First look: Windows Server 2012
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So long, SAN
Server 2012 also provides for a number of types of replication between servers to improve the availability and uptime of data. One of these is through Server 2012’s Distributed File Services’ Replication Groups, which can synchronize data from point to point, in a mesh or hub-spoke arrangement. This can be used to back up user files offsite or to multiple backups, and can be configured to use a set amount of bandwidth or replicate only at certain times of the day.
There are two other storage features in Server 2012 that are aimed at making it easier to prevent a loss of data in the first place. First, there’s the Resilient File System (ReFS), the new server file system, designed to minimize the potential for disk corruption caused by power failures by using the same “copy on write” approach used by the ZFS file system developed by Sun Microsystems.
There’s also a new feature in Server 2012, called Storage Spaces, that turns collections of inexpensive SATA and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) hard drives into a kinder, gentler sort of software-driven RAID. Storage Spaces allows administrators to create “pools” of physical disks that can be grouped together to create virtual disks set for a specific level of redundancy, and grown elastically by the addition of more disks. Disks’ partitions can be split up across multiple virtual drives, and multiple heterogeneous disks—even SSDs and traditional hard disks—can be aggregated and mapped to a single virtual drive.
Combined with some enhancements to Windows Server’s SMB file sharing protocol for application-specific storage and other enhancements in how Server 2012 handles distributed file systems, these storage features could make the operating system a suitable substitute for SAN hardware in smaller environments. However, we haven’t had a chance to kick these systems hard enough yet to get any real idea of their resilience yet.
The new license calculus
The licensing issues around Server 2012 aren’t trivial. Before you even deploy Windows Server 2012, one of the first differences that you’ll notice from Windows Server 2008 R2 is that Microsoft has totally restructured its licensing for the Server platform. That's because while the number of "editions" of Server has been drastically chopped back, Microsoft has created a new per-processor pair licensing scheme that both simplifies and complicates the server license configuration process.
Functionally, Standard and Datacenter are the same. Even things like clustering, which used to be the sole preserve of the higher-end Windows Server SKUs, are found in Standard. The only difference is the number of Windows Server virtual machines supported per license. Standard, priced at $882 for up to two processors, only supports two Windows Server VMs per license; Datacenter, at $4,809 per license, supports unlimited Windows Server VMs. You can use the same license for the virtual instances of Server 2012 running on the machine. So, a single Standard edition license on a two-socket server gives you up to three instances of Windows Server 2012—the physical install and two virtual ones. If you want to run eight virtual Windows Server instances (or any mix of eight operating systems), you’ll need at least four Standard Server licenses.
If you want to run guests that aren't Windows Server (for example, Linux servers, or Windows 7 for VDI), of course, you could always just use the free Hyper-V Server 2012 on another server for them, and get the same level of virtualization support with an unlimited number of virtual machines. That’s not something Microsoft is actively marketing, but it does make Server 2012 a more attractive option for smaller organizations who want to deploy larger numbers of virtual machines without a lot of administrative overhead.
Final first impressions
Once you have the basics worked out, deploying Windows Server 2012 in a smaller environment—even using Server Core on most of the systems—is pretty painless. And on the whole, Server 2012 performed up to expectations in our initial testing of a wide range of its features. Even when the system failed, it did so in a way that wasn't traumatic. There were times when I pushed Hyper-V past its breaking point, resulting in graceful shutdowns of the server rather than a train-wreck screen of death.
There are a few bugs lingering about to be dealt with for organizations that may want to mix and match their Windows Server versions for a while as they test the waters. The Windows Server 2008 versions of Windows Management Framework 3.0, for example, will be essential for organizations that have to keep the older server release around a while longer to support older software.
Cleanup aside, Server 2012 brings so much to the table that it should be quickly picked up by small and mid-size organizations trying to make themselves look bigger from an IT perspective. Even when you look at the very narrow scope of its storage abilities, Server 2012 has a big potential financial payoff in terms of lowering the cost of IT. And when tied to hosted services in a public or private cloud, Server 2012 will help IT administrators scale up or down on demand with a lot less pain and a much smaller budget.