In-Depth

Inside System Center 2012 SP1: What's New

Improvements include extended OS compatibility, upgrades to Data Protection Manager and a boost in virtualization performance, along with support for the latest Hyper-V release.

When Microsoft announced the first service pack for System Center 2012 last summer, many thought it was all about supporting Windows Server 2012. But this service pack includes far more, including upgrades to Data Protection Manager (DPM), improved support for virtualization and a large number of enhancements to System Center Operations Manager and System Center Configuration Manager. Redmond doesn't always do a deep dive on service packs, but with so many additions to the flagship Microsoft systems management platform, it seemed appropriate to give System Center 2012 SP1 a test-drive. I'll outline new capabilities coming to System Center 2012 when the service pack, now in beta, ships early this year.

Expanded Compatibility
Arguably the most important enhancement is added compatibility with previously unsupported OSes and products. In the case of System Center Configuration Manager 2012, for example, Microsoft has added support for Windows Server 2012, Windows 8 and SQL Server 2012.

Furthermore, Microsoft now supports clients on servers running Linux and Unix, as well as Apple Macintosh computers. These clients allow for hardware inventory collection and software deployment. The Mac client also lets IT manage compliance-related settings.

System Center Data Protection Manager
Microsoft has improved performance and added support for Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V in System Center 2012 SP1 DPM. Most of the performance improvements apply to backups of Cluster Shared Volumes (CSV). DPM 2012 SP1 introduces CSV 2.0 support, which means up to a 90 percent improvement in the performance of express full backups. Furthermore, there's no longer a difference in performance between backing up owner nodes and non-owner nodes.

Microsoft also made a number of improvements that allow DPM 2012 SP1 to work seamlessly with live migrations. A live migration refers to the act of moving a running VM from one Hyper-V host server to another. Although live migrations have historically made backups of VMs more difficult, DPM 2012 SP1 is designed to continuously protect VMs even when migrated. This applies to migrations within a cluster, or migrations between a Hyper-V cluster and a standalone Hyper-V host server.

When protecting VMs, the service pack for DPM will enable IT pros to exclude VM pagefiles from incremental backups. This simple modification goes a long way toward improving backup efficiency because pagefile contents tend to change rapidly. Attempting to include a pagefile in a backup can increase the virtualization host's workload while also unnecessarily consuming excessive storage space on the backup target.

With the added support for Windows 8, IT pros who deploy the new OS will notice improvements in how volumes are duplicated. Such volumes can be backed up in a way that maintains the file system's integrity, but without consuming excessive space on the backup media.

Although many of the changes Microsoft has made to DPM 2012 SP1 are specifically geared toward backing up next-generation OSes, some of the changes are intended to make working with DPM 2012 SP1 easier and more practical. For starters, DPM 2012 SP1 provides for centralized management of all of your DPM servers, and those servers can share a single SQL Server instance.

Another welcome improvement is support for certificate-based authentication for computers that aren't joined to a domain or that are joined to an un-trusted domain. In the past, administrators would have had to jump through several hoops if they wanted to back up data that was stored on these types of machines. The support for certificate-based authentication now makes it almost as easy to backup non-domain members as it is to back up computers within the local Active Directory forest.

System Center Virtual Machine Manager
The vast majority of new features in System Center 2012 SP1 for Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) are related to Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V.

One of the most important updated VMM features is support for the new VHDX virtual hard disk format. VHDX is a new type of virtual hard disk that's supported by Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V. This type of virtual hard disk can be up to 64TB in size and is optimized for use on physical hard disks with large sector sizes.

Prior to the first service pack, VMM 2012 included options to create small or large virtual hard disks in VHD format. This option still exists, but Microsoft has added the option to create small or large virtual hard disks in VHDX format. In addition, VMM 2012 SP1 allows legacy VHD-based virtual hard disks to be converted to VHDX.

