At the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2008 on Monday, October 27, 2008, Microsoft will introduce to the world the next version of Windows Server, called Windows Server 2008 R2. As its name suggests, Windows Server 2008 R2 is the "release two" version of its predecessor and is thus a minor release in the major/minor/major/minor release cadence that Microsoft has adopted. But don't be fooled by the moniker: Windows Server 2008 R2 does include major and interesting changes. And for the first time since Windows 2000, Microsoft is co-developing its Windows Server and Windows client products in tandem. That's right: Windows Server 2008 is the server version of Windows 7. And they will work better when used together.

"We're taking advantage of various Windows 7 engineering efficiencies with this release," Ward Ralston, Microsoft Group Product Manager for Windows Server, told me in a recent briefing. "The last time we co-developed Windows client and server, with Windows 2000, we had a good story to tell around AD [Active Directory] and GP [Group Policy], Looking back, we can see what it means to have an integrated server-client relationship. We have a good story to tell here as well."

R2 general notes

Microsoft established the R2 naming convention when Windows Server 2003 was still new and the first product to use this moniker was Windows Server 2003 R2. In case you're unfamiliar, the R2 product releases are designed to fill the gap between major architectural changes, allowing Microsoft to quickly deliver functional enhancements and address the changing market. Because these R2 versions are optional, businesses can simply choose to ignore them if they don't meet a pressing need.

As Microsoft telegraphed a year or more ago, Windows Server 2008 will only ship in x64 versions, so 32-bit, finally, is a thing of the past, if only on the server. It includes key enhancements related to virtualization, management, IIS, scalability and reliability, and Windows 7 integration. What I have seen so far is quite interesting. Here's what's happening.

Virtualization

2008 has been an incredible year for Microsoft virtualization solutions, but the biggest release, by far, was Hyper-V, the company's hypervisor-based virtualization platform. Today, Hyper-V is available as a role in Windows Server 2008 and as a free standalone server. In Windows Server 2008 Service Pack 2 (SP2), due in the second quarter of 2008, Microsoft will make the final version of Hyper-V 1.0 part of the OS. (Remember that the initial Windows Server 2008 version shipped with a beta release of Hyper-V.) In Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft will include Hyper-V 2.0.

Live migration

The next Hyper-V version includes some interesting improvements, but the biggest feature by far is live migration, which allows businesses to migrate virtual machines between servers with no downtime and resulting loss of service. This is a feature VMWare has offered for some time, and it's so important to Microsoft that it is the one R2 feature that it preannounced.

To be fair, however, Microsoft's current solution--quick migration--isn't typically much different from a real world experience standpoint. "The difference between quick migration and live migration is the difference between seconds and milliseconds," Ralston said. "We couldn't do it in Server 08 because of file system limitations. So we had to move VHDs [virtual hard drives] between nodes, which isn't as rapid as the what the competition offers."

With live migration, the company will finally be able to claim that it offers this feature. And if you're using System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008, which you most likely would be, you can even automate and orchestrate live migrations based on resource conditions and the like.

Other virtualization improvements

In addition to live migration, Hyper-V 2.0 provides a number of other features. Host servers can now support for up to 32 processors (up from 16 or 24 in 1.0), though virtual machine processor support is unchanged. It will support upcoming processor enhancements to improve performance and reduce hypervisor load. Hot add and remove of storage--originally slated for Hyper-V 1.0--is making a comeback in 2.0, so you will be able to add and remove virtual hard disks (VHDs) from running VMs without rebooting. And an interesting new boot from VHD feature will let you move a VHD to a physical machine, increasing performance and functionality. This last V2P feature isn't fully fleshed out yet, but I'm curious to see how Microsoft's customers use it. I could see it being an interesting option for companies that need to expand capacity during busy times, like the holidays.

Management

Microsoft made dramatic management improvements in Windows Server 2008 with Server Manager and it set the stage for its automation future by including PowerShell 1.0. Both of these advances are getting even better in R2.

Server Manager goes remote

Responding to one of the top requests from Windows Server 2008 customers, Microsoft is finally going to allow you to access other servers from Server Manager, though this feature will only be available in Windows Server 2008 R2 and, via a separate download, Windows 7.

