By William Van Winkle
If you specialized in setting up and deploying Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 or Small Business Server 2003 operating systems, you knew this day was coming. The past five years have probably been very good to you. According to IDC, Windows Server holds the top market share spot among server operating systems, having passed UNIX, Linux, and their relatives. Nevertheless, we’re at a crossroads here. Windows Server 2008 is now locked, loaded, and shipping everywhere. Server 2003 may continue to receive official support for some time to come, but like it or not, that familiar golden goose is now cooked. It’s time to meet the new generation and see just how far its wings can spread.
THIS IS ONE OF THOSE DEFINING MOMENTS WHEN
you have to make a decision. You can choose to ignore the
Server 2008 launch and continue maintaining the SMBs
that built their businesses on Server 2003 and aren’t likely
to migrate any time soon. After all, there are plenty of organizations
still running on Server 2000 today, five years
after Windows Server 2003 launched. Money will be made
servicing Server 2003 for years to come.
Another option is to learn about Windows Server 2008 early on and turn it into an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-manage software foundation for SMB customers. There’s a lot to like about the new operating system, from never-beforeseen features to capabilities that have simply been improved upon. From reorganized setup routines to functionality pulled straight out of enterprise computing, it’s easy to find something here your customer will like.
Server 2008 is built on the same code base as Vista. Yes, we know Vista received a lukewarm reception—especially from business users. But silence those alarm bells for a moment. Because there’s a lot of foundation shared between Vista and Server 2008, you’ll notice functionality introduced alongside Windows Server 2008 that’s optimized for a network of Vista-based clients. This is a tale of two operating systems that work better together. So not only are you looking at an opportunity to learn and make money with Microsoft’s new server OS but also a fresh angle from which to approach Vista sales. Customers who were apprehensive about the desktop operating system before have a real reason to at least give Vista another look.
If you were fortunate enough get in on beta testing Windows Server 2008, you probably have a good idea of what the operating system can do and how it improves Server 2003. So much has changed, though, that it would be difficult to put each and every new feature to the test. And if you haven’t had the chance to go hands-on with Server 2008 yet, it’s still a blank slate of opportunity waiting for your mark.”
So we have quickly changing product models based on compute and energy demands combined with mounting pressure for lower-cost solutions. On the surface, those IDC numbers may sound pretty uninspiring. (Gartner’s Q3 numbers reported almost the exact same things.) But the fact that IBM, with its old-school approach to server products, is losing share so quickly (down 8.5% year-over-year) tells us that those who can embrace newer models quickly stand to win ground. To us, 2008 sounds like a perfect chance for resellers to jump in with superior alternatives to what the tier-ones are pitching. The smaller the end-user business, the better your odds of success, both because this is the segment with top growth and your local touch and educational influence will carry more weight than a faceless OEM's Web site.
Whether servers are already part of your offering mix or you’re mostly new to the space, this is a rapidly expanding product category rife with opportunity and applicable to businesses of all sizes, even fledgling garage operations. However, you need to understand the options available within the SMB server category before you can recommend the right specific configuration for your client and ace out the competition. So from entry-level to volume racks, we’re going to breeze through the field and make sure you’re up to speed on the essential hardware options.
[ BARE ESSENTIALS: 2008’S SERVER CORE ]
Before getting too far into Windows Server 2008—the full installation of the operating system—we should probably introduce Server Core, a drastically pared-down version of Server 2008 that you can elect to deploy instead of the complete OS. In a Server Core installation, you’re rolling out only the bare essentials. There’s no Internet Explorer, no Media Player, there’s not even a graphical user interface. Everything is controlled through command line or remote access. If you and your customer decide to go with a Server Core installation, you’ll miss a lot of the other features Server 2008 introduces. But there are some distinct advantages to cutting the fat.
Take security as the perfect example. In a large operating system, every extra feature or capability exposed through tens of thousands of lines of code is a potential point of attack for the malicious user trying to hack his way in.
Trim off everything that isn’t absolutely necessary and you drastically reduce the software’s “surface area,” leaving far fewer avenues into the system. Yes, we can see all of the Linux admins rolling their eyes right now. This is a lesson that Microsoft took its sweet time to learn. The option is there now, though, for specialized environments where a low profile trumps a flashy list of unrelated features. Server Core also reduces the maintenance left on your plate. There are fewer features to break and less code to patch. And naturally, a Server Core installation is going to take up far less disk space. It needs less in the way or processing and memory resources, too.
For all of its simplicity, a Server Core system performs whatever role you assign to it as well as any other Windows Server installation. You can use Server Core to handle DHCP, file serving, print serving, DNS, Active Directory Domain serving, or Active Directory Lightweight Directory serving. To those roles you can optionally add failover clustering, backup, drive encryption, and a number of other server functions your customers may or may not need in a minimalist environment.
