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In Pictures: 10 excellent new features in Windows Server 2012 R2

New and improved storage, networking, remote access, BYOD, and server administration features make the R2 upgrade

  • Windows Server 2012 R2 highlights Windows Server 2012 R2 brings a host of new features that greatly enhance the functionality of the operating system. Many of these improvements expand on existing capabilities of Windows Server 2012. In a previous slideshow, we highlighted our favorite new features in Hyper-V. Here we call out 10 new features elsewhere in Windows Server 2012 R2 that will make an impact on your day-to-day operations. Some of these enhancements, particularly in the storage arena, have Microsoft taking direct aim at traditional partners with new out-of-the-box functionality.

  • Work Folders Work Folders bring the functionality of Dropbox to corporate servers. Install this role on a Windows Server 2012 R2 system, and you get a fully functional, secure file replication service. The initial release will support only Windows 8.1 clients. Support for Windows 7 and iPad devices is promised for the future, with Android clients further down the list. Like Dropbox, Work Folders will keep copies of files on both the server and the client, performing sync operations whenever the client establishes a connection with the server.

  • Desired State Configuration Maintaining configuration on lots of servers has been a thorn in the side of system administrators for as long as anyone has been running lots of servers. Many point solutions and countless custom in-house tools have been devised to accomplish the task. Now there is a feature built into Windows Server 2012 R2 that makes it possible to programmatically establish a baseline of roles and features, and then monitor and update any system that doesn't match the desired state. Desired State Configuration requires PowerShell 4.0, which provides a number of new cmdlets to accomplish both the monitoring and the administration of specific states.

  • Storage Tiering This might be the single most exciting new feature in Windows Server 2012 R2. In essence, Storage Tiering is the ability to dynamically move chunks of stored data between different classes of storage, such as fast SSDs and slower hard drives. Many high-end storage systems have had automated tiering for years, but this is the first time you are able to do it at the operating system level. Microsoft uses a heat-map algorithm to determine which chunks of data are seeing the most activity and automatically moves the "hottest" chunks to the fastest tier. You can adjust the settings for how and when the data is moved using PowerShell.

  • Storage Pinning Closely related to Storage Tiering is the ability to pin selected files to a specific tier. Pinning makes it possible to ensure that files you always want on the fastest storage, such as boot disks in a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure deployment, will never be moved to the slower storage tier. Otherwise, files that you always want to take advantage of SSDs might be moved to the HDD tier after some period of relative inactivity.

  • Write Back Cache When you create a new storage volume in Windows Server 2012 R2, you also have the option to enable something called the Write Back Cache. This feature sets aside an amount of physical storage, typically on a fast SSD drive, to use as a write cache to help smooth out the ups and downs of I/O during write- intensive operations. This can be seen in a typical database scenario where a large volume of disk writes may exceed the ability of the drive controller and disks to keep up. The cache would eliminate any pauses caused by an overwhelmed storage subsystem.

  • Deduplication on running VMs Data deduplication in Windows Server 2012 is a nice feature, but one thing it cannot do is deduplicate running virtual machines. That limitation is removed in Windows Server 2012 R2, albeit specifically for VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) deployments on SMB 3.0. That being said, this new capability could greatly increase the overall effectiveness of deduplication for VDI implementations. As a side benefit, deduplication greatly improves boot performance of virtual desktops. In addition to storing the VMs on SMB 3.0 (required), Microsoft highly recommends using Scale-Out File Server on Windows Server 2012 or Windows Server 2012 R2. Cluster Shared Volumes are supported for high availability.

  • Parallel rebuild If you've ever had a disk fail in a RAID array, you know that a disk rebuild can take many hours. And with more and more deployments of really large physical disks, the amount of time required to rebuild a drive will only get longer. Microsoft addressed the issue of lengthy CHKDSK checks in Windows Server 2012, which greatly reduced the time required to scan and repair a single disk. Windows Server 2012 R2 adds the ability to perform a parallel rebuild of a failed Storage Spaces drive, reducing the amount of time required by an order of magnitude. Demonstrations at TechEd showed a rebuild of a 3TB disk taking less than an hour.

  • Workplace Join Windows Server 2012 R2 addresses the need to incorporate personal devices like iPads into the enterprise environment. At the simplest level is a new Web Application Proxy that allows you to provide secure access to internal corporate websites, including SharePoint sites, to any authorized user. One step further is a new capability called Workplace Join, which allows users to register personal devices with Active Directory and gain certificate-based authentication and single sign-on to enterprise applications and data. Standard tools like Group Policy apply here for controlling conditional access on either an individual or group basis.

  • Multitenant VPN gateway Microsoft has added a number of new features to make it easier to provide secure communications between on-premise and off-premise networks. The new multitenant VPN gateway lets you implement site-to-site connectivity to multiple external sites via a single VPN link. This feature is aimed at both hosting providers and large organizations looking to implement connectivity with multiple sites or external organizations. Each site-to-site network connection require a separate gateway in Windows Server 2012, adversely impacting both cost and ease of implementation when more than a few connections are required for a single application. Windows Server 2012 R2 does away with this limitation.

  • Windows Server Essentials role While this might not sound like a big deal, it has the potential to make life much easier for any organization with a geographically distributed network. With Windows Server 2012, you have to use a completely different installation source for Windows Server Essentials. For large organizations, this can impact both distribution strategy and configuration management. The Windows Server Essentials role in Windows Server 2012 R2 brings with it a number of other features -- including BranchCache, DFS Namespaces, and Remote Server Administration Tools -- that are typically implemented in remote office settings.

  • Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V highlights The next version of Hyper-V brings leaner and cleaner "Gen2" VMs, improvements to Hyper-V replica, faster live migration, online VM exporting and cloning, and lots more. Read about our 10 favorite new Hyper-V features in "10 great new features in Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V."

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