Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 R2

There's plenty to like in this update, such as its Storage Management tools and File Screens feature, but some kinks still must be worked out.

December 27, 2005

5 Min Read
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Good

• Relatively easy upgrade from 2003 SP1• Nice additions to file services• Replication for restricted bandwidth connections

Bad

• Some useful components not installed by default• Problems with File Screen functionality• Storage Reports do not support NAS devices

Windows Server 2003 r2 enterprise edition, free to Software Assurance Enterprise Edition licensees. Microsoft, (800) 642-7676. www.microsoft.com/a>

The NFS server functionality is supposed to let you use NFS shares on Windows servers and access Windows disks from Unix machines. I configured the test system as a Windows server, and then tried to gain access from one of our Red Hat Linux servers. As might be expected, you are required to "map" between UNIX and Windows users, but the user-mapping component is not installed by default. You must install User Name Mapping separately from running the NFS services installation.

So I configured user-name mapping myself. I also set anonymous access and made user account names exactly the same on both the Windows and UNIX servers. This worked fine--sort of. I was able to mount the Windows share, but was unable to read from or write to it, even with anonymous access on. Server for NFS Authentication is required when local machine accounts (as opposed to domain accounts) are being mapped to UNIX accounts, but Server for NFS Authentication is not part of the default installation. Once all the pieces are installed, NFS works well, so be sure you install these components if you're not using an alternative name-mapping solution.

Microsoft sent us an RTM (release to manufacturing) copy, which was due to be available to the public in mid-January. I performed the tests on a dual-processor Pentium 4 Server with 2 GB of RAM, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports and an 80-GB hard drive. The version I tested was an upgrade-only release, so I installed Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition with Service Pack 1 prior to installing Server 2003 R2.

The features that interested me most were Microsoft's rebundled NFS (Network File System) client and server support, Unix and Storage Management tools, and its DFS (distributed file system) improvements. Also included is identity management for Unix and rudimentary single sign-on functionality.

Improvements to the Storage Management tools appear to be cosmetic, but Microsoft packed a lot of functionality into the new Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in. Shadow copies, creation of shares and simple backups are all consolidated into the File Server Management MMC. Version 3.0 of MMC makes its debut with Windows Server 2003 R2, but there isn't much to sing about on the surface. The only visible functionality change is the addition of an Action Pane that simply replicates the right-click menu from the tree pane. I hope future plug-ins take advantage of the Action Pane in a more dynamic way. Digging a little deeper, there are new APIs for MMC. Plus, Microsoft has indicated that MMC is finally moving into the .Net age, with .Net classes replacing OCX (OLE Control Extension) views and simplified abstraction making the development of useful snap-ins much more manageable.

You get several flavors of Storage Management tools, from SAN management to hardware RAID management. Logical management of shares across the domain is sweet, giving you a "logical tree" that can span shares, making managing what's on your Windows servers nearly as easy as managing what's on your Unix servers, with the benefit of simple share creation and Windows mounting.

The Storage Resource Manager MMC snap-in is useful as well. I ran some reports on local disks, but as is all too common with Windows file services, the Resource Manager doesn't work on NAS devices or any remote mounted drive. This is understandable for features like File Screens that require access to both the reads and writes of storage devices, but reporting only requires read access to a disk, so lack of support is puzzling. You can get reports on the largest, most recently accessed and duplicate files. These are excellent tools for managing your storage space, but it would be nice to be able to run them on all storage accessible from the machine, rather than direct-attached and SAN storage only.

The File Screens feature is an interesting addition. You can filter the types of files to save to your disk, specifically excluding file types that have no business on the server in question. I was able to create filters that warned users about attempting to save blocked file types. Unfortunately, I could not create an active rule, one that would keep users from saving a category of files--"all video files," for instance--to the disk. There's an option to create an active rule, and an option to change active to passive (notification only), but these options did not seem to work in my tests, and going back into the screens dialogue showed the options still set on passive. Microsoft had no answers about why this might be happening, but it was consistent across all File Screens I created.

Microsoft has implemented an algorithm for replication over restricted bandwidth lines that it calls "diff over the wire." This is useful if you're replicating from a remote office, for example. But if the data you're replicating is critical to your organization, other full-blown products on the market will give you much more control over your replication environment.That said, if you're running Windows, the upgrade is a no-brainer. Customers who have an Enterprise Edition license covered under Microsoft's Software Assurance program will receive Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition as part of their upgrade rights; others will have to purchase a new license under one of Microsoft's licensing programs (for more info click here).

There's nothing so compelling about this upgrade that you must rush to deployment without thorough testing. You're best off to think of this as more like a major service pack and less like a massive infusion of new technology. Microsoft appears to see it that way, or its execs would have given it a different name.

Don MacVittie is a senior technology editor at Network Computing. Write to him at dmacvittie@ nwc.com.

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