Managing a Server Core installation is going to seem quite a bit different to the SMB reseller unaccustomed to command line interfaces or scripting, but to be fair, Microsoft sees Server Core functionality as more of a tool for organizations with lots of servers dedicated to specific tasks. Should you find yourself in front of a Server Core. installation and short on scripting proficiency, it’s at least reassuring to know you can log into that machine from another system running Server 2008 and use MMC (Microsoft Management Console) snap-ins to manipulate the operating system’s installed features.
The addition of Server Core is a great installation alternative for security mavens. Critics of Microsoft’s previous Windows Server products now have a lightweight operating environment (Server Core needs only about 1GB of disk space) that’s less susceptible to attack and still easily manageable. Competing operating environments do offer similar functionality, but this is the first time we’ve seen Microsoft step up with a slimmed-down complement to its server OS.
[ WINDOWS SERVER 2008: INSTALLATION IMPRESSIONS ]
Most customers will still go with a conventional Windows Server 2008 installation, despite the operating system’s extra features that admittedly increase its attackable surface area. Nevertheless, Server 2008 includes some major improvements to security, and the platform’s improvements are well worth checking out.
We always thought the default Server 2003 setup process was fairly easy. Aside from the hassle of almost always needing to install storage controller drivers from a floppy disk, you’d simply enter some basic system information and the product key. Windows’s setup routine took care of the rest.
But then Rezabek, Windows Server product manager, reminded us of the constant prompts for more information that’d stall you if you weren’t sitting in front of the server during installation. “Much of the Windows Server 2003 setup routine was text-based. You’d type in a bunch of information, it’d start copying files, and if you went to go grab a sandwich and came back, setup would often be sitting on another screen, waiting on more user input.” Not a huge deal, but Eric has a point: Configuring Windows Server 2003 did tie you to the keyboard for an hour or so.
In Windows Server 2008, that process is streamlined. As with Vista, the installer is entirely built around a GUI. We got our hands on an RTM copy of Server 2008 to put its new installation routine to the test. Remarkably, the setup process only consisted of a couple clicks before a shockingly short 20-minute stint when the operating system unpacked files, restarted the machine a couple of times, and finished the install. It even let us skip right past the product key prompt with a mere warning that not entering a code down the road could lead to data loss. Gone are the days when you’d need all of your customer’s information before rolling out Windows Server. Now you can enter that data on-site after installing the complete OS.
Because the installer doesn’t ask much of you during setup, there really isn’t much to look at once Windows Server 2008 fires up for the first time. You’ll pick and choose the features you want later. However, like SBS 2003, Server 2008 gives you a list of Initial Configuration Tasks to complete, where you enter information about the computer, patch the OS, and customize the machine’s functionality by adding roles.
[ MANAGING SERVER 2008 ]
The Server Manager is your window into Server 2008’s soul. It replaces a handful of features you were probably used to in Server 2003 in a way that makes administering a Server 2008 box easier. No longer will you need to run the Security Configuration Wizard in order to lock down sensitive data; Server 2008 instead deploys each role you choose with recommended security settings by default. Gone are the Manage Your Server, Configure Your Server, and Add or Remove Windows Components screens—they’re all in one screen now.
Why should you care about a simplified, prettified management console? Thanks to significant consolidation, you’re going to find that it’s much easier to set Windows Server 2008 up to do the job your customer needs it for. You build your whitebox machine with a 64-bit processor, compatible platform, and Windows Server 2008 x64 Standard, for example. An SMB customer decides he wants to use your box to add new functionality to his network plus consolidate an older server sitting in the storage closet. That’s fine—Server 2008 Standard is licensed for one virtual machine. So you sit down to Server Manager, select Add Roles, and choose Hyper-V. The wizard walks you through four or five screens, prompts you to restart, and voila—virtualization is installed. As you add roles, the operating system will let you know if you need extra features and install them for you. It really doesn’t get any easier for the resellers and consultants setting up servers, especially when you start enabling higher-end functionality like Terminal Services, advanced security, and virtualization.
That’s not to say Server 2008 has been dumbed down to the point where you can’t add value by administering it. You won’t truly know your way around Server 2008 until you move past the operating system’s many wizards. Windows PowerShell is Server 2008’s built-in command line interface that incorporates a scripting environment for much tighter control of the OS. This is where the rubber really meets the road.
“PowerShell gives you the basic functionality of a command prompt plus the power to do things you’d normally do with a VBScript,” says Microsoft’s Rezabek. So let’s say you’re planning to run a sequence of commands automating a certain task normally performed manually but aren’t quite sure they’ll have the desired effect. You’d simply run the sequence with a WhatIf parameter to simulate the action. That’s just one example of how PowerShell makes it easier to manage Windows. The shell ships with more than 130 different command line tools that can be strung together for tight control over administration and used to automate recurring tasks.
