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Windows Server 8 plays catch-up with VMware and Unix

Microsoft rolls 'cloud-based operating system'

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Security, data deduplication and more

You can have expressions formed from multiple claims. The idea is to reduce the number of security groups you need. A traditional approach would require a security group for each department. It is a promising technique, though the management interface is buried and needs work based on what we saw in the preview.

Another addition is Data Deduplication, which reduces storage requirements by storing only the differences between files. Three identical files in different folders or with different names would only take the space of one. It is based on chunks of data, so files do not need to be identical to save space. There is a performance overhead, so it works best for files that are accessed less frequently, though Microsoft claims the system is smart about where to apply de-duplication based on activity.

DHCP is a service that assigns IP number to clients, along with other critical networking information. DHCP load balancing and failover is now built into Windows Server, whereas In the past this was awkward to configure.

IP Address Management (IPAM) is a new tool offering a unified view of IP address allocation across multiple subnets, which are sets of IP addresses. Microsoft claims most administrators resort to Excel spreadsheets to record which device has which address, and IPAM includes a spreadsheet import tool. Most DHCP tasks, such as reserving an address for a device, can now be done through IPAM as well as through the DHCP manager.

Active Directory gets a new management tool, called Active Directory Administrative Center, once again built on PowerShell. The Active Directory recycle bin is surfaced in the GUI for the first time, letting you easily restore deleted objects. Another change is that you can now easily clone an Active Directory server VM, speeding disaster recovery.

Storage has several new features in Windows Server 8. Storage Pools are a new way to create virtual drives that span several physical drives, with either resiliency or high performance and throughput. It sounds similar to software RAID, though Microsoft says it is a different approach. One feature is that you can over-commit by specifying a larger capacity than is actually available; Microsoft calls this thin provisioning. This lets you defer purchasing, buying additional storage only when needed.

Clustered file servers are enhanced in Windows Server 8. BitLocker encryption is now available for cluster volumes. Transparent failover lets you move a file server from one cluster node to another while it remains online. This means you can patch servers without interrupting access. A feature called Cluster-aware updating automates patching all nodes in a cluster while it remains online.

Network card teaming is where two network cards appear as one but with greater resiliency or performance. Teaming is now built into the operating system, and works across network cards from different vendors, whereas previously it was a vendor-specific feature.

Assessing Windows Server 8

Judging by what is being shown at Microsoft's BUILD Conference, Windows Server 8 is a big release. This is where Microsoft does its big VMware catch-up, turns its back on the misconceived idea of running a GUI on a server, and revamps the management tools to make them both easier to user and properly scriptable.

Foreshadowings of a greater cloud

We may also be seeing a shift in Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. Might Microsoft extend Azure so that it hosts generic Windows virtual machines, in contrast to the current model in which all virtual machines are stateless and of little use without additional Azure platform services?

Microsoft is not saying, yet there are hints of additional cloud services in Windows Server 8, such as a Backup to Microsoft Online option, which we spotted in the user interface. It seems plausible that the company will respond to the demand for something closer to infrastructure rather than platform as a service, enabling customers to create or move VMs to Microsoft's cloud without being limited by Azure's current platform requirements.

Windows Server 8 is not done yet, though Microsoft implied it is close to feature-completion even though there is more work to do on the detail of the user interface. That is needed, since there is inconsistency between the various tools while some features are hard to find. Nevertheless, it is a promising start with much that will be welcomed by Windows-platform administrators. ®

Security for virtualized datacentres

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