In addition to this remote control functionality, Server Manager is also being integrated with Microsoft's Best Practices Analyzer so that admins can compare their configuration with Microsoft's optimized configurations and make changes if needed.

PowerShell 2.0

Microsoft is including PowerShell 2.0 in Windows Server 2008, but the big deal is that this release will also include hundreds of administrative commandlets for all of the top server roles. That means that PowerShell moves from the theoretical to the practical in this release, and admins will get the tools they need to get real work done, from the command line, in R2.

"We're dramatically expanding the scriptable surface area in R2," Ralston told me. "We're including 241 administrative commandlets in R2, all created with the server admin in mind. So you can administer top roles, like AD, DNS, and DHCP, but also broader capabilities like analyze power consumption." All of the major Windows Server roles have between 20 and 50 dedicated commandlets, I was told.

PowerShell 2.0 includes backwards compatibility with 1.0 scripts and commandlets, enhanced portability thanks to settings being stored in XML files instead of the Registry, and a new graphical front-end, the Integrated Scripting Environment. This ISE will allow for advanced functionality like working with multiple scripts, and running only the portion of the current script that is highlighted in the editor.

What's really exciting is that R2 marks the first Server release in which Microsoft is building new admin consoles based on PowerShell. There will be several in R2, including consoles for IIS, power management, and WS-MGMT remote management. But the most important PowerShell-based console is called the Active Directory Administration Center (ADAC). It's built entirely on PowerShell--just like the Exchange 2007 admin console--and includes all of the AD management tools that are currently scattered around in separate consoles.

"We worked with the Windows user experience team to create a GUI for AD that's built on top of PowerShell," Ralston said. "This is just the first iteration of this work. Going forward, more and more admin consoles will be built with PowerShell on the back end."

Roles and settings migration

For customers migrating to Windows Server 2008 R2 from Windows Server 2003, 2003 R2, or 2008, Microsoft will provide step-by-step documentation for migration all roles to the system and solutions for migrating key roles like AD, DHCP, DNS, and File and Print. (These solutions will be GUI and/or command line-based, depending on the role.)

Power management

Windows Server 2008 was the first version of Windows Server to support the Processor Power Management (PPM) specification, allowing it to manage process power states and improve efficiencies, especially on multi-processor and multi-core machines. In R2, these capabilities are being expanded, though this functionality will require a new generation of microprocessors.

For example, R2 will support "core parking" so that unused cores can be effectively shut down when the system is idle or under low load, saving energy and electricity costs. Administrators can also use Group Policy to cause servers to completely throttle down during off hours on a set schedule, or when idle. Microsoft is extending its Windows Server logo program, which currently has an additional qualifier for Hyper-V, to include one for Power as well.

IIS

While Internet Information Services (IIS) 7 was one of the biggest and most well-received new features in Windows Server 2008, time marches on and Microsoft has some interesting improvements in mind for R2. First up is the addition of out-of-band IIS extensions to the core product, so admins no longer need to manually download them from the Web. More important, perhaps, are the improvements to the core IIS 7 platform, including an integrated PowerShell provider, ASP .NET support on Server Core, integrated (and secured) FTP and WebDAV functionality, and more.

When you look at this enhanced version of the core IIS 7 platform and combine it with the additional functionality provided by the now-bundled extensions, you may naturally wonder whether IIS gets a version bump or at least a branding change. Microsoft is wondering about that as well. Right now it's up in the air.

Scalability and reliability

Where Windows Server 2008 was limited to just 64 processor cores, Windows Server 2008 will support 256, pushing Microsoft's server OS ever higher from a scalability standpoint. One implication of this and other low-level changes, however, is that Microsoft is significantly changing the Windows kernel to add this support, and that means that it cannot guarantee compatibility with all Windows Server 2008 applications. This goes against the marching orders for an R2 release, but I feel that it's warranted: R2 is optional, for starters, includes important improvements for emerging needs, and is aimed at faster-moving businesses anyway.

