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First look: Windows Server Blue beta shows compelling improvements

Jonathan Hassell | June 27, 2013
Storage, virtualization, management and other improvements make Windows Server 2012 R2 a must-have.

To achieve these goals, there is plenty going on under the hood in Windows Server 2012 R2.

Enhanced virtualization with Hyper-V
Hyper-V has been around for a while, but Microsoft shops in particular will surely find some of the improvements to the hypervisor technology compelling. Instead of just enhancing or tweaking the base functionality of the virtualization platform, Microsoft seems to be pushing the envelope in the virtualization industry with a couple of these new features.

Perhaps the most interesting development is what Microsoft calls "Generation 2 virtual machines." Most virtualization solutions on the market today emulate old pieces of hardware for true maximum compatibility, but they do so at a price of efficiency and performance.

Instead, Generation 2 VMs are newly designed to rid themselves of legacy components. They were created in acknowledgment of an era where virtualization is mainstream and operating systems are aware, and in some cases even prefer, being virtualized. This means no devices need to be emulated and the whole virtual machine can be based on the newer Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, and not on old BIOS.

Generation 2 virtual machines can boot off of virtual SCSI and network adapters and also support Secure Boot for maximum protection against malware injecting itself into the boot process.

This Generation 2 VM upgrade also allows for remote desktops to function even when a virtual machine is not connected to a network. The remote desktop protocol (RDP) session transits entirely over the "VMBus," which is simply the internal connections made between the hypervisor and the virtual machine itself.

This gives you out-of-band management, like a Dell DRAC card or an HP iLO device to manage real hardware independent of the hardware itself over an Internet connection. This was not possible in previous versions of Windows Server.

Other interesting virtualization-related improvements of note include:

- Virtual machines that run 2012 R2 and that were created on a Windows Server 2012 R2 Datacenter Edition host will automatically activate themselves with no user intervention. (The license for Windows Server 2012 R2 includes an unlimited number of guest virtual machines running Windows Server.) This saves hosters and other heavy virtualization users from having to build out an activation or key management server infrastructure just for their VMs. At the time of this writing, however, it is unclear how virtual machines activated in this manner can be migrated to hosts running a Standard Edition license, which has more restrictive guest license rights.

- There is complete compatibility between virtual machines on local, on-premises Hyper-V and VMs running on the Windows Azure Infrastructure-as-a-Service model. You can import and export the same VM into either environment and it works just fine, with no changes required. The only possible exceptions: Network settings may -- or may not, depending on whether you have Windows Azure VPN set up and configured -- differ.


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