VMM also provides some new options for migrating VMs. The first option is to perform a live migration. Although live migration capabilities have existed for quite some time, there are some new options. Previously it was only possible to live migrate VMs within a Hyper-V cluster.

Hyper-V host-cluster migration is still supported, but it's also possible to live migrate VMs between two standalone Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V hosts. In order to accomplish this, however, the VM components (configuration files, virtual hard disks and checkpoints) must be stored on a Server Message Block (SMB) 3.0 file share. SMB storage is also supported for live migrating VMs within a Hyper-V host cluster.

The next type of migration supported by VMM 2012 SP1 is known as live virtual system migration, or live VSM. This is used to live migrate VMs between two standalone Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V hosts or within a host cluster. What makes this type of migration different from a typical live migration is that SMB storage isn't required. In fact, if you're migrating a VM from one standalone host to another, then the VM storage can't be visible to the destination host. If, on the other hand, the migration is occurring within a Hyper-V host cluster, then SMB 3.0 storage and CSV are both supported.

The third type of migration supported by VMM 2012 SP1 is a live storage migration. When you perform a live storage migration, only the VM storage is moved. In the case of standalone Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V hosts, storage can be transferred between two different SMB 3.0 file shares -- between local disks or between a local disk and an SMB 3.0 file share. In the case of a Hyper-V host cluster, storage migrations can occur between CSVs, SMB 3.0 file shares, or between a CSV and an SMB 3.0 file share.

System Center Operations Manager
Many of the enhancements Microsoft added in Operations Manager 2012 SP1 are geared toward developers. However, there are some improvements that administrators will also find beneficial. For example, Microsoft has included some new management packs for Windows Server 2012 and for IIS 8.

Probably the most-welcome additions to Operations Manager are the 360 .NET Application Monitoring Dashboards. The basic idea is that admins can monitor .NET applications on several different levels. The dashboards allow administrators to see an aggregate view of an application's health based on the various tiers at which the application is monitored. The 360 .NET Application Monitoring Dashboards provide application health information based on Web Application Availability Monitoring, the Global Services Monitor and .NET Application Performance Monitoring. These dashboards provide full drill-down capabilities that allow you to gain valuable insight into the nature of issues that might be detected.

System Center Configuration Manager
Microsoft has made a staggering number of enhancements to Configuration Manager in System Center 2012 SP1. Some of these enhancements affect the overall operation of the product. For example, you can now generate e-mail alerts based on nearly all of the product's features. Likewise, System Center 2012 SP1 contains full support for operating Configuration Manager through Windows PowerShell.

As noted, Microsoft has added client support to Configuration Manager for Apple OS X and Unix and Linux servers. Even so, Configuration Manager has primarily served as a tool for managing Windows environments. As such, Microsoft has made some improvements to the way Windows clients are supported.

One such improvement is support for Always On, Always Connected-capable devices running Windows 8. The client is able to tell whether the device is plugged in or whether it's running on battery power, as well as the amount of battery power remaining. These factors are used in making decisions about whether to perform management operations against the client now, or if those tasks should be postponed until the device is plugged in.

There are a number of other states the client can detect with Always On, Always Connected devices. For instance, the client can tell if networking is enabled, if the device is in idle mode and if a metered Internet connection is being used. However, in order for Always On, Always Connected support to be enabled, the client must be running Windows 8 and it must be equipped with an x86 or x64 CPU. Windows RT devices are not supported.

Another noteworthy feature for Windows 8 clients is support for metered connections. An administrator can control how Configuration Manager communicates with clients that are connected over a metered Internet connection. The administrator can allow or block client communications, or he can limit communications so the client only talks to Configuration Manager under certain circumstances. For example, an administrator might choose to allow communications over a metered connection if the installation deadline is reached for a required software deployment, but not for other types of software deployments.

Scratching the Surface
System Center 2012 SP1 offers numerous improvements and enhancements to the System Center 2012 product line. This overview just scratches the surface -- for a comprehensive list of service pack features, check out "What's New in System Center 2012 SP1" on TechNet.

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