Review: Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Beta CTP

The new server OS heralds a new age in Windows computing -- one that will finally see a massive move to virtualization as well as major improvements in automation.

July 26, 2007

14 Min Read
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It's official: Windows Server 2008 (WS08) will be launched Feb. 27, 2008, along with new versions of Visual Studio and SQL Server. Microsoft's flagship server operating system will probably be Bill Gates' last product launch before he retires later in 2008. Is Bill Gates going out with a bang? We examined the Windows Server 2008 Beta Community Technology Preview (CTP), which was released in June, 2007, to see what it promises for the upcoming OS.

Microsoft has been working on WS08 for several years now, ever since the launch of Windows Server 2003 (WS03) on April 24, 2003. Release 2 (R2) of Server 2003 came two years after the launch, and while R2 wasn't a revolutionary change in the OS, it was definitely evolutionary. It brought many new manageability features, such as Microsoft Management Console version 3, File Server Resource Management, Simple SAN, vastly improved Distributed File System features, Active Directory Federated Services, and the integration of all of the additional options to the setup of Windows Server 2003 R2, making R2 a must-have for any shop running Windows servers.

Surprisingly, some IT organizations still lobotomize their new Windows servers by wiping out the pre-installed R2 version to re-install the original build of WS03. Well, if these organizations have a problem with R2, they will have a major problem with WS08, which brings revolutionary changes to the Windows Server OS. What's so revolutionary? There are several new features, but the most important are automation and virtualization.

Introducing Server Manager
WS08's installation is so bare-bones that even Windows Backup is a feature you must add on to the system. Additional components can be added on through "roles" (groups of features that support a given group of server tasks) or through "features" (specific components that support a single task). In the current CTP, there are 17 different roles you can assign to WS08, and some 35 features that can be installed.

To help manage all this, Windows Server 2008 sports a brand new interface: Server Manager. Though it cannot be used to remotely manage another computer, Server Manager provides one main access point to each of the interfaces or consoles that let you manage server roles and features.

The wizards launched through Server Manager to add roles or features are intelligent, expanding the list of tasks based on your selection of components to install and properly identifying dependencies when you select components that require the installation of additional features in order to run properly.

But the best feature of Server Manager is automation. Following in Exchange 2007's footsteps, Microsoft has decided to integrate Server Manager into PowerShell, its new scripting command language. In Exchange, each time you use Server Manager's graphical interface to perform an activity, a PowerShell script is generated -- and it is this script that actually performs the task. What makes this so great is that you can capture this script at any point during the operation and voila! the script is built for you automatically. You can export it and run it on any number of systems.

Now that's a major improvement. Think about it. No more arcane command lines. No more complex scripting languages. IT pros everywhere will love WS08's integration of Server Manager with PowerShell because it means they no longer have to become programmers to automate operations.

Windows Server Virtualization
The next big thing that Windows Server 2008 brings to the table is virtualization. Windows Server Virtualization (WSV) won't actually ship with Windows Server itself -- in fact, the shipping date for WSV is 180 days after the final release. Since WS08's release to manufacturing (RTM) should come out by the end of November, 2007, we can expect WSV to be released in April, 2008.

What makes WSV truly great is that it will popularize server consolidation through virtualization -- the creation of an OS installation into a virtual machine which mimics all of the capabilities of a physical machine. This is a boon for server consolidation because one single hardware host can usually run from 10 to 20 virtual machines.

In addition, since the release of WS03 R2, Microsoft's licensing agreement allowed Windows Server users to save 75% of the cost if they installed the OS into a virtual machine rather than on physical hardware. Until now, organizations wanting to take advantage of this opportunity would have had to buy a commercial virtualization tool -- also known as a hypervisor, a thin layer that resides on top of the physical hardware to expose resources to virtualized OSes -- from vendors such as VMware, Virtual Iron, and XenSource.

Now the hypervisor will be "free," since it will be a feature of Windows. Most people have moved to server consolidation through virtualization to try to get a handle on their ever-growing Windows environments and have had to pay extra dollars to get the hypervisor layer. WSV will finally give them access to a hypervisor that is included in their Windows license, helping further reduce the cost of Windows computing.However, there is a catch. Many of the third-party hypervisor offerings, especially those offered by VMware, provide such features as live virtual machine migration from one host to another, hot addition of resources while virtual machines are running, and overall resource reallocation based on current need. None of these features will be available through WSV -- so if you want access to these options, the extra cost may be worth it.

