IT pros in the desktop space haven't been too excited about Windows 8, but with the Windows Server 2012 R2 update, we'll be turning our heads to some changes in Remote Desktop Services.
When I heard Windows 8.1 was only going to include Microsoft's closed-minded versions of the fixes we all wanted to see, I tuned out the rest of the noise surrounding it. Since the biggest change for us appears to be the ability to boot directly to the desktop rather than the Start screen, I stopped paying attention. Under the hood it's Windows. If you have some use case for it, go ahead and use it; otherwise wait until 2020 when Windows 7 SP1 reaches the end of its support life.
There is something worthwhile coming out of this update, but it has nothing to do with Windows 8.1. Windows Server 2012 R2 is also coming out, and though you might have had access to the release-to-manufacturing version through InTune, TechNet or MSDN, it isn't due for general availability until Oct. 18. Windows Server 2012 R2 brings with it some enhancements to Remote Desktop Services (RDS) that are worth taking a look at.
Online data deduplication
This feature existed in Windows Server 2012, but it has now been extended to work with persistent virtual desktops as well as non-persistent. Online data deduplication only works when the desktop images are being sourced from a Server Message Block (SMB) file server. The file server will cache frequently used information so there isn't a hit to the disk every time someone needs to boot their virtual desktop.
The number of organizations using SMB file servers as their VDI back-end storage is probably pretty low, so this isn't going to be a life-altering feature. However, if your environment is small, it could help you out.
Seamless windows enhancements
RemoteApp has been altered a bit to improve performance and make seamless windows look better compared to local applications. Seamless windows is a method of making a remote app look and feel more like a local app to the user. The quality of seamless windows has always been a knock against RemoteApp.
More on RDS in Windows Server 2012
Disabling RDS automatic updates
Should you upgrade to Windows Server 2012?
Quiz: What's new in Windows Server 2012 RDS?
If seamless windows are important to you, you've probably already chosen to go with Citrix XenApp, but Microsoft keeps chipping away at the list of RDS shortcomings. With this update, transparency, live thumbnails and "show window contents while dragging" capabilities have been added.
Microsoft has further enhanced the codecs used to improve compression and bandwidth utilization in its remote display protocol technology. There was already a remarkable increase in RemoteFX's WAN capabilities in Server 2012 over Server 2008, and it's clear Microsoft is still working on this. If they keep this up, they'll be able to deliver Xbox games from the cloud. (Don't think it's not a possibility!).
The virtual graphics processing unit (GPU) that Server 2012 R2 uses for RemoteFX now supports DirectX 11.1 as long as there is a GPU installed in the machine that also supports DX 11.1. As in the past, you don't need a GPU for RemoteFX unless you want the additional capabilities a GPU gives you.
I saved the best for last. Much to the dismay of admins, shadowing capabilities were removed from RDS in Server 2012. Shadowing allows admins to remotely control an RDS session -- for help desk purposes, or anything else.
Its removal from Windows Server 2012 was attributed to changes in the way the window manager and graphics pipeline architecture work (Metro strikes again?). It was a sneak attack on admins that would stand up a Server 2012 environment only to find a feature they had grown used to was no longer there. That changed with Server 2012 R2, and hopefully shadowing is back for good this time!
Aside from shadowing, none of the new updates are particularly earth-shattering. Frankly, Microsoft shouldn't even be high-fived for returning shadowing because it should never have left. Nonetheless, between that, the RemoteFX enhancements and the changes to RemoteApp, Server 2012 R2 RDS is applicable in more use cases than ever.
Add to that the Windows 8.1-style Start menu button (where a right-click presents you with a rudimentary Start Menu), and the overall experience of managing Windows servers is inching its way toward what we've always hoped for.