In Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1, Microsoft has released a combination of operating system updates that we find very compelling. Microsoft has joined much of the rest of the industry in annual release roll-ups with feature additions, and this time, they listened to the critics. More interesting are the one-upmanship features targeted directly at its virtualization and cloud competition. Some were stunning, despite a few strange and perhaps anecdotal basic problems that we found.
Windows 8.1 is the answer to loud and vociferous complaints regarding radical changes to the user interface found in Windows 8, and is currently a free upgrade for 8.0 users. What's apparent in 8.1 is that Microsoft is committing strong changes to the tablet and touch user interface in its Surface devices first, in order to compete with Apple and Android. If 8.0 didn't convince you, then 8.1 is a shot across the bows of those believing that desktops and notebooks rule IT.
Microsoft has positioned Windows 2012 R2 directly at data center and service provider use, along with baseline connectivity to Azure Cloud services and third party Azure services providers. Microsoft's other targets are Oracle and VMware.
Microsoft offers a free add-in for Windows 2012 R2 of its Azure Pack to connect cloudlike constructs, and anchors it with various free and paid appliance services that battle competing IaaS/SaaS providers and other MSP/cloud competitors. Through gritted teeth, Microsoft is also supporting specific instances of commonly used Linux distros as manageable guests within the Hyper-V and Azure infrastructure.
By contrast to the heavy work done in 2012 R2, Windows 8.1 is a far lighter weight set of changes, and largely addresses criticisms of Windows 8.0.
Authentication and access enabling technologies are important in a BYOD universe. Many Windows users find Apple's iTunes to be difficult to use as an authentication system under Windows, with frequent unthreaded new releases. Microsoft has responded with a unified identity method enhancement of its Windows Intune ecosystem and Active Directory-poised authentication methods.
The Good News
What we liked about Windows 2012 R2 is that it's generally easier to use than Windows 2012 -- fewer sharp edges -- and 2012 R2 contains stronger networking, storage, and hypervisor skills, we found in testing. Microsoft has also made it almost fiendishly consistent and easy to join Windows 2012 R2 to Azure Clouds -- and it's practical if organizations have fast Internet pipes.
Both new Windows releases are highly targeting enterprise customers, although a Windows 2012 R2 Server Essentials Edition (traditionally limited to 25 or fewer users) is available, and not reviewed here. The Essentials Edition must live within three total VMs, which limits possible users, unless something unforeseen and magical happens in hardware.
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