Windows Server 2012, the latest addition to the Microsoft Server operating system line up, was launched recently and with all the hype I just had to give it a spin.  In most cases, changes to server operating systems are hidden under the hood, yet this time round Microsoft has changed its interface to the new Metro GUI, and made various updates to modernize the OS.

Test driving Windows Server 2012

The first thing an admin will notice is without a doubt the smooth and impressively fast installation. I didn’t time it but I would say this was probably the fastest installation of any operating system I have used.

The biggest change, and somewhat controversial one, is Microsoft’s decision to go with the Metro GUI. The new interface is a radical change from what we’re used to and it will definitely take time to get used to, particularly for those who aren’t fluent in the difference aspects that make up a Windows Server operating system. That said, the core concepts of how to configure your services, such as the Active Directory and DNS Server, remain largely the same; it’s just how you access the configuration that has changed.

DNS Config

One of the most obvious changes to the interface is that instead of the ‘Start’ button you have the improved Server Manager. The server manager allows you to add roles, as well as manage from a centralized location the various services each role provides.

The Server Manager

There is still a ‘Start’ menu and this can be accessed via the Windows Key. A list of the main Windows features appears in the new Metro interface:

The new Start Menu

Right clicking anywhere on the screen will bring up a tool bar that gives you access to the list of installed applications.

I don’t see the GUI changes of much value to the administrator, however the same cannot be said for the replacement of command prompt with PowerShell. Not only does PowerShell become the default shell prompt of Windows 2012, but Microsoft have now augmented it with a 10 fold increase in cmdlets, providing 2,430 cmdlets out of the box compared to 200+ cmdlets in Windows 2008/R2. This gives tremendous power to the administrators to automate a huge range of tasks. Microsoft are talking big on automation in the new version and with good reason.

On the left, we can see the output of the Get-Process cmdlet and then in one easy line it can effortlessly be converted into a handy XML file.

The new Dynamic Access controls feature allows administrators to create new access policies which can allow easy Access Control and information governance through a central console. These can be very useful to segregate and protect data based on factors such as the user’s department or file security level. Through a system of file and folder classification, file and folders can be protected even if files are accidentally copied to a public area. This feature can help an administrator to protect the organization’s confidential data with minimum administrative effort.

Remote Desktop Services (RDS) feature has also been upgraded to improve performance and support – allowing multi-touch support between the host and client, as well as implementing DirectX support even as a virtual device.  Furthermore, changes have been made to the actual protocol itself which now supports UDP, as well as the ability to automatically switch to TCP should UDP communication between the host and client not be possible. The protocol now intelligently adapts different codecs depending on the various contents that need to be transferred. This further increases efficiency.

Finally, Windows Server 2012 has been designed from the ground up with the Cloud concept in mind. Various features, especially the Hyper-V specification, are designed to be able to provide optimum cloud services. Everything I talked about so far has been built on the premise that it has to apply to a cloud computing environment. The automation, the remote management and the virtualization can be used to an administrator’s advantage when setting up environments in the cloud.

This latest Windows release certainly has a lot to offer to organization, especially those who are thinking of setting up their own cloud computing environment. Even if that is not your organization’s short term goal, the automation made possible by the new robust PowerShell is a huge plus.

The only drawback is that it may take some time to get used to the new interface and re-learn the different ways to do things; something that an administrator knew inside out when working with earlier versions. In the long run, though, the automation alone will probably make it worth your while and save you a lot of time.