Top 10 Windows Server 2012 Features

by Jeff James - September 21, 2012

Windows Server 2012 has been officially available since September 9th, 2012, and many IT professionals and system administrators are evaluating the software for deployment. While the jury may still be out on Windows 8 in the enterprise, Windows Server 2012 ships with dozens – if not hundreds -- of new features that admins should find useful. Microsoft has a free trial of Windows Server 2012 available for download, so I'd encourage every Windows Server admin to give it a spin.

To narrow that list down a bit I’ve taken the liberty of selecting 10 of what I feel are the most noteworthy new (or improved) features in Windows Server 2012, and written a bit about why they’re so important. Feel free to disagree with the features I’ve picked or add a few of your own in the comments section.

1. Data Deduplication

One of the constants of technology and the IT industry is that data storage demands and requirements are increasing exponentially. From ballooning email inboxes to file shares overflowing with documents, just about every enterprise has a need for more efficient. That’s where the new data deduplication features in Windows Server 2012 come in handy.

It works like this: Say you have a large number of VHD (virtual hard disk) files that you need to move. Each of those VHDs has a lot of duplicate (yet identical) files and applications, like minesweeper, Windows calculator, and other accessory applications. Data deduplication removes all of the copies of those applications from those VHDs but one. It then records the redundant data in a separate location in System Volume Information (SVI) and points to the files that serves as the source template. This can free up tremendous amounts of space, especially when applied across thousands of files across your network. Data deduplication works across different computer networks and also across Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 machines. If you have lots of files and data to store and not enough space – and who doesn’t – this could be the killer feature. For more information about what data deduplication is and what it does, check out Wesley David’s introduction to data deduplication.

2. GUI-less install options

There are plenty of times when you only want to install only the absolute minimum files and assets you need to run Windows Server, and Windows Server 2012 now includes a default installation option to install the GUI-less server core. You can also now install Windows Server 2012 with a minimal user interface, which means that you have even more ways than ever to install just the Windows Server files you need. This reduces disk space, saves on administration effort, and reduces your attack surface from hackers and other digital malcontents by restricting installed files to the absolute minimum. For more information about the Windows Server 2012 install process, check out the Petri IT Knowledgebase guide to installing Windows Server 2012.

3. Hyper-V 3.0

Windows Server 2012 is loaded with new features, but perhaps the feature that has gone through the most radical improvement is the Hyper-V virtualization feature set. Tired of playing catch-up to VMware on the feature front, Microsoft has loaded Hyper-V with an impressive list of improvements. Some of the highlights include support for up to 64 processors and 1TB of RAM per virtual machine, as well as support for up to 320 logical hardware processors and 4TB of RAM per host. VMware vSphere 5.1 evens the playing field in some areas, but the message is clear: Microsoft is doing everything it can to unseat VMware as the virtualization platform of choice in the enterprise. For more about the improvements in Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V, see Michael Otey’s article on Hyper-V 3.0 over at Windows IT Pro.

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4. IP Address Management (IPAM)

One of the biggest headaches for many IT professionals is keeping tabs on IP addresses used on their corporate networks. In a bid to end the time-honored practice of storing IP addresses in Excel spreadsheets, IPAM is a new feature in Windows Server 2012 that provides a new internal framework for locating and managing IP address spaces on networks. You can also manage and monitor servers running Domain Name Service (DNS) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). It also does automatic IP discovery and provides a host of other IP-related tasks focused on management, monitoring, and auditing. Check out the Petri IP Address Management forum topic for additional information about IPAM.

5. Network virtualization changes

One of the more problematic aspects of virtual machine management and provision is dealing with the rules and limitations of IP address management. Microsoft is making a raft of improvements to network virtualization in Windows Server 2012, all aimed at tackling problems related to IP addresses and virtual machines. This helps pave the way for private cloud adoption, and also removes barriers for more infrastructure as a service (IaaS) adoption easier for internal IT stakeholders and hosting customers to implement. John Savill over at Windows IT Pro break down all of the network virtualization changes in Windows Server 2012.

