Windows Server 2012 Essentials Hits RTM Stage

Windows Server 2012 Essentials was released to Microsoft's hardware manufacturing partners on Tuesday.

The next milestone for Windows Server 2012 Essentials will be general availability on Nov. 1. Microsoft expects that original equipment manufacturers will start shipping the server products by the end of this year.

The release-to-manufacturing (RTM) milestone signifies the impending availability of Microsoft's newest server for small businesses and home offices sometime this year. The server provides backup for organizations, management and security support for Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs and Mac OS X computers (versions 10.5 and higher), mobile device support and integration with external Internet-based services via a simplified graphical user interface (GUI). Those wanting to test the new server can access a 180-day evaluation copy of the software here.

Microsoft issued the RTM of Essentials two months later than Windows Server 2012, which hit RTM status in August. Windows Server 2012 Essentials is the successor product to the Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2011 product, which will no longer be sold after June 2013. Microsoft is also discontinuing sales of Windows Home Server on December 31, 2013.

Ease of Use
Windows Server 2012 Essentials is new and built "on the exact same Windows Server 2012 code base," according to David Fabritius, senior product manager on the Windows Server marketing team, in a phone brief conducted last month. Microsoft has installed some of the server roles by default and has configured them according to best practices for a small business environment. For instance, Active Directory and Internet Information Services are turned on by default in Essentials. Setup is simplified and users can easily connect to Microsoft's cloud-based services.

While turning on those features by default isn't necessarily optimal for larger organizations, Fabritius asserted that it is appropriate for a small business, adding that "where this is your first server, then we can make certain assumptions about what the server needs to do to add value on Day 1, and so that's what we do."

Windows Server 2012 Essentials supports PowerShell, for those organizations that like to do scripting. However, the Server Core configuration isn't available, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

The earlier product, Microsoft SBS 2011, came with licenses to use Microsoft's Exchange e-mail server. With Windows Server 2012 Essentials, Microsoft doesn't include Exchange. Users have the option of getting their e-mail service by setting up their own on-premises Exchange Server or they can tap the Microsoft Office 365 service, or access a third-party hosted e-mail service.

In general, Microsoft has designed Essentials with a user-friendly dashboard that organizes tasks into a tab-like format. The tabs include "Home," "Users," "Devices," "Storage" and "Applications." Microsoft provides a software development kit and a new set of Web services APIs that can be used to build add-ins to extend the server's functionality, including adding new tabs and subtabs to the server dashboard. The Applications tab has a Microsoft Pinpoint menu option that lets users discover applications that are built by Microsoft's partners. The new SDK and APIs are built upon, and maintain "compatibility" with, the add-ins model used for Windows SBS 2011 Essentials, according to Microsoft's "Evaluation Guide." The Guide and other resources for Windows Server 2012 Essentials can be downloaded at this page.

The dashboard GUI in Essentials is there to help organizations that don't have a lot of IT support expertise. For instance, it provides an "alert viewer" that shows a system health report, which displays information such as missing client OS updates and out-of-date virus definitions on client devices. In contrast, other editions of Windows Server 2012, such as Foundation, Standard and Datacenter, may require greater IT expertise to run, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft also consolidated some add-in features into the dashboard of Windows Server 2012 Essentials that used to be optional.

"If you're familiar with the add-ins that Essentials had in the past, one of the offering was the Windows 7 Professional Pack add-in, which allowed you to push out a set of Group Policies to help protect the PC, turn down things like folder redirection and set policies to make sure the firewall was turned on," Fabritius said. "That's now been integrated in the dashboard, so it's not a separate download."

The Group Policy integration in Windows Server 2012 Essentials extends to both Windows 7 and Windows 8 client devices.

Microsoft is also claiming better application support for Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Now, there's a single Windows Server logo certification program for applications. In the past, apps weren't always so compatible with the Essentials products, Fabritius acknowledged.