If you can't wait until next year to move to server consolidation, but want to take advantage of WSV when it does come out, consider XenSource as an alternative. Through an agreement with Microsoft, XenSource has licensed the Microsoft virtual hard drive (VHD) format for use in its hypervisor. This means that if you start using XenSource with VHD-based virtual machines, you'll be able to migrate them to a WSV infrastructure when it is released.

Server Core: Windows Without Windows
In order to support the possibility of running a hypervisor on Windows, Microsoft had to make some significant changes to the Windows Server code. Since the role of the hypervisor is to do nothing more than expose hardware resources to virtual machines, it wouldn't make sense to run it on top of a fully graphical Windows operating system.

The result: Server Core. Server Core is a trimmed-down version of Windows Server 2008. It runs basic Windows processes and services, but does not include any graphical interface. In fact, its interface is nothing but a command-line window.

While Microsoft touts it as a new, secure way to run Windows, Server Core has been designed for one reason and one reason only: Windows Server Virtualization. WSV runs on an x64 version of Windows Server 2008. You can run WSV on a full installation of Windows, but it would defeat the purpose, because Windows would take up too many resources from the hardware system. WSV needs a trim version of the OS so that the hypervisor will load. This is it.

Coping With Command Lines
In the CTP, Server Core supports nine roles. (Keep in mind that, while these will probably not change before release, Microsoft may want to add more in the future.) They are:

  1. Active Directory Domain Services (formerly Active Directory)

  2. Domain Name Services (DNS)

  3. Active Directory Lightweight Directory Services (formerly Active Directory Application Mode)

  4. Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP)

  5. Streaming Media Services

  6. File Services including Distributed File System Namespaces and delta compression level replication

  7. Print Services

  8. Windows Server Virtualization

  9. Internet Information Services (IIS) version 7

The logical question is: As users virtualize all their server offerings, will they want the hardship of managing complex operations through the command line interface only? And since all of their service offerings will be running on virtual machines anyway, will they want to trim down the installations to Server Core or have the full Windows interface?Some will go for it -- there are always diehards that want to be command-line gurus. However, we think most organizations, especially small to medium business and IT generalists, will want the full installation. For us, Windows is Windows and by default that means a graphical user interface (GUI).

The GUI means having access to Server Manager, having simplified interactions through dialog boxes, and having less opportunity for error -- just try to type a complex multi-line command line without any errors. Most people end up typing their instructions in another program, making sure they get it right, and then pasting it into a command window to execute it. In our opinion, it's a lot faster to do it through the GUI.

A bigger question may be: Will anyone run Internet Information Services (IIS) -- Microsoft's flagship Web service -- on Server Core? IIS has always been Microsoft's Achilles heel, not because it doesn't function properly, but because too many people install it by default and then don't manage it once it is installed. Managing IIS is complex enough when you have access to a full GUI. Managing it on Server Core will not be a piece of cake.

Server Core is Windows without Windows. IIS on Server Core is IIS without IIS because it only runs static sites. IIS on Server Core will not support the following features:

  • ASP.NET, the main Microsoft server-side scripting engine

  • Microsoft .NET Framework 3.0 (formerly WinFX), also known as NetFX, Microsoft's flagship execution environment

  • The IIS Management Console version 7 (since it requires a graphical interface)

  • The IIS Management Service

  • The IIS Legacy Snap-In or IIS Management Console version 6, for managing legacy Web sites

  • IIS FTP Management

  • The Windows Activation Service, which provides an engine for the activation of application pools and worker processes for any application in Windows. In previous versions of Windows Server, this process was managed by IIS and was only available for Web sites.

Can you imagine what it will be like to manage IIS on Server Core? Everything needs to be done with a command-line. PowerShell does not run on Server Core because it relies on the .NET Framework and the .NET Framework cannot run on Server Core because it has dependencies on the graphical environment.You can run PowerShell scripts remotely to administer Server Core installations. But, just to give you an idea, here is the command-line instruction to perform a full install of IIS on Server Core:

start /w pkgmgr /iu:IIS-WebServerRole;IIS-WebServer;IIS-CommonHttpFeatures;IIS-StaticContent;IIS-DefaultDocument; IIS-DirectoryBrowsing;IIS-HttpErrors;IIS-HttpRedirect;IIS-ApplicationDevelopment;IIS-ASP;IIS-CGI;IIS-ISAPIExtensions;IIS-ISAPIFilter; IIS-ServerSideIncludes;IIS-HealthAndDiagnostics;IIS-HttpLogging;IIS-LoggingLibraries;IIS-RequestMonitor;IIS-HttpTracing; IIS-CustomLogging;IIS-ODBCLogging;IIS-Security;IIS-BasicAuthentication;IIS-WindowsAuthentication;IIS-DigestAuthentication; IIS-ClientCertificateMappingAuthentication;IIS-IISCertificateMappingAuthentication;IIS-URLAuthorization;IIS-RequestFiltering; IIS-IPSecurity;IIS-Performance;IIS-HttpCompressionStatic;IIS-HttpCompressionDynamic;IIS-WebServerManagementTools; IIS-ManagementScriptingTools;IIS-IIS6ManagementCompatibility;IIS-Metabase;IIS-WMICompatibility;IIS-LegacyScripts; IIS-FTPPublishingService;IIS-FTPServer;WAS-WindowsActivationService;WAS-ProcessModel