6. ReFS

The venerable NTFS file system format has been used for more than a decade by Microsoft. Recent demands from virtualization and private cloud computing have pushed NTFS as far as it could go, so Microsoft decided to add new features and revamp existing ones to NTFS. The result is an upgrade to NTFS dubbed Re-FS for resilient file system.

Re-FS adds a bumper crop of new storage features and improvements, with some of the highlights being increased support for larger file and directory sizes, disk scrubbing, data striping for improved performance, enhanced virtualization support, and it takes advantages of all the new storage pool and spaces features in Windows Server 2012. For more information, read Michael Simmons' article that provides four reasons why ReFS is better than NTFS.

7. Shared nothing live migration

One of the more impressive new features of Hyper-V 3.0 is shared nothing live migration, which allows you to move VMs from one machine to another without the requirement of having shared storage before making the transfer. This feature can be a boon for smaller IT departments, and it makes it easy to move VMs around without expensive share storage. It one of the most impressive features in Windows Server 2012, and it will help small- to mid-size IT departments become even more agile and responsive to business and customer needs. For more information on the shared nothing live migration feature, read John Savill’s guide to Failover Clustering in Windows Server 2012.

8. Storage pools and spaces

Most IT departments have to contend with a dizzying assortment of storage hardware and medium types, from leading-edge SSD drives and spinning disks to removable drives and legacy magnetic reel tape. Making effective use of all those disparate storage formats can sometimes be a Herculean task, especially when you throw in the ever-increasing storage demands that today’s workplaces place on IT departments. Microsoft is hoping to help admins address that by introducing Storage Pools and Spaces, two storage abstractions concepts being introduced in Windows Server 2012.

Storage Pools aggregate these heterogeneous physical storage devices into cohesive units where it’s relatively easy to add storage capacity by adding additional storage. As mentioned previously, the devices in storage pools don’t have to be homogenous from the perspective of either device or storage size; you can mix and match devices and sizes here.

Storage Spaces takes that concept even further by allowing you to create virtual disks that have the same characteristics as physical devices: they can be attached, removed, backed up, and otherwise managed exactly the same as traditional physical disks. But Spaces have even more useful features and capabilities, including enhanced capabilities when combined with virtualization and private cloud solutions. They also have additional capabilities on the backup, recovery, and high-availability front, and improvement in the realm of thin provisioning as well. For more information, read Storage Spaces in Windows Server 2012 by Michael Simmons.

9. PowerShell 3.0

PowerShell has been steadily gaining in popularity over the last few years, and Microsoft pulled out all the stops for PowerShell support in Windows Server 2012. More than 2000 PowerShell cmdlets are now included, and the newly enhanced stable of commands allows IT professionals to automate and control more aspects of their Windows Server 2012 environment through the PowerShell command line that ever before. This latest update to PowerShell also included improved web access, the ability to schedule jobs, support for disconnected sessions, enhanced and editable help files, and dozens of other new features. For more information on this latest release of PowerShell, check out this interview with Jeffrey Snover, the lead architect for Windows Server 2012.

10. CHKDSK changes

Everyone reading this is probably already intimately familiar with the ubiquitous CHKDSK application, which has been in use in various forms since MS-DOS 1.0. We’ve all stepped out for a cup of coffee when the dreaded CHKDSK disk scan kicks off on a server or client equipped with large disk storage.

Microsoft has responded to this productivity killer by revamping CHKDSK in Windows Server 2012. Rather than spending vast amounts of time laboriously scanning through sectors on large disks, the new and improved CHKDSK now scans disks in two phases: An online phase that detects errors and logs defects (and which also can run in the background), and an actual repair phase that does the actual fixing of corrupted drive data.

I’ve seen time comparisons between the old and new CHKDSK, and the time differences are dramatic: Some scans that took more than 150 minutes to complete are done in less than 4 seconds. It’s a dramatic improvement, and something that every Windows system administrator should rejoice over. For more information on the revamped CHKDSK, read Kurt Mackie's article over at Redmond Magazine about CHKDSK improvements in Windows Server 2012.

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