Microsoft Outlines Multiple Improvements in Windows Server 8 Beta

Microsoft on Thursday formally announced the beta of Windows Server 8, which was made available for download and testing on Wednesday.

The beta, which can be downloaded at Microsoft's TechNet portal here, comes with many new features on top of what Microsoft revealed last September at the BUILD conference, when the Windows Server 8 developer preview was released. The new improvements include GUI and PowerShell enhancements, virtual machine memory boosts, security and self-updating cluster option improvements, better control over Hyper-V replica management, and improvements to dynamic access control and Remote Desktop Services.

Those features and more were described and sometimes demonstrated to reporters earlier this week during in a webcast presentation by Windows Server 8 team members.

Dashboards, PowerShell and Usability
In its briefing to reporters, Microsoft talked about the experience enabled by its new Server Manager Dashboard for Windows Server 8. The dashboard is based on "Metro" user interface design principles that are seen in the Windows 8 client, according to Erin Chapple, a partner group program manager on the Windows server user experience team. Microsoft's intent with this design is to let users glance at, and focus on, actionable tasks that are relevant and tailored to the user's role, she explained. The dashboard aims at facilitating multimachine management, with 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 stating up front that it considers Windows Server Core to be the preferred configuration for running Windows Server 8, although it is possible to shift between Server Core and the full installation by installing components. PowerShell, a throw-back to the command-line days of yore, is also a key component to managing Windows Server 8 because it enables IT professionals to script and automate tasks -- something that is harder to carry out with the GUI.

All About Automation. 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." The point is to enable 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 should be installed on the client." She said that Microsoft expects the primary management experience for Windows Server 8 will be conducted from the client.

Server Manager Dashboard. The new Server Manager Dashboard is tile-based and organized by roles. The dashboard's taskbar will show 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 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.

PowerShell GUI. 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 that will provide an easy way for users to find all of the PowerShell commands. Another new feature in the GUI is "start snippets," which stores and shows code that can be embedded in a script.

PowerShell Web Access. Another new element that's arriving with the beta is PowerShell Web access. Microsoft has essentially 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 in Windows Server 8 where Microsoft has added many improvements. 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.

Capacity, Security and Other Improvements
Other Microsoft engineering team members described the new features in the Windows Server 8 beta since the BUILD conference.

Increased Virtual Machine Memory Capacity. With this beta, Microsoft is moving to the use of 1 terabyte of memory on a virtual machine. That's up from the 512 gigabytes of memory that was 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.

User-Primary Relationships and Roaming Profiles. With the new beta, Microsoft 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, while 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.

Offline File Caching. 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.

SMB Directory Leasing. 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.

SMB Encryption. 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.

Self-Updating Cluster. 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 goes through steps in a wizard, which 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. Supposedly, this feature will not fail even should unplanned downtime occur.

Hyper-V Replica Improvements. Hyper-V replica is a feature in Windows Server 8 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 purposes. 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.

Dynamic Access Control. 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. On top of that, Microsoft made it easier to troubleshoot "access denied" problems on folders.

Remote Desktop Services. 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 like Safari or 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, according to Daga. 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.

Those are the highlights since the developer preview. For more information about the new Windows Server 8 beta, see posts at Microsoft's Windows Server blog.

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