The Microsoft Windows Server 8 developer preview has enough promising enhancements to virtual networking, storage and infrastructure management to warrant serious IT interest as a data center platform. While much is yet unknown about Windows Server 8, including when it will be released and license costs, the pre-beta, developer preview reveals a broad landscape of improvements that-if successfully executed-warrant the strategic attention of IT managers at organizations of all sizes.
While VMware and the newly minted vSphere 5 remain the undisputed leader of the x86 server virtualization field, Microsoft Windows Server 8 clearly shows signs of offering a competitive challenge. eWEEK Labs' work with Windows Server 8 developer preview shows that the initial contours of Microsoft's offering have the right ingredients to be a tempting challenger to VMware.
I installed WS8 on a variety of server and advanced workstation hardware at eWEEK Labs, including a Lenovo ThinkServer RD210, ThinkServer TS200v, Acer AR-380 and an HP Z800 workstation. All systems were running Intel Xeon processors and were equipped with between 4GB and 24 GB of RAM. Most of the systems had a single network interface card (NIC), but the Acer and the ThinkServer RD210 had multiple NICs.
When it ships, Windows Server 8 will be the first edition of the operating system for which a core installation, rather than a full GUI installation, is recommended. I'll come back to the significant changes in Server Manager, but for now, IT managers should factor in the core server installation in the following ways. Windows Server 8 will be significantly smaller, both in terms of memory size and security footprint.
Windows Server 8 core currently has a minimum requirement of 512MB RAM, the same as Windows Server 2008 R2. Unlike the previous version, Windows Server 8 core is designed for remote management. My tests also showed that Windows Server 8 core handles the addition and removal of server roles much better than the current shipping version of Windows Server. Although not tested, the Windows Server 8 Hyper-V role will be able to be delivered and run from a flash memory device.
Further, the core installation strips off the traditional Windows GUI and Explorer. At this RAM size, it is reasonable for IT managers to consider that Windows Server 8 core could be installed on an SD card or other solid state memory device in the server hardware, similar to how VMware's vSphere ESXi can be installed today.
Microsoft's move to recommending a core-as opposed to full GUI installation-carries a significant strategic impact for how IT should approach server management.
Management-Server Manager, Multimachine
At first glance, Windows Server 8 has a substantially different Server Manager than previous versions of the operating system. The redesigned Server Manager fully embraces a multimachine management approach that is far different from the traditional one-machine-at-a-time view that is available today.
The management tools are intended to run from a Windows client system. Microsoft officials went out of their way to state that a Linux system with the WS-Management (a DMTF, SOAP-based protocol for system management) stack could use the Server Manager tools to manage Windows Server 8 systems.
I was able to easily add Windows Server 8 systems along with existing Windows Server 2008 R2 and 2003 systems to Server Manager. I was able to group systems, see alerts based on individual systems or by server role and act on error conditions. One substantial change in Server Manager-aside from the adoption of the stark Metro interface-is that the familiar Task Pane has been replaced with a right mouse click. This is a much more intuitive way to work, and IT managers should expect this will ease adoption of the new Server Manager by experienced data center operations staff.
As I have held for many years, effective management of the virtual infrastructure will distinguish successful implementations from those that fail. It's interesting to note that Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) already supports managing both Hyper-V and vSphere environments. Further, Microsoft has substantial operational experience from running Hotmail, Bing and its MSDN properties. It seems clear that lessons from the System Center team and Microsoft operations have had a positive influence on the management design of Windows Server 8. Organizations should now begin to see how existing third-party management tools interoperate, or are made redundant, by the System Manager changes.
Windows Server 8 substantially expands the role the operating system can play in organizations, especially those with a modest number of IT staff. I was able to use Windows Server 8 DHCP and DNS roles to provide redundancy in the case of DHCP, and eased operations, in the case of DNS. While I don't see a similar move to include Cisco networking, as VMware did with the Cisco Nexus 1000v, there are improvements to the virtual switch infrastructure in Windows Server 8.
I was able to use new virtual machine network isolation and bandwidth policy features in Windows Server 8 to enforce "you-get-what-you-pay-for" multitenancy networking in Windows Server 8. I was able to use a virtual network port access control list (ACL) to control network access. There also are private VLAN capabilities and minimum/maximum bandwidth throttling capabilities that I used to provide basic controls on how much network capacity my virtual machines were able to use. While this is new in Windows Server 8, these capabilities, as I saw them, do not set any new benchmark for virtual network switch functionality. Even so, there are substantial changes that enhance the basic functionality of the virtual network switch in Windows Sever 8. This is an area of the product that IT managers should mark for substantial investigation. In particular, capturing and filtering extensions along with an API that enables the virtual switch to make network traffic available to third parties for traffic inspection. There will be a logo program to certify third-party products that use the virtual switch API.
I was able to use Windows Server 8 to create NIC teams on my server systems. NIC teaming is already available in competitive products. NIC teams can be created using cards from different vendors. IT managers should consider that NIC teams of nearly any size can be created. This physical networking enhancement removes a major roadblock to placing performance-sensitive workloads on Windows Server systems.
Subsequent reviews will look in greater detail at the substantial storage changes that are included in Windows Server 8. For now, I can say the new Storage Spaces should make it significantly easier for IT managers to administer virtual disks, both when provisioning and for improved performance. Windows Server 8 will also include NFS 4.1 support file access for UNIX clients.