlets to more than 2,300 and is one of the core management engines of the OS. Most commands use plain English syntax and are backed by context-sensitive help that readily explains each command's function and how to use it. Simply put, tasks that were once complicated to pull off using a GUI can now be accomplished in one or two simple steps.

The same ideology of simplicity that has been applied to virtualization and management is also a significant theme in how Microsoft has tackled storage. Here, storage has been reinvented to incorporate virtualization, as well as improved abstraction from the underlying hardware. In layman’s terms, that means most forms of storage, be it local, NAS, JBOD and so on, can be treated the same from the standpoint of the server. Microsoft has made that possible by creating two new paradigms for storage on Windows Server 8, Storage Pools and Storage Spaces.

Storage Pools and Storage Spaces offer ways to easily manage a huge array of storage devices, which often come in varying types and sizes. The secret sauce here consists of storage virtualization teamed with hardware abstraction and storage aggregation. Simply put, Storage Pools are units of storage aggregation that provide administration and isolation, while Storage Spaces give virtual disks performance, resiliency and simplify storage provisioning.

In practice, the technology offers the ability to create storage spaces that aggregate separate individual storage devices into a single unit of storage, and then provision and divvy up that storage space as needed. The obvious use for the technology is for virtual machines, which need flexible and elastic storage to meet demand. What’s more, the technology simplifies management of disparate storage types, while providing the ability to scale from the SMB up to large enterprises.

Speed, space, utilization and efficiency are the primary elements Microsoft stresses for its new take on server storage. One technical example that stresses all of those points is the inclusion of de-duplication technology. Microsoft’s Data Deduplication is designed to deal with the growing demand for physical storage, which seems to be increasing exponentially in the enterprise.

Microsoft’s stab at de-duplication works to reduce file storage sizes by removing duplicate data from the physical hard disk and then abstracting the requests to that data. Microsoft uses a straightforward approach to de-dupe files; take for example an environment where dozens of VHD (virtual hard disk) files are stored. Many of the files on those VHDs are identical copies of each other, such as .dlls, .exes and so on. Data de-duplication removes all the redundant copies of those files from all of the VHDs, save one. The redundant data is placed into a separate store in System Volume Information (SVI), and then a marker is created which points to the file that serves as the template. When used across thousands of files in a storage network, vast reductions in storage space should be expected.

Other improvements to the storage subsystem include enhancements to cluster shared volumes (CSV) and expansion beyond Hyper-V, Bitlocker support for shared cluster disks, cluster-aware updating, SMB2.2 storage support, and continuously available Hyper-V storage on remote SMB2.2 shares.

All told, Microsoft has evolved Windows Server into a network operating system that embraces the cloud and reduces the need for third-party solutions, such as virtualization, dedupe, storage management and so on. Time will only tell if Windows Server 8 will have the impact on the market that Microsoft is anticipating and if the technologies demonstrated during the pre-beta stage will actually make it into the shipping product, which may be a year away.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frank Ohlhorst
is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with over 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for several technology publications, including TechTarget, ComputerWorld and PCWorld. Ohlhorst was also the Executive Technology Editor for Ziff Davis Enterprise’s eWeek. You can contact him at fohlhorst@gmail.com

This was first published in September 2011
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