Windows 8 Server Beta Released

GUI and PowerShell enhancements, a boost to virtual machine memory, and improvements in security and self-updating cluster options among the highlights.

Microsoft has announced the availability of the Windows Server 8 beta that can be downloaded here.

Among the new improvements: GUI and PowerShell enhancements, a boost to virtual machine memory, improvements in security and self-updating cluster options, better control over Hyper-V replica management, and better dynamic access control and Remote Desktop Services. These and other features were presented to reporters earlier this week during in a Webcast by Windows Server 8 team members.

During that briefing, Microsoft talked about the experience enabled by its new Server Manager Dashboard, which is based on the "Metro" user interface design principles seen in the Windows 8 client, according to Erin Chapple, a partner group program manager on the Windows server user experience team. Microsoft's wanted to let users glance at, and focus on, actionable tasks that are relevant and tailored to the user's role, she explained. The dashboard enables multimachine management and provides consistency between command-line tools (such as PowerShell) and the graphical user interface (GUI) when moving between virtual and on-premises environments, Chapple added.

Microsoft is frank about considering Windows Server Core to be the preferred configuration for running Windows Server 8, although IT can shift between Server Core and the full installation by installing components. PowerShell, a throw-back to the command-line days, is also a key component for managing Windows Server 8 because it enables IT professionals to script and automate tasks -- something that is harder to perform with the GUI.

Chapple explained that Microsoft is not being "anti-GUI" with this change in direction with Windows Server 8. Rather, she said that the "GUIs should be in the right place" so it enables automation and scale with PowerShell beyond what the Server Manager GUI can provide.

Even though Microsoft has made multiple improvements to the Server Manager Dashboard, Chapple explained that, over time, "we are moving to a world where the GUI should not be installed on the server.  It should be installed on the client." She said Microsoft expects the primary management experience for Windows Server 8 will be conducted from the client.

The new tile-based Server Manager Dashboard is organized by roles. The dashboard's taskbar will display icons indicating alerts, such as when there are unfinished tasks to complete. It is now possible to select multiple items and perform actions on them within the dashboard Chapple noted. Users can right click on items and drill down into the details.

Microsoft plans to enable its Server Manager GUI to generate PowerShell scripts that users can grab to automate tasks. While that capability was the No. 1 requested feature suggested during Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program phase when an early version of Windows Server 8 was being reviewed, it didn't make this beta, Chapple explained. However, this beta will arrive with more than 2,300 PowerShell "command-lets" (also known as "cmdlets") for users to try.

New in this beta is a GUI tool for running PowerShell. The scripting application runs in a window and features "intellisense," which is Microsoft's code-completion tip feature seen in the Visual Studio development environment. There is also a new "show command" tool in the GUI so users can easily find all PowerShell commands. Another new GUI feature is "start snippets" that stores and shows code that can be embedded in a script.

A new element in the beta is PowerShell Web access. Microsoft has created a gateway to connect to PowerShell on a remote machine, Chapple explained. It's optimized for remote management. Users can specify different computer credentials and authentication information. When connected, they see the familiar blue PowerShell screen.

Microsoft is emphasizing remote management with Windows Server 8 via a client using Remote Server Administration Tools. The experience is designed to be similar when working with the local client or working remotely.

Storage is an area where Microsoft has added many improvements in Windows Server 8. Chapple demonstrated how to create a "storage pool" that displays as a local virtual disk drive. It takes just a few clicks to create it. Next, a role wizard can be used to create a Server Message Block (SMB) or NFS file share on that storage pool. She also demonstrated how to remove a quota restriction on a file share, which might be a task for IT to do when organizations need to quickly allocate greater storage space.

Other Microsoft engineering team members described the new features in the Windows Server 8 beta since the Build conference.  For example, Microsoft is moving to the use of 1 terabyte of memory on a virtual machine, up from the 512 gigabytes of memory described for the Windows Server 8 developer preview version, according to Chris Phillips, general manager of Windows Server engineering. In addition, virtual disk size capacity increases in the Windows Server 8 beta to 64 terabytes, compared with 16 terabytes in the developer preview.

