The adoption of Windows Vista in corporate environments is probably not as fast as Microsoft had hoped for. The question is, can Windows Server 2008 accelerate Vista adoption after it’s released? This certainly depends on the features that can only be used if you deploy Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista together. In this post, I examine all these features I am aware of.
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A part of this post is based on Microsoft’s article about Vista and Server 2008. During my research, I found a couple of articles in IT magazines that for the most part just rephrased that MS article. This is a pity because Microsoft’s paper is a bit misleading. It often cites Vista features that work together with Server 2008, but will also be supported by Windows XP. One example is the support of Network Access Protection (NAP) which will be available for Windows XP SP3. Of course, if you want to use these features you have to install the corresponding components on XP first, which you can avoid if you already deployed Vista. Other examples are the new RDP client (Remote Desktop Connect 6) and IPv6 support. However, since you can have these features for free on XP machines I don’t count them as arguments for deploying Vista together with Server 2008.
Okay then, here are the features I found thus far that could make Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 a better team.
User interface ^
Vista and Server 2008 share about 70% of their code base. The similarities of these two operating systems are obvious. Even though you usually won’t use Aero on Server 2008, the user interfaces of both operating systems are quite similar. So if you are familiar with Vista, you will find your way on Server 2008 pretty fast. If you only have to deal with one kind of user interface in the future, it will make your work easier.
New core features ^
This is not only applicable to the user interface, but also to many new features. Examples are the new Event Viewer, the Reliability and Performance monitor or the new Task Scheduler. Thus, the learning curve for admins that are familiar with Vista is quite flat as far as the core features are concerned.
Patch management ^
The common code base also affects patch management. That is, you’ll often have the same patches for both operating systems which might reduce the amount of time you need to test them before you deploy them in your network.
OS deployment ^
In my view, the most important new feature of Vista is its new imaging technology. You can clone one and the same image to every kind of hardware. This allows you to create the images in a virtual environment using VMware Workstation or Virtual PC and deploy it to all your PCs regardless of whether they are old or new, desktop or laptop with AMD or Intel CPUs. Windows Server 2008 has the same cloning capabilities. This means that you can rely on just one deployment method for all your machines if you only have to support Vista and Server 2008. OS deployment with Windows XP/2003 works quite different and is much more time consuming. This is especially true if your organization still relies on unattended installations.
Event log forwarding ^
Vista and Server 2008 both support event subscriptions. This feature allows you to subscribe to the event logs of multiple machines. The Event Viewer has a filter which enables you to subscribe to only those events that interest you. If you only have Vista and Server 2008 in your network, then you can monitor the event logs of all your clients and servers on a single machine. It is possible to do that on a Vista machine, but it probably makes more sense to collect all event logs that are important for you on a Windows Server 2008 computer. Of course, you can do this also with third party software such as EventSentry or LogMeister on Windows XP/2003.
Event log structure ^
The new Event Viewer is certainly a nice improvement, but it is still not a match for sophisticated event-log monitoring solutions. But even if you use a third party event log tool, you’ll benefit from the extended logging capabilities of Vista and Server 2008. You probably know that Vista and Server 2008 offer a lot more event logs than Windows XP/2003. This will certainly simplify troubleshooting and also improves security because it will be much easier to stay informed about what is going on in your network. Since the event log structures of Vista and Server 2008 are so similar, it will be much easier, if you only have to deal with their event logs. Event log management can get quite complicated. If you have to monitor the event log of different kinds of operating systems, it will certainly be more time consuming.
Network-performance improvements ^
Both Vista and Server 2008 have a new network stack with a couple of interesting new features. In most cases, these new features only come into play if both parties support them. Since Vista usually connects to a Windows server in a corporate environment, you can only benefit from these improvements if you run Vista and Server 2008 together.
One example is the Receive Window Auto-Tuning feature. Expressed in simple terms, the TCP receive window specifies how much data can be sent by the transmitter before requiring an acknowledgment. If the available bandwidth is high, a larger TCP receive window is possible. Auto-tuning means that the receive window is adjusted automatically to the available bandwidth. Hence, in networks with changing bandwidth you will see an improved average network throughput rate with this feature.
Another example is SMB 2 (Server Message Block). SMB is the application-level protocol that is used in Windows networks for accessing file or print shares. Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 support SMB 2. If a Vista machines connects to Windows Server 2003, it will use the older SMB version and if it is Windows Server 2008, SMB 2 will come into play. SMB 2 has a couple of new features that improve network performance. It allows multiple actions in a single request (reduces the number of round-trips), supports larger buffer sizes (improves performance with large files), and supports “durable file handles” (reduces interruptions in case of short network outages).
XPS support ^
Vista clients can render print jobs locally using the XPS format (XML Paper Specification), Microsoft’s PDF alternative. This reduces the load on your printer server if it supports XPS. I didn’t try this feature yet, but as far I understand it, only Windows Server 2008 supports it and not Windows Server 2003. Please, let me know if you have more information more about this topic. My research about it was not really successful.
AES encrypted Kerberos tickets ^
Windows domains use the Kerberos protocol for authentication. Kerberos supports ticket encryption using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) since version 5, but Microsoft has implemented it only now in Vista and Server 2008. This should improve security in Windows domains. However, AES encryption is only used if client and server run Vista/Server 2008, and if the server that issues the Kerberos tickets, i.e. the KDC (Key Distribution Center), runs Windows Server 2008, too. In all other scenarios, the old method using the weaker encryption method, i.e. RC4 or DES (Data Encryption Standard) is used. More information about this topic can be found in the Active Directory blog.
Heterogeneous environments are more error-prone ^
The last subject is a typical example of how mixed environments with different Windows version can cause troubles. With two different authentication methods, things get more complex and are therefore more error-prone. Another example is the different ways roaming user profiles are handled in Windows Vista/Server 2008 and Windows XP/Server 2003. You will have to invest some extra efforts, if you want to allow your users to logon on different Windows versions.
Organizations moving their whole infrastructure to Vista and Server 2008 will have less administration costs because of the similarities between the operating systems. I remember quite well when we started installing the first Windows 2000 machines. Windows NT and Windows 2000/XP didn’t really fit together. So we wanted to get rid of NT as fast as possible. I think, it won’t be any different with Vista and Server 2008. The more homogenous your network is, the easier it is to manage. Therefore, if you want Server 2008 you’ll also want Vista. Of course, you always have the option to just stick with Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. But to my experience, it is only a matter of time until you discover a must-have feature of Vista or Server 2008 for your environment. And if you start deploying either Vista or Server 2008, you will soon be in a situation where you want to move your complete network to the new versions.
Please, let me know if you are aware of other features that can only be used if Vista and Server 2008 are deployed together. I am also curious about the opinions of the Vista skeptics. Do you believe that you can get some of the above-mentioned features with Windows XP and Windows Server 2003? Are these features important or can you easily do without them?