“Faster” and “slimmer” are two adjectives to which few software product upgrades can lay legitimate claim-particularly if the software upgrade in question is a Windows operating system.
And, yet, Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008, which recently hit the RTM (release to manufacturing) milestone, demonstrates that Microsoft is capable of producing a lean, mean server machine-and doing it, no less, atop the same code base that backs the company’s oft-maligned Windows Vista client operating system.
The new Windows Server boasts a set of networking enhancements that dramatically boost file serving performance, and the product can be deployed in a new, stripped-down Server Core configuration, which significantly reduces the attack surface of systems hosting certain Windows Server roles.
Toss in a more modular and securable Web server in IIS (Internet Information Services) 7.0, Microsoft’s new hypervisor-based virtualization functionality and a host of management enhancements, and Windows Server 2008 merits eWEEK Labs’ Analyst’s Choice designation.
That’s not to say, however, that Windows Server 2008 is without its warts. For instance, while it’s great to see Windows Server take a page out of Linux’s book with support for slimmed-down deployments, Server Core supports only a limited set of predetermined roles, such as those for file or domain services.
What’s more, due to its monolithic packaging and broad dependencies, Microsoft’s .Net Framework cannot be installed on Server Core instances, which, among other things, bars Microsoft’s innovative PowerShell command-line interface from the command-line-centric Server Core.
However, assorted quibbles aside, Windows Server 2008 comes with a value proposition that’s significantly stronger than that of its client-side sibling, Vista, and the product is well worth evaluating both for organizations currently running Windows and for those that are not.
Windows Server 2008 is available in five versions: a $999 Standard edition that comes with five CALs (client access licenses); a $3,999, 25-CAL Enterprise Edition; a $2,999-per-processor Datacenter Edition; a $2,999-per-processor version for Itanium-based systems; and a $469 Web server edition.
You can find a series of pages outlining the hardware and software differences among these versions here. Versions of Windows Server 2008 also are available for x86, x86-64 and Intel Itanium 2 processor platforms.
I tested the x86-64 version of Windows Server 2008 on a Dell PowerEdge 830 server with a dual-core Intel Pentium D processor and 2GB of RAM. I also tested the system, in both full-install and Server Core configurations, in a variety of virtual machines under VMware ESX Server.
I installed a couple of my Windows Server 2008 instances using the product’s spruced-up network install facility, called WDS (Windows Deployment Services). I installed the WDS role on one of my Windows Server 2008 machines and directed the service to fetch an install image from my Windows Server 2008 install media. From there, I was able to boot a new system on my network using PXE from the WDS service and kick off a new installation.
Windows Server 2008 ships with an overhauled TCP/IP stack and a new version of its SMB file-sharing service, which together can deliver significant performance gains in file-sharing scenarios, specifically over high-latency connections.
Unlike previous versions of Windows Server, which bound network adapters to a single processor, Windows Server 2008 is able to spread the processing load for incoming network traffic across multiple processors.
Another enhancement to Windows Server’s TCP/IP stack is the Receive Window Auto Tuning feature, which determines the optimal amount of data to be sent over a connection at once by measuring the latency of the connection. On high-latency links, larger amounts of data can be sent efficiently at one time, but as connection latency grows, Windows Server sends less data per transmission window.
In previous versions of Windows, administrators could adjust this setting themselves by manipulating registry values. However, Windows Server 2008’s knack for automatically adjusting these values will make this optimization available to a broader range of sites.
Microsoft’s SMB (Server Message Block) 2.0 file services protocol boosts performance over high-latency links by reducing the “chattiness” of the protocol. Rather than wait for receipt acknowledgments before sending more data, SMB 2.0 supports sending multiple SMB commands per packet. This more parallel method of operation can deliver substantial speedups that grow more dramatic as connection latency lengthens.
SMB 2.0 requires Windows Server 2008 or Windows Vista on both ends of the connection; otherwise, Windows Server 2008 or Vista will negotiate down to SMB 1.0.
One of the most immediately recognizable new features of Windows Server 2008 is the Server Manager, which is an outgrowth of the “configure my server” dialog that launches by default on Windows Server 2003 machines. However, rather than serve only as a starting point to configuring new roles, the new Server Manager gathers together pretty much all of the operations you’d want to conduct on your server.
I used the Server Manager to add new roles to my test machines; for roles I’d already installed, the Server Manager presented me with control panels containing all the pertinent action and information related to those roles. I could see right away, for instance, whether the services comprising these roles were running. I could also start, stop and restart these services, as well as check for event viewer items related to the installed roles.
One of the most promising new features of Windows Server 2008 is its support for hypervisor-based virtualization. The feature, which Microsoft calls Hyper-V, enables administrators to host x86 or x86-64 operating systems on Windows Server, and compares well to VMware’s ESX Server and Citrix’s XenEnterprise virtualization products.
Microsoft has designated the version of Hyper-V that ships with Windows Server 2008 as a preview edition, with a final release promised within six months. eWEEK Labs will conduct further tests of Hyper-V as we approach that time frame. Until then, see my review of the initial test version of Hyper-V (known at the time as Viridian).
In addition to the new work that Microsoft has done around server virtualization, Windows Server 2008 ships with noteworthy improvements to what Microsoft has taken to calling presentation virtualization-aka Terminal Services.
One of the Terminal Services enhancements, which Microsoft calls RemoteApp, enables administrators to publish individual applications, as opposed to remote desktop sessions. I tested out RemoteApp with the Firefox Web browser, the GIMP image editing application and VMware’s Virtual Infrastructure client. From a Windows XP or Windows Vista client, these applications appeared as if running locally, complete with resizable windows.
The modular design exhibited in Windows Server 2008’s stripped-down core configuration carries over to Microsoft’s Web server, IIS 7.0, which consists of more than 40 separate modules that administrators can install as needed. This modularity helps limit IIS 7.0’s attack surface and keeps patching requirements as low as possible.
Also noteworthy in IIS 7.0 is the server’s move to XML-based text files for configuration, which can help simplify configuration tasks and broaden the sorts of tools that administrators can use to manage their configuration settings. (For more on IIS 7.0, check out eWEEK Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza’s beta review of the product).
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].