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System Center 2016 new features -- and changes -- worth noting

Microsoft integrates key Windows Server 2016 features, such as Nano Server and data protection, with the new version of System Center.

While System Center 2016 gives Windows Server administrators more control, Microsoft removed some functionality, which could catch some administrators by surprise if they have not checked the product documentation.

Many of System Center's new features and capabilities tie directly to Windows Server features that debuted in version 2016. These new or updated System Center 2016 features focus on security, reduced OS overhead for applications and cluster management finesse, among other capabilities.

As is often the case with new Microsoft product releases, Microsoft removed some features from System Center. Admins can evaluate a free utility to regain some of that lost functionality.

1. Shielded VM support

System Center 2016 Virtual Machine Manager adds full support for Storage Spaces Direct; administrators can deploy and manage storage clusters based on the software-defined storage architecture.

Shielded virtual machine support tops the list of System Center 2016 new features. Shielded VMs are new to Windows Server 2016, and greatly enhance VM security. Shielding allows an administrator to power a VM on or off, but not reconfigure it nor access its encrypted virtual hard disks.

System Center Virtual Machine Manager and Azure Pack can create shielded VMs. Virtual Machine Manager also lets administrators convert Generation 2 VMs running Windows Server 2012, 2012 R2 or Windows Server 2016 into shielded VMs.

Host Guardian in Windows Server 2016 provides the basic infrastructure for running shielded VMs. A shielded VM will not run unless it resides on an authorized guarded host. Consider managing guarded hosts with Virtual Machine Manager as well.

2. Nano Server support

System Center 2016's Virtual Machine Manager provides lifecycle management of the Nano Server operating system, while Operations Manager provides Nano Server monitoring capabilities.

Nano Server, released with Windows Server 2016, is a bare-bones OS layer many times smaller than a Server Core deployment.

When Microsoft introduced Server Core for Windows Server, it broke many of the existing management tools; Server Core deployments lack some of the files and services upon which preexisting tools relied. Nano Server will cause similar problems for management tools, as it does not use a traditional graphical management interface. With System Center 2016's Nano Server support, Microsoft might avoid a repeat of the Server Core issues.

3. Storage Spaces Direct

Storage Spaces Direct builds onto the Storage Spaces feature introduced in Windows Server 2012. Storage Spaces Direct allows failover clusters to use local storage rather than shared storage. Each cluster node can store a synchronized copy of the data on local storage, rather than having to attach to a Cluster Shared Volume.

System Center 2016 Virtual Machine Manager adds full support for Storage Spaces Direct; administrators can deploy and manage storage clusters based on the software-defined storage architecture. In addition, Virtual Machine Manager supports software-level synchronous storage replication and storage quality of service, both of which will work independently of Storage Spaces Direct.

4. Better cluster support

Failover clustering plays a major role in many Windows Server deployments. Microsoft improved clustering support as a System Center 2016 feature. Virtual Machine Manager, for example, can deploy compute clusters to bare-metal hardware.

In addition, System Center 2016 supports cluster-aware updates and cluster upgrades. Administrators using Virtual Machine Manager can perform rolling upgrades of Windows Server 2012 R2 clusters, converting them to Windows Server 2016 with no downtime for the clustered workloads.

5. Improved data protection

The security surrounding shielded VMs makes it difficult to perform a traditional VM backup. As such, Microsoft enhanced System Center Data Protection Manager to back up and restore shielded VMs.

Additionally, Data Protection Manager support extends to Storage Spaces Direct and rolling cluster upgrades. Administrators can back up VMs, even in the midst of a rolling cluster upgrade. Similarly, Data Protection Manager protects VMs following a Hyper-V node crash or a storage migration. Nano Server support, however, is conspicuously absent from Data Protection Manager's list of new features in System Center 2016.

The Azure option for missing System Center features

Microsoft removed a number of System Center 2016 features, pushing users to adopt Windows Azure Pack if they wish to retain some of that functionality.

Windows Azure Pack is a free Microsoft utility that has traditionally acted as a client component for organizations that provide self-service provisioning capabilities via System Center Virtual Machine Manager. There has been much speculation that Microsoft would retire Azure Pack and replace it with Microsoft Azure Stack. With the 2016 release, however, Azure Pack has taken on renewed importance as the only way to keep capabilities such as App Controller.

Microsoft advises administrators to provision infrastructure and platform as service deployments via Windows Azure Pack instead of App Controller. Microsoft is touting Windows Azure Pack as an alternative to the Service Manager Cloud Service Process Pack that also disappeared from System Center. Microsoft has also removed System Center's Service Reporting capabilities, and recommends a combination of Azure Pack and a third-party billing and utilization system in its place.

Next Steps

More notable features of System Center 2016

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What to do about losing App Controller in 2016

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