If organizations want a control plane, Microsoft attaches System Center 2012 R2 releases of Ops Manager, Virtual Machine Manager, and Configuration Manager that are deeply intertwined into the depths of Server 2012 R2 and Hyper-V.
During briefings with Microsoft, we had to constantly disambiguate what was a Server or Azure or System Center feature as Microsoft blends them together. In doing so, Microsoft wants its value proposition to be considered as a mixture of the three, but this review focuses on only the Server, Windows 8.1, and the free connection to Azure Pack.
For its part, Windows 8.1 solves the silliness of bringing back the familiar Desktop, along with ways to access applications in ancient and hallowed ways. While the Windows Start menu is gone (available from third parties if desired), there's a method to show apps selections onscreen easily. Windows 8.1 also touts speed-- but the speed amounts mostly enhance video drivers and more availability in organizational networks of the 2012/Win8 SMB3 protocol, which can be plentifully fast as a communication transport.
SMB3 speed isn't proprietary to Windows as SAMBA 4.1 -- the open source SMB emulator that can be used by Mac OS, Linux, BSD, and other non-Windows operating systems, is now compatible with SMB3. However, SAN and NAS devices may not support SMB3 until vendors can get caught up.
Much attention in Windows 8.1 surrounds features that will be found in tablets, like Microsoft's own Surface Pro. Multi-touch object manipulation and attention towards touch and tethered keyboard combinations abounds. We tested 8.1 and found an enormous variety of keyboard manipulations and touch motions that produced interesting effects.
2012 R2 and Hyper-V
Windows 2012 R2 contains a number of storage options poised towards Hyper-V, but we found that R2 can probably be booted from a wristwatch and store data on our sneakers -- if we format them NTFS. We successfully booted local hardware (you may need BIOS updates), iSCSI, and virtual network storage. Many will be booting VMs, and Microsoft has made this especially simple under Hyper-V V3.
Hyper-V V3 has received much work, and Microsoft considers it a "Generation 2" hypervisor VM-hosting platform that delivers a higher degree of para-virtualization and cuts away much hardware layer specific driver emulation, although other OS versions/distros of hosted VMs can still find connection points.
Hyper-V V3 and its Windows 2012 VMs also boot UEFI, rather than traditional memory-location-specific BIOS. This gave us a few fits, but works. There is the capacity to move virtual machines from host to host using compression, and where compatible hardware is available to support it, very fast transports -- 10Gigabit Ethernet, Infiniband, and other faster-than-10G Ethernet connections. The high-speed connections are crucial to VM movements among hosts in hypervisor fabrics.
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