Phillips recounted a few previously announced Windows Server 8 features. For instance, Windows Server 8 uses a new "resilient file system" (ReFS) instead of the NTFS scheme. ReFS uses Windows Server 8's "storage spaces" capability to enable data redundancy and the automatic correction of "metadata corruptions," according to Phillips' presentation. He noted that Microsoft has extended volume shadow copy service (VSS) for SMB 2.2, which allows data to be copied and stored on remote servers for backup and recovery purposes, as described back in September.

As part of the new beta, Microsoft has improved roaming-profiles support in Windows Server 8. IT administrators can use Active Directory to specify user primary relationships on PCs. The profile can apply only to the primary computer; other computers will establish a local user profile. Phillips explained why it's necessary to specify a user-primary relationship. As IT pros log onto machines to work on them, they are added to the machine's user profile and "it creates a nightmare for the admin to delete all of that info on a per-machine basis," he explained. Now, the beta includes improvements to avoid that issue by allowing user-primary profiles to be set for specific machines.

Microsoft also improved an offline mode file-caching feature in the Windows Server 8 beta by allowing IT pros to set specific sync periods. This arrangement can help prevent crashes when users try to reconnect and the connection is "highly latent and broken," Phillips explained.

The Window Server 8 beta now has a new "SMB directory leasing" feature that helps those organizations using BranchCache, which is Microsoft's technology that locally caches documents stored on a wide area network. Directory leasing lets a user set a lease on a folder, and if the data in that folder changes, it will resync and update the cache, Phillips explained. He said that this feature helps to reduce roundtripping and bandwidth-cost issues.

Microsoft enables SMB encryption in the Windows Server 8 beta, which can work across the whole server or just a file share, according to Alpesh Gaglani, a program manager on the Windows file server team. This sort of protection might be used when data has to cross over untrusted networks, such as with banking applications. It used to require IPSec and dedicated hardware to provide such protection, but SMB encryption can now be used. The SMB encryption feature is designed work across branch offices in a wide area network.

Windows Server 8 allows IT pros to automatically update all nodes in a cluster by turning on cluster-aware updating. To do that, the user proceeds through a wizard that will set up this feature and produce a PowerShell script. Updates can be set to occur according to a schedule, such as a particular day in the week or monthly. The wizard includes a checkbox that will deliver recommended updates, if those are wanted. Microsoft says this feature will not fail even should unplanned downtime occur.

Hyper-V replica is a Windows Server 8 feature that allows for the replication of virtual machines using just the Hyper-V hypervisor and a network connection. The replication can be used for backup and disaster recovery. This feature was one of the first that Microsoft described prior to rolling out the developer preview of Windows Server 8. With this new beta release, Microsoft has now added the notion of using a trust zone to authorize client access to a replica server, according to Rahul Razdan, a programmer on the Windows team. Primary servers can be grouped into a trust zone for specific replica servers. Microsoft also improved the monitoring of replica servers by delivering health and replication stats. If nonoptimal replication occurs, the incident will be marked as an item for IT pros to address, Razdan said.

Microsoft improved the policies for its dynamic access control feature, which uses Active Directory to determine permissions on file shares. It's now possible to support "multiple central access policies" where policies are applied across an entire organization. In addition, Microsoft made it easier to troubleshoot "access denied" problems on folders.

Microsoft indicated that it has improved the management experience for Remote Desktop Services (RDS) with the Windows Server 8 beta. RDS is Microsoft's successor technology to Terminal Services, allowing a server to host multiple "sessions or virtual machines" at the same time. With the Windows Server 8 beta, Remote Desktop Web Access, Microsoft's Web front-end for RDS deployments, "now supports using third-party Web browsers such as Safari and Chrome" on top of Internet Explorer, according to Gaurav Daga, a lead program manager at Microsoft. In addition, Microsoft added DirectX11 support for virtual graphics processing units using Microsoft's RemoteFX technology. "RemoteFX Media Remoting, Microsoft’s technology that enables a low-bandwidth good user experience for multimedia content on wide area networks," now supports all video types, and not just Flash, Daga points out. Microsoft first introduced RemoteFX technology -- a three-dimensional graphics enhancement technology for remote applications leveraging virtual desktop infrastructure -- when it rolled out Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1.

For more information about the new Windows Server 8 beta, see posts at Microsoft's Windows Server blog.

[Editor's note: Remote Desktop Services section updated 3/2/12 with quotes from Microsoft.]

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