Scalability and Upgrades
Windows Server 2012 Essentials is for small businesses, supporting up to 25 users and 50 devices. The earlier product had supported only 25 devices. The licensing is simplified in that it doesn't require the purchase of Client Access Licenses (CALs) and supports up to two processors per server. In contrast, Windows Server 2012 Foundation supports up to 15 users on one processor. The Standard and Datacenter editions are identical products except for virtualization rights and both are licensed on the server-plus-CALs model.

Microsoft is claiming that users of Windows Server 2012 Essentials will have the option to perform an "in-place upgrade" to the Standard edition, should an organization need to scale up operations. The Standard edition allows an organization support for up to 75 users and 75 devices. Organizations won't lose features when performing such an in-place upgrade to the Standard edition, according to Fabritius.

"With SBS 2011 Essentials, you were maxed out at 25 users and then there wasn't necessarily a good growth path," Fabritius said. "You basically had to do some kind of migration or reinstall and go to Windows Server Standard. But today, you can do an in-place license transition if you grow in the future beyond the 25-user account. So there's no more need to migrate, and the value-added features such as the RWA [remote Web access] and dashboard and PC backup will continue to work but the 25-user account limit will be lifted. It's better than the Transition Pack from way in the past with the SBS 2003 timeframe. The Transition Pack also lets you do an in-place migration but you lost all of the unique features. Today, in 2012, you don't have that limitation. We actually continue being able to support all of the features -- they continue to work."

New and Improved Features
Windows Server 2012 Essentials inherits a number of new features from the Windows Server 2012 code base. Here are some highlights:

  • Backup Support. Windows Server 2012 Essentials now supports "volumes larger than 2 terabytes," according to Microsoft's "Evaluation Guide." It can carry out "complete system backups and bare-metal restores of the server itself as well as the client computers connected to the network." The Windows 8 File History feature, which allows restoring various document versions, is supported.

  • Windows Azure Online Backup Service. While backup has been a big task for IT shops, Microsoft has been somewhat low key in talking about this new Windows Azure Online Backup service, which will be an option for Windows Server 2012 Essentials users. Fabritius said that the service doesn't replace the normal server backup process that an organization would perform on premises, but it adds another layer of protection. Microsoft first rolled out a beta in March of the Windows Azure Online Backup service, but there's no indication so far about pricing and availability.

  • Storage Spaces. The Storage Spaces feature lets users create pools of storage using various storage media, which can be swapped in and out. Fabritius said that the effect is similar to Microsoft's Drive Extender technology that was used in Windows Home Server. Storage Spaces is also a feature in the Windows 8 client operating system.

  • Remote Domain Join. It will be possible to establish domain joins remotely. In the past, you had to be in the same office as the computer in order to perform the domain join, Fabritius explained. You can also monitor remote connections via the dashboard.

  • Client App for Windows RT Devices. This new forthcoming client app will let users access files and folders on the server and do light management work. It will allow a person to work offline in a disconnected state and then will synchronize the changes when reconnected. This new client app will be available sometime after the Windows Server 2012 Essentials RTM, according to Fabritius.

  • Remote Web Access and Windows Phone App. Remote Web Access technology isn't new, but Microsoft is adding an improved touch-based experience with Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Remote Web Access lets users access files and folders remotely using a Web browser. Microsoft is also planning to issue an updated Windows Phone "My Server" app for remote server management. The current My Server app, which is free, works with Windows Phone 7.5 and higher. Microsoft hasn't said when the updated My Server app will appear but it is planning to launch its Windows Phone 8 OS on Oct. 29.

  • DirectAccess. DirectAccess is remote access technology that doesn't require a virtual private network connection. It's not new, having been introduced in Windows Server 2008 R2, but Fabritius said that Microsoft has improved the integration with Windows Server Essentials 2012. "In the past, it was relatively difficult to deploy a DirectAccess environment," Fabritius said. "Large companies certainly took advantage of it, but it didn't necessarily go down to the small end."

  • NIC Teaming. This network interface card (NIC) teaming feature is failover technology that can ward off problems associated with component failures. Fabritius said that it's now easier for Windows Server 2012 Essentials users to use multiple NICs and "team" them as one device. Microsoft describes NIC Teaming as equivalent to "load balancing and failover" technology.