We'd be happy to give you a few more command line examples to administer IIS and other server roles on Server Core, but that would make for an extremely long article.Will everyone jump onto Server Core for service offerings? We don't think so. We think Server Core is for Windows Server Virtualization only. But organizations that do not jump on the virtualization bandwagon may decide to use Server Core instead of full installations on their hardware platforms.

Incidentally, IIS version 7 also includes a host of changes, many of which were deployed with Windows Vista, but most of which really require a server to function properly. IIS is now completely modularized, letting you install only the features you require. Also, configurations are captured in XML files, letting you easily automate the configuration of multiple identical servers.

More In Store
Automation and virtualization are not, of course, the only new features of Windows Server 2008.

  • Network Access Protection (NAP) is a new server role that will help protect unpatched systems from connecting to your network, putting them into quarantine until they are updated.

  • Read-Only Domain Controllers (RODC) will let you put domain controllers s in less protected areas because, like the Backup Domain Controller of Windows NT fame, this DC only stores a read only copy of the directory database. Even if it is compromised, there is little a hacker can do, since all cached passwords would be automatically reset.

  • Restartable Active Directory Domain Services let you perform maintenance operations on domain controllers without having to take the system down.

  • DNS now includes GlobalNames Zones (GNZ), which support the use of single label names such as NetBIOS names. Using GNZ, organizations will finally be able to retire the Windows Internet Naming Service (WINS) once and for all.

  • Terminal Services now offers a RemoteApp mode which, like the remote systems popularized by Citrix, lets you publish only the application itself without having to publish the entire desktop. This lets users work with remote applications without knowing that they execute on a remote server. In fact, the RemoteApps feature will be a boon to administrators since it lets you publish the Server Manager application on each server running WS08. This will be the only way to access Server Manager remotely.

  • Windows Server Backup takes full image backups and stores them in virtual hard drive formats, letting you mount them as virtual machines when you need to access them.

  • The TCP/IP stack has been completely revamped, and together with Windows Vista, promises increased network communications speeds. IPv6, the next version of the TCP/IP protocol, has been integrated at all levels of WS08, including DNS and DHCP.

  • Windows Deployment Services provides the ability to deploy both client and server OSes to bare metal machines, all through multicast transmissions. WS08 is built on the Vista kernel and provides many of its vastly improved features over previous versions of Windows.And there is much more.

    Timing Is Everything
    The question is: Will it be ready on time? Microsoft has been working at this OS for more than five years, but there is a still lot to do.

    For one thing, the integration of Server Manager with PowerShell is a great idea and is one of the main justifications for the upgrade, but since it was an afterthought -- it was announced after the release of Beta 3 and has yet to show up in any actual build -- it will take considerable time. Integrating the two means that every single command in Server Manager and every single snap-in that integrates to it -- File Server Resource Management, Windows Deployment Services, Active Directory Domain Services, and so on -- must be re-written to produce commands in PowerShell. That can't be a small undertaking.

    Another note: Though WS08 comes in both x86 (32-bit) and x64 (64-bit) editions (an IA64 edition will also be available), this will be the last time Microsoft releases a 32-bit edition of its server OS. WS08 Release 2, which is expected to ship in 2009, will no longer include a 32 bit version.

    There is no doubt that WS08 heralds a new age in Windows computing: One that will see massive moves to dynamic datacenters as everyone virtualizes their Windows service offerings. One that will see the end of 32-bit computing. One that will see the introduction of a "non-Windows" Windows through Server Core. And one that will fully support server consolidation and the elimination of server proliferation.What will be its rate of adoption? When will organizations move to this new OS? We think the migration won't begin until Microsoft releases Windows Server Virtualization -- and since it aims to do so 180 days after the release of WS08, it may well be one that even Bill Gates will miss as he retires from active Microsoft duty.

    Danielle Ruest and Nelson Ruest are IT professionals specializing in systems administration, migration planning, software management, and architecture design, and the authors of The Definitive Guide to Vista Migration and the upcoming Complete Reference To Windows Server 2008. You can reach them at [email protected].

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