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Windows 7 and 2008 R2 service packs go beyond virtualization

While dynamic memory features have received most of the press, the first service pack for Windows 2008 R2 will also include improvements to DirectAccess and Active Directory.

Amidst all the cloud computing talk at Microsoft TechEd 2010, the company also announced that the first service pack betas for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 will be available in July.

The updates will feature dynamic memory management improvements for Hyper-V, as well as the new RemoteFX feature for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) environments. In the following Q&A, Microsoft senior technical product manager Justin Graham tells's Brendan Cournoyer about both features and discusses what else users can expect from SP1.

The dynamic memory feature with Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 aims to fill a hole in past versions of Hyper-V. What can Windows administrators expect from that feature?

Justin Graham: We're really after improving the memory management for the Hyper-V platform. We went out and talked to customers and asked them what they were after from a memory perspective for their hypervisor. The overwhelming thing that came back was that they were looking for increased density -- that was number one -- and a path to more virtual machines [VMs] on a host. But they also wanted to do that with linear and predictable scalability, as well as with a feature that's designed for production use.

The need for dynamic memory management 

"Reducing the memory footprint of a running virtual machine is one of the toughest problems in the world of virtualized desktops and servers. It's not a huge deal to add memory to a running machine, but to actually take memory away from a running operating system is no small feat."
-- Paul Ferrill, IT author

Read more: New releases take center stage at TechEd 2010

So when we were designing dynamic memory, we designed it with those goals and principles in mind. When you look at how it actually works, it allows you to configure a range of memory per virtual machine: an initial and a maximum. So, say for a Windows 7 VDI desktop, you can set it for an initialboot-up of 1 GB, and you can go all the way to 4 GB or whatever that may be. Then, when that VM is running, depending on the load or demand, dynamic memory will work together with the guest to give it more memory when it needs it. But when it doesn't need it, dynamic memory will give that memory back to the pool to be allocated to other virtual machines as they need it.

We also have two other configurations that really make a lot of sense. One is the memory buffer, so it's a percentage of memory that's held back as sort of a bare minimum. [Dynamic memory] makes sure that no matter what happens, the VM has that minimum amount of memory.

There is also a memory priority configuration, which allows you to prioritize the different VMs as far as dynamic memory goes. So, eventually you will reach a point of memory contention where there's a big spike in demand, and a lot of VMs are asking for resources – specifically memory -- all at once. [At that time, you want to know] which are my most important workloads and which ones are not so important? Maybe you'll want to prioritize your SQL Server over one of the 50 domain controllers you have running, for example.

So that is really the kind of differentiation we have in the way we designed the [dynamic memory] feature.

What about RemoteFX? It's not clear to everyone how this feature works, particularly in regards to VDI environments.

Graham: The first thing I want to stress is that VDI does not equal desktop virtualization; VDI is part of desktop virtualization. There are lots of other pieces, such as application virtualization and things along those lines, so RemoteFX really plays well into VDI. But it also plays well into session virtualization and remote desktop virtualization even outside of VDI. But, yes, VDI is really where it helps the most, and it's all about delivering a rich client experience across a wide array of devices, anywhere from rich laptops, desktops, etc., all the way to thin clients.

It does this by leveraging the power of a [graphics processing unit] … and it allows you to bubble up that 3-D rendering capability directly into a Windows 7 VDI desktop. So you can do things like run applications such as AutoCAD with full hardware acceleration [and] you get the lighting and shading effects and the detail on different designs. You can run true high-definition video -- 1080p and 720p -- with all the high fidelity, lack of skipping and so on, so it won't be like previous versions of [Remote Desktop Protocol].

I think this is another example of how, together with dynamic memory, we are making a great story for both desktop and server virtualization and really moving the virtualization needle forward.

That needle isn't moving forward for everyone though. What are you seeing as far as the adoption rate of desktop virtualization? It's certainly been a slow climb.

Graham: It has. You know I think at the beginning with VDI, people thought that VDI was for everybody and it was going to have the same types of savings and ROI that server virtualization did.

Slowly but surely, folks are realizing that the variables in VDI are different than the ones in server virtualization, where it was just like, "OK, we are going to take this server workload from here, we're going to move it up onto Hyper-V , and we'll get some better density, consolidate servers and save some money."

But with VDI, it's not that simple. There's a lot of other stuff to consider, especially with the cost of storage and things like that. So I think folks are really starting to take a full circle approach to desktop virtualization, and things like App-V, MED-V, Remote Desktop Services, and the other pieces of our desktop virtualization portfolio are really bearing fruit alongside our investments in management with System Center and things like that.

Looking beyond those two big features, what else is new with the SP1 for both Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7?

Graham: There will be some other small improvements. The first thing for Windows 7, aside from the updated RDP client that will take advantage of RemoteFX, [is that] Windows 7 SP1 is really just another service pack -- a rollup of updates and hotfixes that are mostly all available on Windows Update today. So it's just a traditional service pack; there's really nothing to see there.

From the server side, though, we're going to be making some improvements to things like DirectAccess and some Active Directory pieces. For DirectAccess, we're making improvements around scalability, and being able to use it with our Network Load Balancing technology and DMZs and perimeter networks. This is to kind of increase the scalability of the service and get a lot more users to use it, which is what we want and what I think most of our customers want.

From an Active Directory standpoint, we're making improvements to domain controller scalability as well as the managed service accounts feature. To give a quick recap, managed service accounts was introduced in Windows Server 2008 R2 RTM, and it allowed administrators to use domain accounts for service authentication on application servers without needing to deal with user account stuff like [password resets]. It treats it a little more like a machine account, even though it's still a user account, so it takes care of all that stuff automatically.

In Service Pack 1, there will be some improvements that will make it easier to use that feature on app servers and services running in perimeter networks, like DMZs and whatnot.

From a granularity standpoint, we'll be making some improvements to the maximum number of concurrent connections that a domain controller can have. We had a certain maximum [with Windows Server 2008 R2], and we got some feedback from customers that we might want to make that a little bit higher, so we're going to go ahead and do that and give administrators the granular control to do that. It's really going to help them most on networks that have high latency.

Find more news and commentary from Microsoft TechEd 2010.

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