Windows Server 2012 – is it any good? In a word YES!

I’ve been using Windows Server 2012 in production since Microsoft released SP1 for System Center 2012 (SC2012); as SC2012 RTM’d prior to Windows Server 2012 it didn’t support it until SP1 was released.

To put things in to context I’ve been using Windows Server since the days of NT4 (pre Active Directory). With the introduction of Active Directory in Windows Server 2000 it suddenly became so much easier to use once my brain figured out the monumental changes that Active Directory brought (I’d never seen Novell at the time).

So fast forward 15 years and Windows Server 2012 has arrived – new interface, new ways of working, new features set and (vastly) improved features!

I dithered about which feature of Windows Server 2012 to concentrate this review on so I thought I’d do my top ten list and pick the one that means the most to me:

  1. Hyper-V 3
  2. De-duplication
  3. NIC Teaming
  4. Dynamic Access Control
  5. New Server Manager
  6. PowerShell 3.0
  7. SMB 3
  8. GUI to Core and vice verse without having to reinstall the OS
  9. Cluster Aware Updating
  10. Remote Group Policy Update

So I’ve decided to go with Hyper-V. There are lot of reviews out there but here’s why I love Hyper-V 3.

THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

No more is it clear cut case of virtualisation = VMware. When I was looking at implementing virtualisation in 2011 it was a question of “Can I afford VMware? No, Hyper-V it is”. With Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 for me it’s now “Sure glad I didn’t go for VMware!”

The functionality improvements over Windows Server 2008 R2 are phenomenal. Like most people using Hyper-V in R2 I sometimes just wanted to crawl into the server room and scream as I realised I needed to give up another weekend to do some maintenance – usually on the Storage Area Network (SAN)!

Under previous incarnations of Hyper-V if you wanted to move a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) associated with a running Virtual Machine (VM) the only choice was to shutdown the VM, move the VHD, update the VM settings and power it on… Whilst, like most other IT Pros, I compiled a vast quantity of scripts (sadly not PowerShell) to do these things there was always that nagging feeling (what if it goes wrong…) – and obviously the associated downtime for end users (mustn’t forgot them). This would usually lead to me telling my daughter that Daddy had to work at the weekend and seeing the look of disappointment on a 3 year olds face always broke my heart! But thankfully no more – THANK YOU AGAIN!

Storage Migration comes to the rescue!

Storage Migration is the ability to move a VM’s storage (and configuration and snapshots) whilst it is running without any, well a tiny amount of (if someone noticed I’d be flabbergasted), impact on the end user. This one feature saved me hours of downtime once I’d got my Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V cluster up and running (almost perfectly) and HP released an urgent firmware patch for some hard drives we were using (explains the not quite perfect implementation)! I moved the all the storage from one Cluster Shared Volume (CSV) to another (albeit slower, RAID 5 vs RAID 10) CSV, upgraded the firmware and then moved it all back! Then repeated the sequence for the other and then put everything back where it should’ve been. Best of all no downtime! NO DOWNTIME = NO COMPLAINTS FROM USERS (or wife/child)!

Now whilst some of you may say “Pah! You could do that with VMware!” may I remind you of three things:

  1. VMware is not cheap
  2. Hyper-V is part of your Windows Server 2012 licence (or free if you’re using Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 – just know your licencing if you’re using that edition)
  3. VMware is not cheap

Just to make it clear you can do Storage Migration on any supported guest VM Operating System (OS) – that includes Linux and Windows client OSs (handy for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure deployments)!

Now if you’ve got an Offloaded Data Transfer (ODX) enabled SAN then frankly you’re on the fast track with the above situation. My SAN doesn’t support ODX at the moment (come on HP – how hard can it be!) but if it did, oh my… The problem with the above situation was the Hyper-V server had to copy the VHDs from one CSV to another. This meant my VHD had to leave the SAN, go through the physical switch, into the Hyper-V OS to be told to go back to the SAN but to go to a different disk. Whilst that’s not much of an issue for a 10MB file, if you’re primary user storage VHD is 600GB (x10 for the amount I had to move) that’s a lot of network traffic, processing on the Hyper-V host, etc. What if the SAN could do the move for you?

