A Systems Engineer Says Farewell to 2003

I remember way back in the day when saber-toothed printers and Windows NT 4.0 servers hunted on the plains. It was a heady time, full of opportunity and wonder for admins and IT organizations. We were mystic gurus, balancing our resource domains and Technet CD's against the incoming tide of display drivers and WINS replication partners. It was in those times that I earned my MCP+I and MCSE, and things were good.

Then came Windows 2000, and the world all of a sudden seemed a little simpler, with NTFS improvements, single unified domains for resources AND users, Distributed File Systems, and modem drivers that didn't need advanced degrees to install. It was GOOD, and yet some held out. "My Windows NT 4.0 systems are still running", they would say. "Plug and play? More like plug and pray." Common refrains, both, but the world soldiered on, and progress brought Windows 2000's improvements into production environments, and the NT4asaurus began to die out.

Windows 2003 proved the death-knell, with leery IT shops waiting a full OS level before committing to modernizing their old Domains and infrastructures. And it was amazing. Windows 2003 was stable, it was fast, it wasn't completely alien to navigate, and all the promises of Windows 2000 were finally and fully realized. The mystic gurus of the olden era could still run their impressive multi-page VB scripts and DOS commands, but just about everything could be handled via GUI.

Windows 2003 was so good, in fact, that most of us just assumed it was sentient and could take care of itself, and retired for a pint. Some never returned, especially when 2008 turned out to be a confusing disappointment, and Microsoft expected money to upgrade from 2008 to 2008R2. And what's all this Powershell guff? My VB scripts work just fine, thankyouverymuch! Read-only domain controllers, forced schema extensions, and some weird new web-interface for AD? No thanks.

Fast-forward to Windows 2012 (and R2), an even-more Spartan looking OS built to look like the much-reviled Windows 8 interface. What could there possibly be to love about this?

At first (still clutching my Windows NT 4.0 pearls), I too was skeptical. "Another year, another disappointing OS release. Yawn." And I'll admit my first foray into deploying it was...less than perfect. But three things have pushed me WAY over the edge into massive excitement for Windows 2012 R2:

  1. 1. Server Manager (yes, really)

  2. All that Powershell guff

  3. Claims-based authentication and authorization

I'll address Server Manager today, and come back to Powershell and claims later.

Windows 2012's Server Manager.

Remember when 2003 introduced this interstitial application? The first thing we all did was close it, because thankyouverymuch I already know how to run a server. Then it came back on the next reboot, and we promptly all told it not to bother us EVER again. This was the right thing to do, because the program did nothing of value.

Windows 2008's Server Manager was a major improvement, but it got overlooked because of its predecessor. Microsoft moved "Add Windows Features" into Server Manager and gave a glimpse into server health management through the interface, as well as (weirdly) relocating the IE Enhanced Security Configuration checkbox.

Windows 2012's Server Manager gives all of that and the ability to tie it to multiple systems at once, providing an out-of-the-box server health dashboard for as many systems as you care to add. Best of all, it allows you to group those servers as you see fit, so health updates don't just turn your whole monitoring system into a flashing red Christmas tree.

That confusing rejiggering of "Add roles and services" works really well in this scenario, too, as you can now click on remote servers and add roles. My first bold foray into this lead to the epiphanic experience of deploying new domain controllers without ever logging on to them.

And the creme de la creme feature in Windows 2012's server manager? Best Practices Analyzer. It's really difficult to oversell this, but the absolute most annoying thing to be asked after YEARS of running servers in data centers is "are we following best practices?" That question is fraught with peril, as "best practices" seems to be an ever-moving target that IT managers LOVE touting. Well worry no more, because no longer will you spend countless hours scouring Technet articles and searching for signs of supercession: Server Manager will tell you with 1 click if you're following best practices. And here's a secret: you're not. You never will be. Best practice says to turn the server off and go home. But while you will never get that score up to 100%, you can tell the BPA that some of the checks are irrelevant to your needs. And it will then report that you are, in fact, 100% compliant.

Windows 2012's Server Manager takes a whole lot of guess-work out of the management of the data center. It centralizes the administration of most infrastructure tasks by incorporating MMC functionality, it allows aggregation and monitoring of multiple servers (including Windows 2008, with a bit of work) in logical groups based on your specific needs, it even throws in Event Viewer for good measure, pointed directly at the server or service you're currently monitoring.

It is a good thing.