Microsoft opens kimono on Server 2012 R2 at steamy Orleans bash

Private clouds, Azure-by-the-minute

TechEd Microsoft is hosting its annual TechEd developer and partner conference in a sticky* New Orleans this week, with a coming out party for the refresh of the Windows Server stack due later this year.

In the opening keynote on Monday, Redmond will be showing off Windows Server 2012 R2, an update to the flagship server operating system and its companion System Center 2012 R2 control freak.

Ahead of the the speech, Mike Schutz, general manager of product marketing for Windows Server in Microsoft's Server & Tools Division, gave El Reg a sneak peek of the core elements of the enterprise software stack that will receive updates.

First and foremost is the R2 update for Windows Server 2012, which only made its initial debut last September. Windows Server 2012 R2 will be released as a tech preview by the end of June and is expected to be generally available by the end of the year.

Schutz said that the packaging for Windows Server 2012 R2 will remain the same as for the initial version last year, with Foundation, Essentials, Standard, and Datacenter editions offering different feature sets and scalability across different classes of x86 systems. Microsoft isn't saying if there will be changes in pricing with the R2 update.

Schutz demurred when El Reg asked about how the core scalability of the Windows kernel had changed in terms of CPU, main memory, or hypervisor scalability. He also wouldn't say whether Windows Server 2012 R2 had been tweaked to take full advantage of the shiny new or impending processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

But as is always the case, the operating system kernels run ahead of the hardware launches, and it is inconceivable that the R2 update does not have support for the latest iron and drivers for all kinds of peripherals as well - in come cases, stuff that is not yet on the market. (We will try to get the details down in New Orleans.)

Fluffy blue clouds

A few years back, there was a plan to literally take the code behind Windows Azure and make it available for use by enterprises and service providers, with Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Fujitsu all signing up to offer preconfigured Azure stacks. This plan seems to have gone by the wayside, and Microsoft doesn't like to talk about it any more.

What Microsoft wants to focus on are tweaks to the Windows/Hyper-V/Systems Center triple-whammy that make it better at converting servers into private clouds and meshing with Redmond's own Windows Azure public cloud. Some of the new features in this stack are merely inspired by Windows Azure, and in other cases, code has been literally taken from the Microsoft cloud and made available for enterprises and service providers. So this sort of fulfills the original Azure promise to customers and service providers.

"It really is taking a cloud-first design point that comes from building cloud infrastructure like Windows Azure and Office 365, which have hundreds of thousands of servers behind them," explains Schutz. "Virtualization has to be high-performant and resilient." (He did say performant, lest you think that's a typo. A lot of marketing people use the word these days, but I suspect this will never become a Regism. I would say zippy or oomphy.)

To that end, one of the features that is inspired by Windows Azure (but based on different code) that is coming out is the ability for a single management console running System Center to manage the live migration of hundreds of virtual machines on a cluster of machines simultaneously.

As for code that is literally being block-copied from the guts of the Windows Azure public cloud to Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft is also previewing a little something called the Windows Azure Pack, which will be a set of add-ons for building public and private clouds atop the Windows stack that give it the look and feel of Windows Azure.

The add-on pack includes the tools Microsoft has used internally to manage high-density web sites on the Windows Azure cloud as well as more sophisticated virtual machine provisioning atop the Hyper-V server virtualization hypervisor. Windows Azure Pack also includes the exact same self-service portal that is part of Microsoft's public cloud, so if you know how to use that, you know how to use it in your own cloud.

"Now enterprises and service providers don't have to weave together their own," says Schutz.

What is not yet clear is how you might link the management of an internal private cloud based on the Windows stack and the provisioning of VMs on that private cloud to the Windows Azure public cloud. But clearly, you would want one console, running internally, to be able to manage both private and public cloud capacity and move workloads between the two at will.

Windows Server 2012 R2 also offers several storage and networking enhancements. On the storage front, there is a new feature called Tiered Spaces. With the initial release of Windows Server 2012, Microsoft included Storage Spaces, a storage abstraction layer that runs atop the HTFS file system and uses the SMB 3.0 protocol to create a resilient pool of storage out of disk and flash drives in a system. Service providers (like Microsoft, for instance) do not use storage area networks to back-end their clouds because SANs are far too expensive for infrastructure and platform clouds.

Storage Spaces pools the storage on multiple Windows machines, setting up a storage space (hence the name) that can be used by Hyper-V virtual machines to hold VHD images or simply to store raw data that VMs have access to. The most common use case it to create a unified storage space from disks and SSDs that are housed in an enclosure and hooked to the server over SAS links (so-called JBOD arrays), but you can create a storage space from the internal drives on a single server if you want to.

Storage Spaces is another one of those features that has been inspired by Windows Azure as is its Tiered Spaces follow-on. With Tiered Spaces, Microsoft is adding tiering intelligence to Storage Spaces, so now it knows to keep the hottest data on SSDs or the fastest drives in a pool and to move the coldest data to the slowest spinning disks.

It would be fabulous if Microsoft could extend Storage Spaces and Tiered Spaces to span multiple physical servers, allowing a storage pool to span more than the physical disks either in or attached to a single physical server. This is what the Ceph clustered file system does in the Linux world.

Microsoft has done a lot of work in Windows Azure to allow virtual private networking between private data centers and the Redmond public cloud, and with this R2 update to Windows Server 2012, Hyper-V network virtualization is being augmented with a multi-tenant virtual private networking gateway that allows for multiple sites to be linked together and share a single network management domain.

This multi-tenant networking can be used to link a private cloud based on Windows Server to Windows Azure seamlessly or to link two different private clouds together.

"We want to break down the boundaries to enable hybrid IT," says Schutz.

Microsoft and everyone else excepting Amazon Web Services perhaps, which would simply prefer for you to move all of your workloads to its public cloud. That said, AWS does have flexible virtual private networking to link to its cloud and very sophisticated virtual private cloud setups to create isolated and secure infrastructure within its cloud.

Next page: Azure updates, too

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