Managing the cloud: Making things easy with Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012

Article Steve Cassidy Nov 23rd 2012

Steve Cassidy addresses the cloud sceptics on why System Center 2012 and Windows Server 2012 make managing servers easy

So, let’s take a look at the title of this white paper. Managing the cloud: Making things easy with Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012. I can almost feel the wind from the collective shaking of heads, as cloud sceptics around the country unite. But hold that scepticism at bay for a little while, as I try to explain.

Let’s take two extremes. You have only one server, it’s covered in dust and running 99 percent full: you’re very unlikely to see the point of this assertion. If on the other hand you have several hundred servers (counted physically or virtually) then you probably already get the idea of virtual machine management and process automation, and find it mildly irritating that there’s anyone left out there who doesn’t get the idea.

Diverse opinions
Virtualisation and cloud access present much sharper divides in the audience than the preceding, reassuringly physical architecture ever did. People either get it in an epiphanic flash, or they don’t – and that’s not a verdict on their character or intelligence.

Experience is the touchstone. If you have a good early experience with a simple virtualisation of a cleanly constructed, important, high-visibility server then very likely you will carry on having similar experiences. If, on the other hand, your first virtual machine attempt was a very large, very fragile, shakily-licensed hack liberally punctured by security holes… well, you probably are a cloud sceptic.

Windows Server 2012 is a fourth generation virtual machine host. It is also the result of a relatively calm period, from a developer’s point of view: an enormous world-spanning recession, during which the IT purchaser’s emphasis shifted from leading-edge horsepower competition, to simple survival and cost reduction.

Nobody really expected to set the world on fire in terms of server sales through those years, and as a result this period is an unprecedented opportunity for Microsoft to collect lots of information on what people want to do, what’s possible for them to achieve with a longer-term view of hardware and software developments, and then distil all that down into a range of features included in Windows Server 2012.

If four years seems like a long time to think about such things to a cloud sceptic like you, then consider the companion product which we’ve mentioned in our title here: System Center 2012 is based on the same pool of knowledge, and was released for Windows Server 2008 R2 very early in 2012. Despite this, it’s difficult to consider Server 2012 and System Center 2012 as separate products when talking about management of cloud resources – except in one very important regard (more on that later).

It is equally possible to run Windows Server 2012 as a hypervisor (a host for virtual machines) or as a guest (a virtual machine within some hypervisor, be it Windows or some other architecture). Clever, but slightly daft, people may even get these roles to nest within one another, but this is only a diversionary stunt, a mental trap there to muddy the waters.

Some of the Server 2012 basic features are there to make a better host; others, to make a better guest. Pooling of network connections is definitely a useful host-side addition - better transparency between guests and the host is an apparently arcane, but important, advance. This is worth a quick diversionary explanation.

Early virtual machine architectures made a virtue out of the blackness of the box within which your guest VM runs - the hypervisor host knew as little as possible about what’s happening inside the guests. As the patterns of use of virtual servers became better understood and more widespread, this initial assumption started to break down. These days, the notion of the black-box guest and the unknowing hypervisor has been almost entirely overthrown: and this is where System Center 2012 makes an appearance.

You can just work on your VMs using the RSAT (Remote Server Administration Toolkit), but the complete oversight of both host and guests, and the massively extended abilities to react or shape the consequences of a change of state in a server, is firmly the territory of System Center. It doesn’t really matter how the most important extensions have been achieved (namely via a lot of API calls to Azure services and logical probes to distant entities). What matters is the upshot: with System Center on Server 2012 you can test, start, stop and update remote websites, or run a VM within the Azure cloud.

Do you need to understand the detail of how those inter-cloud APIs work, or what’s involved in relating your Azure instances to your on-premises VMs, to make use of this particular advance? No. Strictly speaking this isn’t a brand-new feature, but it’s in the 2012 set of tools that the threads are drawn together. This is a product set that allows an experienced systems administrator to set users loose on spare compute resources - inside or outside the company LAN’s traditional boundaries, it doesn’t matter. Set up a series of roles and user groups based on Active Directory, and they can start and stop, duplicate or restrict a defined range of server VMs.