by Jonathan Hassell

10 Key Windows Server 2012 Features for IT Pros

Aug 15, 20127 mins
Server VirtualizationServersSmall and Medium Business

With Windows Server 2012 less than two months away, looks at its 10 most compelling features and how CIOs and other IT professionals can benefit from them.

The release of Windows Server 2012 is just around the corner, with the initial code due to be sent to manufacturing this month and general availability coming in September.

If you’ve been on the sidelines during the beta and the release preview stages, you may now be wondering what features and capabilities have made it to the final version. Here’s a brief look at 10 features and changes that rank among the most significant in the latest edition of Microsoft’s flagship server operating system.

Slideshow: Windows Server 2012 Highlights

1. New Server Manager: Create, Manage Server Groups

One of the benefits of the newServer Manager interface is the capability to create server groups, which are collections of servers that already exist on your network and can be managed through the new user experience. Creating new server groups lets you manage tasks among each server with common attributes—a server group containing all machines running IIS, for example, a group of all database servers, and so on—and provide specific information on any of them as you wish. This is a big boon for organizations without dedicated monitoring software in place.

Windows Server 2012 Server Manager Dashboard
Windows Server 2012 Server Manager uses a dashboard view to show roles and server groups. (Image courtesy of Kevin Holman )

2. Better Edition, SKU Selection

Kudos to Microsoft for cleaning up what was a muddy value proposition. The core OS is now the same, and the edition you buy—Standard or Datacenter—depends on whether you want to run up to two virtual machines as guests or if you’d like unlimited guest virtualization. There’s no Enterprise edition gumming up the works. This is a big win for everyone.

3. A Command-Line First, GUI-Second Mentality

The emphasis for Windows Server has changed from a GUI-first philosophy to a GUI-optional mindset. Indeed, when you first install the OS, youre asked to choose between a core and a full installation. Core is the preferred, and encouraged, option. Once you install a core version of Windows Server 2012, you can flip on a GUI simply by installing the GUI role, and you can then opt to take it off without a full reinstall.

This is a great feature when you first deploy a server. You can use the GUI to take care of all of the mundane configuration tasks, but when the machine is ready for production, you can flip the GUI off and deploy. This offers a number of benefits, including reducing the attack surface, resource load and energy requirements.

4. Hyper-V Replication

The Hyper-V Replica feature allows you to replicate a virtual machine from one location to another with Hyper-V and a network connection—and without any shared storage required. This is a big deal in the Microsoft world for disaster recovery, high availability and more. VMware does this, too, but the vendor charges new licensees extra for the capability.

Analysis: Windows Server 2012 Release Preview: Compelling New Features

This makes standing up instances of services all around the world just a one- or two-click affair (assuming network connectivity exists). The new Hyper-V Replica interfaces within Hyper-V Manager include a much simpler interface for setting up a replication sequence and better monitoring of the process and the overall health of replication systems and partners.

Hyper-V in Windows 8
Windows 8 uses Hyper-V 3.0, which comes with Windows Server 2012. (Image courtesy of TechNet Malaysia)

5. Expanded PowerShell Capabilities

There are hundreds more cmdlets in the latest version of Windows Server. This will make your life easier, since PowerShell is essentially the preferred method of managing all of the workloads you can run on the operating system.

PowerSHell 3.0 running in Windows 8. (Image courtesy of )

6. Storage Spaces: Flipping Complexity on Its Head

Storage Spaces is an innovative features that basically takes commodity storage hardware—inexpensive drives and their controllers, like a JBOD (informal parlance for Just a Bunch of Disks—and turns it into a pool of storage that is divided into spaces that are in turn used just like regular disks.

Each of these pools can contain hot standby disks, and each of the Spaces in the pool can have availability policies such as mirroring and RAID-style redundancy. You can even perform thin provisioning, which is specifying a volume that’s bigger than you actually have space for. That way, when you do need the additional room, just pop in a few more drives; no reconfiguration is required. It takes the complexity and expense of network-attached storage and SANs and basically flips it on its head. You can just get a bunch of disks together and get really flexible in carving them up where you need additional space.

7. DirectAccess: A VPN Without the Pain of a VPN

DirectAccess allows VPN-like secure tunneling from any endpoint back to the corporate network without the overhead and performance hit of a true VPN. There is also no management agent on the client. When the technology is configured correctly, it just works—users have seamless connectivity to file shares, on-premises equipment and other resources just as if they were on the corporate campus. In addition, group policy objects get applied and administrators can manage machines wherever they are, not just when they come to headquarters or when they connect up to the VPN. This technology had previously been difficult to set up, but in Windows Server 2012, it very much just works.

8. Dynamic Access Control: New Way of Thinking

Dynamic Access Control (DAC) is a suite of facilities that really enhances the way you can control access to information. It’s no longer about taking files or folders and making decisions about “Yes, these people can” and “No, these people can’t.”

Slideshow: Hands-On with Windows Server 2012 Beta

Instead, it’s about abstracting away the individual data and making larger assignments about the types of data that live on your system, as well as the types of users that should and should not have access to it. It’s a new way of thinking that very much complements the strong abilities of the file system to secure data. There are minimal schema additions to make to Active Directory, and you can begin using the lion’s share of the feature set of DAC with just a Windows Server 2012 file server and a domain controller.

9. Resilient File System: An Evolution of NTFS

The Resilient File System (ReFS) was designed as an evolution of the New Technology File System (NTFS) with a focus on availability and integrity. ReFS writes to different locations on disk in an atomic fashion, which improves data resiliency in the event of a power failure during a write, and includes the new “integrity streams” feature that uses checksums and real-time allocations to protect the sequencing and access of both system and user data.

Windows 8

Problems identified by Windows Server 2012 on volumes protected with these features can be automatically repaired without bringing the disk or volume offline in most cases—and in many cases without any administrative intervention either. ReFS is also built to scale further than NTFS as well, which is an important point in the age of big data and private cloud operations.

10. Out-of-the-Box IP Address Management

In the box with Windows Server 2012, youll find a complete IPAM suite. This is something many medium-sized businesses simply don’t have access to. With the IPAM suite, you can allocate, group, issue, lease and renew IP addresses in an organized fashion, as well as integrate with the in-box DHCP and DNS servers to discover and manage devices already on your network. If youve not played with IPAM services from Nortel and others, this is a very interesting and worthwhile inclusion to the product—and, as it’s free with the OS license, it’s well worth the price.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He’s also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.