Microsoft Windows Server 2012 review
Improved manageability and virtualisation features, but the new licensing options will give upgraders a headache
The Windows 8 client may have grabbed all the attention, but it isn’t the only new edition of Windows. Windows Server 2012 (WS2012) is based on the same core code as Windows 8 and is a major release in its own right. Without the distraction of having to reimagine Windows for touch, the server team has focused on new features and refinements.
WS2012 does have the new Start screen, however, as found in the Windows 8 client – the rationale being not only consistency, but also that users may on occasion use tablets for remote administration, so a touch-friendly UI makes sense.
One of the reasons WS2012 is an impressive upgrade is its clear focus. There are two major themes. The first is in the area of deployment and manageability. When Microsoft launched Windows NT 3.1 back in 1993 – the first Windows Server – the presence of a GUI was a key selling point against command-line Unix. Today, though, Microsoft says you should install Windows Server without a GUI if possible, and has made plenty of changes to enable that.
Windows Server 2012 Essentials
Microsoft no longer sells its Small Business Server edition of Windows Server - instead, it's now offering Windows Server 2012 Essentials. It's designed for small businesses and deviates from Server 2012 in several key ways, and it also includes Office 365. To discover what's changed and if it's worth buying, click here.
There are two reasons for deprecating a server GUI. One is security, since a GUI increases the attack surface and tempts administrators to do risky things such as browsing the web. The other is manageability. Command lines can be scripted, making tasks easy to repeat and adapt on the same or other servers.
WS2012 enables this with a much-improved PowerShell automation engine. More than 2,300 cmdlets (PowerShell commands) have been added, and everything works remotely as well as locally. PowerShell now has a workflow engine, too.
Microsoft has made strides in its effort to modularise Windows Server, so that you install only the components you need. You can now move from Server Core, which has no GUI at all, to a full server GUI and back simply by adding and removing components – something that wasn’t possible before. There’s also now a Minimal Server Interface option between Server Core and the full GUI. The minimal GUI has no desktop, Explorer or web browser, but does support GUI applications including Server Manager, Microsoft Management Console and most of Control Panel. The drive towards Server Core, however, is spoiled by the fact that some roles, such as Application Server, require at least the minimal GUI.
If you do manage to rid your installation of the GUI, you don’t have to use PowerShell for everything: you can use the new Remote Server Administration Tools and run Server Manager and other management tools that come with Windows 8. Some operations, such as checking the Event Viewer, are easier using a GUI tool, and the improved Server Manager makes this easier to do than ever before. It enables administrators to monitor more than one server simultaneously, and indicates at a glance which are okay and which have errors.
The second major focus is virtualisation. Hyper-V, Microsoft’s virtualisation platform, is greatly improved in this release. Limitations have been lifted: virtual hard disks are up to 64TB; RAM is up to 512GB in a VM and 2TB of RAM on the host; virtual processors up to 32 in a VM and 160 on the host. The old VHD format didn’t work on hard disks of more than 2TB because it lacked support for 4K disk sector sizes; this has now been fixed.
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