Review: Microsoft's Windows Server 2008

Five more mouse clicks and you can tell the server to create backups on a NAS device. A wizard can walk you through set-up of any of a few dozen different management and administration tasks.

It's got baked-in security with a more automated firewall. It enables parallelism - - opening input/output pipes so large that it may prove to be orders of magnitude faster in transferring files than anything like it on the market today.

After several weeks of testing inside the CMP Channel Test Center, Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 has shown itself to be a transformative piece of software that will change the way networks and data centers are built out, managed and scaled up. Consider Microsoft's effort to be a two-stage attack. Stage one, today, is the shipment of its final server code to OEMs. Stage two will happen later this year, when Microsoft officially launches and supports its new virtualization technology, now in beta testing, that enables (among other things) the installation of Linux operating systems in a Windows environment.

Even without considering the power that will be unleashed when Microsoft launches its Hyper-V virtualization technology - - several months after the official launch of Server 2008 - - there's enough new functionality in the operating system to make it compelling today.

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Some of the features examined in the Test Center, that immediately stand out as important for solution providers to understand, include:

* A streamlined and automated storage backup, with wizard-based setup and management;

* The ability, in some instances, to dynamically resize hard disk partitions as needed;

* A more advanced firewall, with inbound and outbound security rules that are significantly more advanced than what is available in Windows Server 2003;

* Wizard-based setup of failover clustering;

* Setup that is so streamlined, due to the advances in the Server Core approach, that it takes a fraction of the time to get Server 2008 up and running compared to what it takes Server 2003;

* And, not least, integration with Hyper-V, Microsoft's forthcoming virtualization technology that will revolutionize the data center for enterprises of all sizes.

Make no mistake: It's not perfect. CMP Channel Test Center found some glitches in the software during its review process, including a bug in which the operating system failed to automatically bind the virtual network switch to the LAN adapter in Server 2008. (Microsoft engineers confirmed the bug, which caused a little aggravation and some lost time during the review process but didn't appear to be a showstopper.) Additionally, the Test Center is continuing to examine some potential conflicts with VMware technology that could cause more than few headaches.

Beyond Hyper-V, Windows Server 2008 is greener, thinner and far more sophisticated than its predecessor. What's more, Microsoft has added every conceivable service that an OS can support at this time. And they are all included with the cost of the server license.

Like Vista, Windows Server 2008 has been retrofitted with the SMB 2.0 protocol. With SMB 2.0, the new Windows network stack has been totally revamped to squeeze the most bandwidth out of a network. SMB 2.0 scales up to maximize network throughput. The protocol supports multiple file handles.

Windows Server 2008 has eliminated a lot of dependencies between its services. For instance, Terminal Services works independently of IIS. In the lab, it was possible to turn Terminal Services on without having to initiate any other service. On Windows Server 2003, there are many services that require file and execution of other services.

The Window Server 2008 Deployment Services and installation processes will change the way services and OSes are installed. For instance, Windows's services are now kept on a hidden partition. The Windows Server uses a service modeling language (SML) to track all file and service dependencies for each service. Once a service is installed, the SML script only opens the required ports on the firewall and installs any other dependencies automatically. Solution providers will not have to lift a finger to install new services. The installation process also works with the Core Windows Server services.

With Deployment Services, solution providers will be able to create boot images and install them remotely. The service uses Multicast to capture images remotely as well. What's awesome about this process is that solution providers will be able to patch the images and install new drivers on the fly without having to deploy the OS on physical servers. Essentially, solution providers will be able to browse right to a staged image and change it.

This is all just part of the story. Hyper-V, which is in beta and slated to ship several months after Server 2008's launch, is on track to be a flat-out game changer. The look at Hyper-V in the Test Center, even in this early stage, shows a technology that - - based on its functionality, pricing and integration with Server 2008 - - will radically alter the landscape of data center computing. But even without Hyper-V, Server 2008 is a technology that will have deep impact on commercial IT and the way solution providers approach the enterprise.