On top of the improvements to basic and advanced management of the operating system, Microsoft polished up the value-added extras included with Windows Server 2008. For instance, the Windows Backup feature bundled with Server 2003 never received much attention, overshadowed by more advanced solutions like EMC’s Retrospect. The improved Windows Server Backup technology in Server 2008 is much better tuned for today’s storage technologies. Support for tape is out. Now it’s all about DVD media, internal disks, and shared folders on another networked machine.
Server Backup uses Volume Shadow Copy Services and block-level backup to create one full backup and subsequent incremental saves. When it comes time for restoration, you can pick files, folders, or whole drives by simply choosing a date on which the version of your data you want was saved. Application data is preserved through VSS, protecting apps like SQL Server and Exchange Server that used to require specialized backup tools. Microsoft claims that the new Windows Server Backup is suitable for everyone from small businesses to large enterprises. But after going over the new features and scheduling backups of our own in Server 2008, this is an especially attractive play for your SMB customers who’d otherwise be paying $700 or more for a standalone backup app that’d likely add client backup to the picture. And if you’re already centralizing client data on the server, saving those workstation files shouldn’t be necessary anyway.
If your customer is working in a larger organization where it’s inconvenient for IT to walk out and deploy a copy of Windows on an attached system, the new Windows Deployment Services is another cool add-on for VARs to look at. The suite of components works together to enable network- based Windows installations. There’s a bit of a setup process before you’re able to push copies of Vista out over the network, but imagine logging into a customer’s Windows Server 2008 box from your office, connecting to a machine your customer placed on the network, and rolling out an approved install image to that machine. Talk about a serious boost to the management power of VARs working off-site.
The last management tool with which you’ll want to familiarize yourself is Microsoft’s Window Reliability and Performance Monitor—a mash-up of the Performance Logs and Alerts, Server Performance Advisor, and System Monitor screen from Windows Server 2003. You’ll probably recognize the tool’s main page as Windows Vista’s Resource Monitor, conveying information about processor usage, disk throughput, network bandwidth, and memory reliability. Drill down a little further, though, and you’ll find the Performance Monitor and Reliability Monitor. Using the Performance Monitor, you can set up counters from 100 different categories and measure any aspect of performance against any other data point—perfect for knowledgeable VARs able to show customers how their machines are handling Windows Server 2008, perhaps with a virtual machine or two.
The Reliability Monitor has the potential to be even more helpful. Let’s say you maintain a handful of SMBs with monthly on-site help. Using that one always-on tool, you can track software uninstalls, application failures, hardware failures, Windows failures, and unclassified failures. A record of dates, failure types, activities, and version numbers helps you troubleshoot the problem quickly by tracing it back to a change in the system.
[ INTRODUCING HIGH AVAILABILITY ]
Of course, uptime will always be a concern when you’re working with servers and workstations. But in some environments, there’s zero room for a server to fall offline. That’s not just an enterprise concern. Even among your SMB customers, a handful of them are likely working with mission-critical information. Ready for an enterprise technology pulled down into reach of your smaller customers, thanks to Server 2008? High availability services, otherwise known as failover clustering, ensure important applications stay online by means of redundancy. If the hardware you’re using to build whitebox servers carries the “Designed for Windows Server 2008” logo, there’s a good chance it’ll support a clustered configuration.
“Windows Server 2008 makes it much easier for resellers to set up failover clustering,” says Microsoft’s Eric
Rezabek. “You’re looking at a couple of screens instead of the dozens of screens you would have seen before.” That emphasis on simple configuration is what makes clustering an approachable technology for you and a very affordable backup plan for your customers. Microsoft includes a Validation Wizard in Server 2008 that runs tests on the selected servers, the network they’re running on, and attached storage to determine if the infrastructure you’ve built is suitable for a cluster. Provided it is, a Cluster Setup wizard seals the deal in one step. You can even automate the process with a script. Rezabek continues, “Now you can do geographically dispersed clustering as well. Previously, clustered boxes had to be on the same subnet, limiting how far away servers could be. If a big power outage hit, your customer’s main server and redundant server hosted in the same building would both go offline. Now you can install the backup server in a branch office several states over and survive a natural disaster.”
Microsoft provides a long list of improvements to management, stability, networking, storage compatibility, and security that have found their way into the Windows Server 2008 clustering solution. The real take-away, however, is that while failover clustering was once considered high-end functionality reserved for big businesses with deep pockets (and an IT staff well versed in enterprise networking and complex storage systems), it’s now well within reach of ambitious VARS and SMBs looking for guaranteed uptime. Even as Windows Server 2008 makes it easier to administer networks and the machines connected to them, it’s opening the door to new opportunities like clustering ...more
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