An ODX enabled SAN will move the files (in this case VHDs) for you at the storage level! No traversing the network and only a tiny amount of processing by the Hyper-V host as the SAN tells it what it’s up to. The SAN moves the file for you which I will guarantee (that’s a no money back guarantee) is faster than having Windows do it! Why do you think Microsoft created this?

There are other great features in Hyper-V 3 too; shared nothing live migration, essentially storage migration + live migration + steroids. This means that if you’ve got multiple Hyper-V hosts/clusters you can move VMs between them without having to do complex export/imports – provided the Hyper-V hosts are in the same domain, same hardware architecture (basically standard clustering rules). Another great feature is the introduction of Virtual Fibre Channel – basically what you can now do with fibre channel what was previously only possible (and supported) with iSCSI. Essentially allows you to pass the Fibre Channel adapter through to a VM in the same way as a network card.

Hyper-V Replica

Microsoft Licencing is one of those things that you wish was just easier to get your head around (you’re an IT Pro not a legal expert). I can guarantee you that there are no loop holes – apparently Microsoft employs the same number of lawyers as developers! They’re going to protect their intellectual property come hell or high water! So what has this got to do with Hyper-V replica?

Well something you may not be aware of in your Software Assurance (SA) benefits (you’ve got SA right? If not get it! Solves so many licencing issues) is Cold Back-ups for Disaster Recovery (DR). This allows you to have the same licenced server software on a “cold” backup server for DR – a Hyper-V VM that is replicated using Hyper-V replica is definitely “cold”!

So let’s take my situation as an example:

  1. 4 Node Hyper-V failover cluster. Each node has Windows Server 2012 Datacenter with SA (unlimited VMs)
  2. 2 Hyper-V servers in DR data centre running the free Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 (no licences for guest OSs but has unlimited VMs as long each VM is licenced – see comment above about Microsoft Licencing…)
  3. Each DR Hyper-V server also has a Windows Server 2012 Standard with SA licence assigned so I can run some VMs in perpetuity (for example an Exchange DAG node, file server with DFS-R, RDS server, System Center Data Protection Manager (SCDPM) secondary server – we’ve got a physical Domain Controller in DR)

Now selected guests in my primary data centre are replicated using Hyper-V replica to the DR Hyper-V nodes. The guest OSs in DR are off (part of Hyper-V replica) and as such are “cold” but have all the necessary server software installed to get the organisation up and running and they are fully licenced under SA benefits (they’re replicas!) In addition the Hyper-V hosts are fully licenced to run as many guest VMs as I have licences for. Oh yeah the replicated VMs can be ANY OS SUPPORTED BY HYPER-V! Just be careful with Exchange/SQL/basically any transactional software. Better off using a Database Availability Groups for Exchange, Always-On/clustering/mirroring for SQL (top end Microsoft software usually has its own high-availability solution).

So by using replica I’ve got all my VMs in a state that is approximately 5 minutes behind live (that is amazing) – by the way this is all included in your Windows Server licence (no additional licences required, no expensive asynchronous/synchronous SANs to deploy). Prior to replica we were using Hyper-V backups in SCDPM they were at least an hour behind if not more!

Summary

Hyper-V has come a long way since its first incarnation in Windows Server 2008. Microsoft has been playing catch up with VMware but now the two are very much on a level playing field, in my opinion Microsoft are ahead. If you’ve already got VMware then look at Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V when it’s time to refresh/renew your VMware infrastructure/licences. Chances are you’ve already got Windows Server Datacenter licences in which case you’ve already got Hyper-V – if so just think what else you could spend your VMware licence renewal budget on!

Update 23/5/13

Microsoft has just released a Hyper-V Capacity Planner – should help with figuring out where to spend the VMware renewal budget…

Note: Anything I say about licencing is from my perspective and should in no way be treated as 100% accurate. Check with MS licencing specialists.

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Posted on 9 May, 2013, in Hyper-V, Windows Server 2012 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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