Microsoft is also improving Server Core in this release, with support for the top two requested technologies from customers: ASP .NET (and .NET Framework) and PowerShell scripting.

Other reliability improvements include DHCP failover, where secondary DHCP servers can serve IPs in the same scope as primary DHCP servers and sync in the event of a failure, and DNS Security (DNSSEC), which uses PKI to establish trust relationships between DNS servers.

Windows 7 integration

Many SuperSite readers will be most interested in learning how Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7 will integrate, since these products are the first to be co-developed since Microsoft shipped the server and client versions of Windows 2000 together almost a decade ago. While the notion of "better together" can often stretch the bounds of credulity, this time around there seems to be some basis for it. Put simply, certain Windows Server 2008 R2 features can only be fully utilized on the client if that system is running Windows 7. These include...

Direct Access

Today, most managed businesses create a DMZ so that there is a protected internal network; users that wish to enter this network from the outside wall are forced to use unwieldy, complicated and sometimes expensive VPN solutions. Using Windows 7 in tandem with Windows Server 2008, this system can be cast aside. Instead, users will seamlessly access the internal network from wherever they are, using technologies that are at least conceptually similar to HTTPS access between Outlook and Exchange Server. From the user's standpoint, it just works: They plug in a network cable or access a wireless network and they're connected. This should have major repercussions on the way corporate networks are configured going forward.

From the admin's perspective, Direct Access utilizes Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) to transport network traffic over SSL, using port 443, like HTTPS. Without getting into the ugly details, IPSec and IPv6 can be involved, depending on how it's implemented, but I'm told that the management interface is surprisingly simple, so don't be freaked by that.

Branch Cache

In Microsoft parlance, a branch office (BO) is an office in your organization that is physically disconnected from your main office. This may be across town, or it may be across the globe. Windows Server 2003 R2 and 2008 both included various technologies related to BOs, including such things as Bitlocker drive encryption and RODC (read-only domain controller), as well as various file compression technologies. But distance can be painful, especially when you're trying to replicate data over slow and unreliable WAN connections.

Branch Cache, new to R2, is one attempt to mitigate this problem. When enabled, SMB and HTTP traffic downloaded by users in the BO is cached on the server. That way, various types of often-needed content is cached locally, freeing up network traffic for better performance.

More granular power management on the client

With both Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 able to natively monitor and auto-configure power management at a far more granular level than their predecessors, it makes sense to add this capability to the admin's arsenal as well. As you might expect, this is being implemented by a collection of new Group Policy Objects (GPOs).

Bitlocker for removable devices

With more and more USB-based storage devices making their way into the corporate environment, Microsoft has been working on ways to protect businesses' vital data from deliberate theft or inadvertent loss. The first such support for this capability appeared in Windows Vista, which can be controlled via GPOs to prevent certain classes of USB storage from functioning properly. In Windows 7, with Windows Server 2008 R2 on the back-end, admins will be able to implement Bitlocker drive encryption on USB removable storage devices as well. That way, if a device is lost, the data is holds cannot be accessed by others.

Timing and availability

Because Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7 are being developed in lock-step, they are currently at the same release milestone, called M3, which is the final major pre-beta release and the version Microsoft will show off at PDC. Microsoft says that we can expect to see beta releases and a Windows Server 2008 SP2 release in 2009, and the company is currently planning to ship Windows Server 2008 R2 in the first quarter of 2010, about 3-6 months after Windows 7. That date could change, of course, depending on how things progress during the beta.

Final thoughts

There's a lot more to say about Windows Server 2008 R2, including some features I can't discuss quite yet. And then there's the important matter of actually getting my hands on the product. But even from this mile-high view, it's clear that Windows Server 2008 R2 will rise above the meager functional changes offered by the last R2 release, Windows Server 2003 R2. Some will debate whether Microsoft is going to far this time--after all, changes to the kernel will eliminate guarantees of backwards compatibility, and the 64-bit restriction will eliminate R2 as an option in a very few organizations. But I think Microsoft is doing the right thing with R2. The world is evolving, and so too must Windows Server. And right now, R2 looks like it's going to be another blockbuster release.