Windows 8 Server: Hands-On First Impressions

Microsoft talks up every release of Windows Server as the best ever. But based on our first experience with Windows 8 Server, some key changes deserve your attention.
4. DirectAccess, without the need for IPv6!

When I first heard about what DirectAccess was designed to do, I nearly hit the ceiling jumping for joy at the promise of a Microsoft-supplied, clientless VPN solution. In simplest terms, DirectAccess clients communicate with a DirectAccess server that acts as a traditional IPSec gateway for providing complete remote access to the domain from any location. DirectAccess beats traditional VPN offerings, because complete access to the domain can be established prior to logon, and that allows IT to enforce security policy, execute logon scripts, and remotely manage clients regardless of physical location. The main problem with the first incarnation of DirectAccess was that it was cumbersome to deploy and it required that you deploy some IPv6 in your environment. Perhaps the coolest improvement that Microsoft made to DirectAccess in Windows 8 is removing the requirement to run multiple IP stacks in order to make it work. In addition, certificate-based authentication is no longer a mandate; you can authenticate using your AD credentials. You can now even join a brand-new PC to the domain from outside the network boundary; however, it must be running Windows 8 in order to take advantage of this feature.

If you consider all of the remote access challenges that big business has with respect to remote user management (password expiration, group policy enforcement, software distribution, to name a few), DirectAccess has the potential to solve those problems quickly and at minimal cost. DirectAccess was a flop in Server 2008 because it was cumbersome to deploy, but we anticipate deployments picking up steam quickly once Windows Server 8 hits the street.

5. Server management

Microsoft is definitely headed in a better direction with the overhaul that it's made to the traditional server management tools in Windows Server 8. First, in the Windows Server 8 beta, there is no traditional start menu or cumbersome navigation required to reach server management tools. For the most part, you have only two options: Server Manager and PowerShell. As a result, the new Win8 Server UI doesn't feel like a desktop PC anymore.

If you work in an environment that contains hundreds of servers, then you already know how cumbersome it is to perform certain tasks. Checking logs, adding or removing roles, starting or stopping services, or executing a shell script are all often more efficiently done by connecting to the individual server itself to perform the task. Windows 8 offers a much more elegant way to manage servers, by giving the administrator the option to add pools of servers to a management group for single pane of glass management.

So, for example, you could create a server pool that contains all of your Exchange servers and see all event logs from each of those servers in one view, which of course is huge for troubleshooting a large environment. The same goes for adding roles or manipulating servers for remote machines; all of it can be done from any Windows 8 server in the environment (that's servers, not workstations, at least for now.) As a result, you won't find yourself RDP'ing to individual servers that much anymore in Windows 8 for management because on the whole, it's not necessary. You can also natively run Powershell scripts against remote Windows 8 hosts, which makes running complex scheduled batch jobs against several systems easy.

While Windows Server 8 has a lean look and feel, the OS itself is still a monstrosity of a compilation with an ISO image size of 3.5GB (compared to just under 3GB for Server 2008 R2.) But at least it appears that all of those millions of lines of code are coming together into a much improved server platform. There's a lot to like about the direction that Microsoft is taking Windows Server 8. In the coming months, we'll see if we can break Windows Server 8 by putting the OS through some thorough testing. Stay tuned for the results.

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