Here I was, sitting in Madrid at TechEd Europe, minding my own business, when I saw that Microsoft had released to the wild the first public preview of Windows Server 2012 R2. I had seen information about it at TechEd North America in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, so I was interested in getting my hands on it. Since I was at that mercy of conference and hotel Internet I figured there was no chance that I was actually going to be able to download the nearly 4 GB ISO file. Normally I would think I'd have a better chance of getting my payout from that Nigerian Prince than download a 4 GB at a technical conference. Somewhere the Internet gods were smiling down on me though because I was able to get it downloaded without much hassle. I can only assume that at the same time some poor presenter was in the next room trying furiously to do a demo of Office365 only to find his Internet connection was dead. Sorry 'bout that. J
This blog post isn't going to be very heavy with technical information. It's just some screenshots of the new OS and some thoughts I have on it. Even though I'm a SharePoint guy, I have to be very familiar with its cast of supporting characters. Right after Windows Server 2012 came out I made the painful decision to build all of my SharePoint 2013 VMs on it. It was rough for the first couple of weeks. There was much frustration and swearing, followed by begging and crying. After I finally figured out where things were in the UI it wasn't too bad. It forced me to learn the Windows 8, or "Modern" UI which has been handy. I decided to take the same plunge with Windows Server 2012 R2 to get comfortable with it.
The first notable change in the install is that Server Core is the default. For several years Microsoft has focusing more and more on security, and this is part of that initiative. Fewer things running means fewer attack vectors. It also means fewer reboots because of fewer Windows patches. You can still pick the "Server with GUI" option and remove the GUI later with the PowerShell command Remove-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Mgmt-Infra. This works in Windows 2012 as well.
The next thing I noticed is that they changed the startup animation. I always enjoy seeing what new things they come up with. With Windows 2012 R2 it's an adorable fish. I shall call him Clancy.
The installation process is pretty smooth and isn't a whole lot different than Windows 2012. It does get a bit different once the OS actually boots up.
Windows Server 2012 R2 is the server version of Windows 8.1. Because of that it gets all of the much touted UI improvements that Windows 8.1 will enjoy. In the screen shot above we see that it gets a Start Button. It's important to note we get a Start Button, but not a Start Menu. When you click the Start Button is doesn't bring up a menu like it has since Windows 95. Instead it takes you back to the Start screen. While it's not what we're used to, it's a welcome improvement. We can also choose to boot to desktop, sync the desktop and Start Screen backgrounds and a whole lot more in the Navigation options. I assume we'll also have the option of removing the new Start Button completely but I couldn't find it.
The Start Screen has some navigation improvements as well. It has an arrow you can click that takes you to the All apps view. You don't need to know the secret Windows key stroke or the hidden three pixels to click to get to all of your apps.
The new arrow on the Start Screen is a much needed addition to the Modern UI. The Modern UI isn't so terrible if you know what you're doing, but getting to the point where you know what you're doing is impossible. Since the UI is so minimal there's just no way to figure things out. Little UI tweaks like the new arrow give new users a chance to figure the new UI out.
When you click new down arrow you're taken to the All Apps view that required a Sherpa guide to help you find it in Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. It has a corresponding up arrow to get you back to the Start Screen. Another improvement is that you can sort the order your apps are displayed in. In Windows 8/2012 you only got that option once you hit a certain threshold of installed apps. Now it's present in the UI all the time.
I noticed two other improvements to the Start Screen. The first is the Resize button. You could resize tiles in Windows 8/2012 but you had to do it by pulling on the edges, which could be tough. In Windows Server 2012 RT if you right click on a tile you get a Resize option on the bottom and you can resize the tile based on the sizes it supports. You can also see a "Name Group" box above the tiles. This allows us to give our tile groupings meaningful names. Like Resize, this option already existed in Windows 2012/8, but finding it and using it was difficult. Now it's easy to discover and use this function.
The last thing I wanted to mention relates to PowerShell. Windows Server 2012 shipped with PowerShell v3 which introduced the ability to have the help information for cmdlets updated from the Internet. Because that functionality not all the cmdlets have full or even any help information. This is especially the case with a product in the works, like an OS preview. So before you start noodling around in PowerShell don't forget to run Update-Help before you dig in.
I was pretty anxious to test this out when I saw the first tweet that this was all out. My first thought was to install it on a Cloud Server at Rackspace. I'm currently in Madrid for TechEd Europe so I don't have all my regular resources available. But since I have a Cloud Server account at Rackspace I have all the servers I need as long as I have an Internet connection. Rackspace doesn't currently have a Windows 2012 R2 Preview image (though they assure me they're already working on it) so instead I created a Windows Server 2012 image and upgraded it instead. I simply downloaded the Windows Server 2012 R2 Preview ISO to my Cloud Server. Then I mounted the ISO file and copied its contents into C:\install. I ran the setup.exe and let it go from there.
There were a couple of hitches though that I wanted to mention. First, I had to run Windows Update on my server to get a couple of patches. Without that the install seemed to hang at "Checking Compatibility" phase. A reboot followed by some patching cleared that up. Also, my network settings didn't carry over after the upgrade, so I could no longer RDP into my newly upgrade server. For shame. Fortunately Rackspace has a "Connect via Terminal" option. I used that to log in to my server and put the Network settings back in. After that it was right as rain. If you do decide to go this route, get the output of ipconfig /all in Windows 20212 before you do the upgrade.
A word of caution with all this, Rackspace DOES NOT SUPPORT Windows Server 2012 R2 Preview on their cloud servers, yet. If you choose to test it out on a Cloud Server make sure you do it on one you don't care about. If you break your Cloud Server there's a good chance that Rackspace won't be able to fix it. We're a smart bunch, but we haven't had a chance to get up to speed yet on Windows 2012 R2.
While I'm testing out the current wave of preview products; Windows Server 2012 R2, SQL Server 2014, and System Center I'll blog my adventures.