Need to Know: June 2010

As one of the worst winters in recent memory comes to a close, spring finally dawned in the Boston area with record high temperatures. I know, I'm never happy. But this month, I've got another great set of technologies and products to go along with the cherry blossoms, blooming trees, and general greenness that's blanketing my part of the world. And go figure, most of them are enterprise products for a change. It's June 2010. Here's what you need to know.

Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2

Microsoft finally announced something I've been dying to discuss, which is some details about the first Service Pack for both Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. (You may recall that both products are based on the same code base and thus will be serviced by the same service packs.) Last month, I noted that Windows 7 would mostly be about aggregating all of the software updates that appeared over its first year, and Microsoft corroborated that. But Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 will include some major new features, as I alluded to. But now we can discuss them:

Dynamic memory. Anyone comparing Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization platform and the VMWare stack will come to the inevitable conclusion that Microsoft's solution is evolving rapidly but lacking in a few key areas. Well, one of those remaining areas is about to be removed with the addition of dynamic memory support starting with R2 SP1. Dynamic memory makes it possible to pool the available memory on the host server and dynamic distribute it to the virtual workloads as needed. In other words, you can dynamically allocate RAM to virtual machines, the on the fly, without needing to shut them down first.

RemoteFX. This functionality was previewed years ago when Microsoft purchased Calista and is now finally being made available to the public via SP1; it enhances the display experience during RDP sessions, providing Aero glass support but also Silverlight and Flash user experiences as well as 3D graphics. (Citrix is also partnering with Microsoft to integrate RemoteFX technologies into HDX for XenDesktop.)

Microsoft has not announced timing on SP1, but the plan is to ship it one year after Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. And as you know, those products dropped in October 2009.

Windows HPC Server 2008 R2

And speaking of Windows Server, Microsoft is also working on a follow-up to Windows HPC Server 2008, called Windows HPC Server 2008 R2, of course. What's HPC you ask? High Performance Computing. This is Microsoft's entry in the very high end server market, and it used to be marketed as Windows Compute Cluster Edition. HPC 2008 R2 is aimed at the most scalable server systems (or, "supercomputers") on earth and provides parallel computing capabilities. Most exciting, perhaps, is HPC's ability to run Excel calculations in parallel on a cluster, providing the absolute best performance for scientists, engineers, and analysts. There's a public Beta 2 version available now and Microsoft hopes to ship the final version by the end of 2010.

Exchange 2010 Service Pack 1

Service packs are in the air, apparently. Despite a fairly recent launch for Exchange 2010, Microsoft is already hard at work on its first service pack for the messaging server. Yes, Exchange 2010 SP1 will aggregate all of the product and security fixes that have shipped since the product launched. But it will also include new capabilities, including better mail archiving, Outlook Web App (formerly Outlook Web Access) improvements, and better management functionality. Let's look at each of these a bit more closely.

Mail archiving. While Exchange 2010 includes integrated mail archiving capabilities, this feature is being enhanced in SP1. It will now let you optionally provision individual users' personal archives to a different mailbox database than their primary mailbox, import historic email from client-side PST files, and provide controls so that admins can delegate access to a user's Personal Archive. A new multi-mailbox search feature will make it easier to find email for legal or regulatory reasons. (Always a good time.)

Outlook Web App. Microsoft's web-based Exchange client is being updated yet again with another visual refresh, better performance through pre-fetching and asynchronous delete, mark as read, and categorize operations, and public shared access to calendars. Some features from previous OWA versions are making a comeback, too, like UI themes, and users can move the reading pane if they'd like.

Management. With SP1, the Exchange Management Console (EMC) and Exchange Control Panel (ECP) are being enhanced to provide access to a number of new management tasks, many of which relate to Retention Policy Tags that can help automate how email is deleted and archived.

There are other new features coming in Exchange 2010 SP1 as well, and it's starting to shape up as a major release. Microsoft expects to deliver this by the end of 2010 as well.

System Center Essentials 2010

While Microsoft cancelled its midmarket-focused Essential Business Server product line--I was told that customers appreciated the integrated management but not the requirement that they buy 3 to 4 servers at a time--it hasn't lost focus on this small but important part of its customer base. Indeed, with Microsoft's midmarket customers returning to mainstream Windows Servers and other Microsoft servers, the need for good management tools is all the more important. So not surprisingly, the software giant is offering up a new version of its midmarket management solution, called System Center Essentials 2010.

SCE 2010 hits all the midmarket high-points, providing automation and central management for the busy IT generalists that keep this market running, and if you're familiar with the System Center family of products, you'll understand why this is such a big deal. (Microsoft defines the midmarket as mid-sized companies with up to 50 servers and 500 clients.) Here's what you get.

