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The 10 best … Windows Server 2012 features

Microsoft takes on all comers

Opinion Microsoft's Windows Server 2012 is out. For many systems administrators, the question about this latest iteration of Microsoft's server family is not "What's new?" but "Why care?"

Server 2008 R2 is a great operating system, while Server 2012 bears the stigma of Metro and the Windows 8 controversy. But the answer to "why care" is simple: Server 2012 is as big a leap over 2008 R2 as 2008 R2 was over 2003.

Server 2012 comes with some great new features. It also refines previous versions of Server to bring it past the "never use version 1.0" stage and up to parity, in features and stability, with competing offerings.

In short Windows Server 2012 kicks ass. Here are the top 10 reasons why.

10. IIS 8

IIS 8 brings Internet Information Services up to feature parity with the rest of the world, and surpasses it in places. More than a decade's worth of "you use Windows as your web server" jokes officially end here.

IIS 8 sports script precompilation, granular process throttling, SNI support and centralised certificate management. Add in a FTP server that finally, mercifully, doesn't suck (it even has functional login restrictions) and IIS 8 becomes worth the cost of the operating system on its own.

9. PowerShell

PowerShell 3.0 is an evolution rather than a revolution. Having more PowerShell scriptlets is not normally something I would care about. That said, the 2012 line of products marks a revolution in Microsoft's approach to server management.

Every element of the operating system and virtually every other companion server, such as SQL, Exchange or Lync, are completely manageable through PowerShell. This is so ingrained that the GUIs are just buttons that call PowerShell scripts underneath.

PowerShell should be tops on this list but to make proper use of it, your Google-fu has to be strong. The official documentation is incomplete, Bing is still worthless for searching Microsoft's web estate and the golden examples for making use of PowerShell lie in the blogs maintained by Microsoft's staff.

Once you have assembled the list of scriptlets you need – printed, laminated and guarded by a fire elemental as in days of old – you can make the 2012 stack of Microsoft software sing. Thanks to PowerShell, Microsoft is ready to take on all comers at any scale.

8. DirectAccess

DirectAccess was a neat idea but it was poorly implemented in previous versions of Windows. Server 2012 makes it easier to use, with SSL as the default configuration and IPSec as an option. The rigid dependence on IPv6 has also been removed.

DirectAccess has evolved into a reasonable, reliable and easy-to-use replacement for virtual private networks.

7. Cluster Shared Volumes

With Server 2012 Cluster Shared Volumes are officially supported for use beyond hosting virtual hard disks for Hyper-V. You may now roll your own highly available multi-node replicated storage cluster and do so with a proper fistful of best-practice documentation.

6. Deduplication

For years now, storage demand has been growing faster than hard drive density. Meeting our voracious appetite for data storage has meant more and more spindles, and more controllers, chassis, power supplies, electricity and cooling to keep those spindles spinning.

Deduplication has moved from nice to have to absolute must in recent years and Microsoft has taken notice. Server 2012 supports deduplication on NTFS volumes – though tragically it does not work with CSV – and deeply integrates it with BranchCache to save on WAN bandwidth.

5. Hyper-V 3.0

Server 2012 sees Hyper-V catch up with VMware's mainstream. While objectively I would have to say that VMware retains the feature lead at the top end, when combined with System Center 2012, Hyper-V 3.0 will cheerfully handle two-sigma worth of use cases.

Microsoft is no longer an also-ran in the virtualisation space; it is a capable and voracious predator stalking the wilds of the data centre for new prey.

Microsoft's Hyper-V Server – a free Windows Core version of Hyper-V – is feature complete. If you have a yen to dive into PowerShell then you can run a complete 64-node, 8,000 virtual machine Hyper-V cluster without paying Microsoft a dime.

It takes a very special kind of masochist to do so – Microsoft is betting you will spend the money on System Center 2012 and it is probably right. System Center 2012 is amazing, even more so with the newly launched Service Pack 1.

Microsoft's focus on PowerShell and its decision to put price pressure on VMware with Hyper-V server has opened up a market for third-party management tools such as 5Nine. These are not nearly as capable as System Center, but offer a great mid-point between free and impossible to manage and awesome but too expensive. This emerging ecosystem should see Hyper-V's market share explode.

4. Hyper-V Replica

Hyper-V Replica is a storage technology designed to continuously replicate your virtual machines across to a backup cluster. It ensures that snapshots no more than 15 minutes old of your critical virtual machines are available over any network link, including the internet.

It replicates the initial snapshot in full – after that it sends only change blocks – and it fully supports versioning of your virtual machines.

3. iSCSI

With Windows Storage Server 2008, Microsoft first made an iSCSI target available. It eventually became an optional download from Microsoft's website for Server 2008 R2 and is now finally integrated into Server 2012 as a core component.

2. NFS 4.1

Microsoft's NFS 4.1 server is good code. Designed from the ground up it is is fast, stable and reliable. It makes a great storage system for heterogenous environments and a wonderful network storage point for VMware servers.

1. SMB 3.0

SMB 3.0 is the crown jewel of Server 2012. It is far removed from its laughingstock predecessor CIFS. It supports multiple simultaneous network interfaces – including the ability to hot-plug new interfaces on the fly to increase bandwidth for large or complex transfers – and supports MPIO, thin provisioning of volumes and deduplication (assuming the underlying storage is NTFS).

SMB 3.0 also supports SMB Direct and remote direct memory access, the ability for appropriately kitted systems to move SMB data directly from one system's memory to the other, bypassing the SMB stack. This has enabled Microsoft to hit 16GBps transfer rates for SMB 3.0, a weighty gauntlet for any potential challenger to raise.

I have found Server 2012 to be worth the cost of the upgrade, even where I have the excellent Server 2008 R2 deployed. Given that I work with very limited IT budgets, that is a strong endorsement.

If you have also taken the plunge, please share your take in the comments below. ®

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