Windows Servers

Windows Server 2012 is a monumental release packed with new features that touch every facet of the operating system. You'll see changes ranging from how data is stored on disk to the protocol for moving data between client and server and much more in between. The major design themes of the new server OS, which center on continuous availability, reduced cost, and lower management overhead, show up in many ways.

Windows Server 2012 supersaver No. 1: Storage Spaces

One of the main themes of Windows Server 2012 is the resiliency of all resources. For disk-related resources, the two new features are the Resilient File System (ReFS) and Storage Spaces. ReFS is the heir apparent to the venerable NTFS originally introduced with the release of Windows NT 3.1 in 1993. NTFS has obviously stood the test of time over the last 19 years with untold numbers of systems still using it today. Windows Server 2012 continues to support NTFS and undoubtedly will for years to come.

ReFS changes the way data gets written to disk. NTFS was susceptible to corruption of the file metadata -- the information the operating system uses to retrieve a file. ReFS uses an allocate-on-write method whenever any updates occur to prevent in-place corruption issues. It also uses checksums for metadata as another measure of validating saved data; you have the ability to enable checksums for the data as well. Microsoft calls this use of checksums Integrity Streams. It's a way to provide a measure of file protection even when the underlying disk system does not.

Storage Spaces has the potential of saving you significant dollars over a typical RAID-based disk array. That's because Storage Spaces works with raw disk drives arranged using JBOD, or "just a bunch of disks." Storage Spaces doesn't require any special (meaning expensive) disk controller unless you're building a cluster. Physical storage is allocated to a storage pool from which virtual disks, or spaces, get created. Virtual disks are, in turn, formatted with either NTFS or ReFS.

When you create a storage volume, Storage Spaces offers three different layout options -- simple, mirror, and parity -- that roughly equate to RAID 0, 1, and 5, although the algorithms used for distributing the data are totally different. Storage Spaces also provides the ability to "thin provision" volumes, which means you can create volumes of a virtual size larger than what is actually available in terms of physical capacity. More physical storage can be added to the pool to increase the physical capacity without affecting the virtual volume. This ability to add storage without incurring downtime is obviously a significant advantage when high-availability applications are involved.

The venerable CHKDSK utility is a major beneficiary of file system improvements. A new disk corruption scanner runs in the background on NTFS volumes, identifying correctible errors and data corruption. Most data corruption issues can be handled without the need to reboot the system and run CHKDSK to repair. If CHKDSK does become necessary, it can complete all operations in a matter of seconds -- versus the many minutes or even hours, in the case of large RAID disks, that it takes in previous Windows Server versions.

There are a few gotchas with ReFS, though none are showstoppers. You can't boot from a disk formatted with ReFS, nor is ReFS supported for removable media. More significant, you cannot convert an NTFS volume to ReFS in place, meaning you must copy the data from an NTFS volume to an ReFS volume.

Windows Server 2012 supersaver No. 2: Hyper-V 3.0

Microsoft has been chasing VMware in the virtualization market ever since Hyper-V was introduced. Microsoft made inroads with the version released in conjunction with Windows Server 2008 R2, which delivered many features considered "must haves" to serious virtualization users. Hyper-V 3.0 raises that bar even further and in many ways reaches parity with the lower end of the VMware spectrum. At the high end, Microsoft still has some work to do -- primarily in the area of storage service levels and what VMware calls the "software-defined data center."

Hyper-V 3.0 extends many of the specs from the previous version, including pushing the limits to 4TB of max RAM per host, 320 logical processors per host, 64 nodes per cluster, 8,000 virtual machines per cluster, and up to 1,024 powered-on virtual machines per host. Hyper-V now supports SMB (Server Message Block) for file-level storage, along with the previously supported iSCSI and Fibre Channel. Other new features include a new virtual switch and virtual SAN. The virtual SAN includes a virtual Fibre Channel capability to connect a VM directly to a physical host bus adapter (HBA) for improved performance.

One of the most significant improvements in Hyper-V 3.0 has to be in the area of live migration. This feature supports both the migration of the virtual machine and the underlying storage. File migration can take place as long as a network SMB-shared folder on a Windows Server 2012 system is visible to both the source and destination Hyper-V hosts. You can also move a virtual machine between hosts on different cluster servers that aren't using the same storage.

Hyper-V Replica is a new capability in Hyper-V 3.0 providing an out-of-the-box failure recovery solution covering everything from an entire storage system down to a single virtual machine. Under the hood it delivers asynchronous, unlimited replication of virtual machines from one Hyper-V host to another without the need for storage arrays or other third-party tools. That's another cost savings, or cost avoidance, with a capability you get as a part of the OS.

Microsoft believes that Hyper-V 3.0 can handle any workload you want to throw at it, especially if it's a Microsoft application such as Exchange, SQL Server, or SharePoint. With that in mind, you will definitely save money on hardware by consolidating those types of applications onto a beefy server or cluster. And you don't have to purchase any VMware software to make it happen.

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