Unified management of physical and virtual machines. SCE has always offered a unified management experience, but in SCE 2010 this has been enhanced dramatically with virtualization capabilities from System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), including the ability to manage physical and virtual servers and clients side-by-side, provisioning, snapshotting (which Microsoft calls Checkpoints), physical-to-virtual conversion, VMWare-to-Hyper-V conversion (V2V), machine migration, PRO (physical resource optimization), and much more. This is the biggest improvement in SCE 2010 by far and represents a very aggressive move into the virtualization space for this market segment. (Previously, Microsoft offered a bundle of the separate SCE 2007 SP1 and VMM 2008 tools.)

Monitoring and reporting. SCE's monitoring capabilities help the under-staffed and over-worked IT staff in mid-sized businesses move from their typical reactive stance to being more proactive, while the reporting capabilities provide a running, high-level view of the health of the environment. The nicest thing about the UI for this, however, is that all of the status messages are hot-links, providing IT admins not just information, but with actionable targets that can help them fix problems. There are even embedded videos attached to some links, helping admins learn on the go, all without leaving the SCE management environment.

Software deployment and update management. SCE 2010 builds off the deployment and update management capabilities from previous versions. There are a number of enhancements, of course, and Microsoft offers a third party catalog so that the deployment and update functionality isn't just limited to Microsoft software. SCE 2010 offers more granular deployment and update management than before, so you can do things like target machines that meet certain criteria (like 32-bit versions of XP running particular languages). This is a particularly nice solution for those seeking to deploy complex applications like Office 2010.

Software and hardware inventory. As with its predecessors, SCE 2010 provides a complete asset inventory system, automating the inventorying of the software and hardware in your environment. This helps with licensing compliance, of course, but also provides guidance when you wish to upgrade to new OSes or applications.

Additionally, while SCE 2007 shipped with a core set of management packs, SCE 2010 streamlines this and offers a more intelligent approach where only those management packs that apply to the software in your environment are advertised. And unlike before, this now all happens through the centralized management console: You don't need to manually visit the Microsoft web site to find out if there are new or updated versions.

By the time you read this, the company will have announced the final release of SCE 2010. It will hit the streets, so to speak, on June 1, 2010.

System Center Data Protection Manager 2010

Microsoft's System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) 2010 is the first major update to Microsoft's data protection product since DPM 2007 with SP1, and it expands on that product's core functionality around protecting file shares, Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint, and Hyper-V. Aimed primarily at Microsoft shops--it is very much oriented to protecting only Microsoft workloads--DPM 2010 integrates with the core data storage technologies in each (like Shadow Copies in Windows Server) and provides near-term restoration from disk and long-term restoration from tape. New to 2010 are:

Cloud restore capabilities. Building on an exclusive offer that first appeared in DPM 2007 SP1, DPM 2010 supports replicating data to an Iron Mountain Vault, extending the previous disk and tape restoration capabilities.

Client support. For the first time, DPM also supports client-based data protection. And for laptops and other clients that may be disconnected from the corporate network, DPM 2010 can create local shadow copies to a reserved area of the disk and then protect the data on the server when a connection is established to the network. DPM 2010 supports 1000 clients per server, and works with both Windows Vista and 7.

DPM 2010 will ship alongside SCE 2010 on June 1. If you're interested in deploying both, Microsoft is now offering a new Essentials Plus License that combines a single client management license for each into a single, less expensive package. Beyond this, pricing and licensing for SCE 2010 and DPM 2010 have not changed.

Apple iPad

And now for a complete change of pace, let's consider Apple's new iPad briefly. Launched with much fanfare and hype, the iPad is basically a very large iPod touch, and not a miniature, tablet-based Mac. This design decision has positives and negatives, of course, but I think it was the right choice, and as the iPad app ecosystem improves, and Apple lowers prices, it could become an interesting consumer option.

Today, however, I can't recommend the iPad to most people, and it's certainly of no value whatsoever to most businesses. Stay tuned to this space, however: Apple will improve the iPad over time, of course, and many competitors--including HP, which is prepping a Windows 7-based Slate PC--will pop-up over time, providing high-portable machines that aren't as limited as Apple's offering. Sorry, I know it's not acceptable for anyone to be anything but overly enthusiastic about an Apple product, but that's where I'm at right now.

Windows 7 Enterprise Trial

Finally, here's a little tip: If you're interested in evaluating Windows 7 but haven't done so, Microsoft has extended the availability of the trial version of Windows 7 Enterprise through the end of 2010. (Previously, it was a limited time offer, though it's unclear how the company planned to measure when it had "run out" of downloadable copies. You can find out more on the Microsoft Springboard web site.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul