Deduplication in Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Yesterday, I posted with a quasi-rant about Windows Server 2012 Essentials Storage Pools and the inability to remove a disk in a sensible non-destructive manner. At the end of that post, I eluded to the lack of the Primary Data Deduplication feature in Windows Server 2012 Essentials which got me thinking about it more, so I went of on an internet duck hunt to find the solution.

Firstly, I found this thread (http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/winserveressentials/thread/4288f259-cf87-4bd6-bf9f-babfe26b5a69) on the TechNet forums in which an MVP highlights a bug which was filed on Microsoft Connect during the beta stages over the lack of deduplication. The bug was closed by Microsoft with a status of ‘Postponed’ and a message that it was a business decision to remove the feature.

Sad, but true when the people being targeted with Essentials are the people potentially wanting and needing it most, but I guess the reason probably lies in the realms of supportability and a degree of knowledge gap in the home and small business sectors to understand the feature.

Luckily for me, in another search, I found this article (http://forums.mydigitallife.info/archive/index.php/t-34417.html) at My Digital Life where some nefarious user has managed to extract the .cab files from a Windows Server 2012 Standard installation required to allow DISM to install the feature. While the post is targeted at Windows 8 64-bit users to use dedup on their desktop machines, the process works equally well for Windows Server 2012 Essentials, if not better as you can also use the GUI to drive the configuration.

I don’t want to be the one in breach of copyright infringement or breach of terms of service with Microsoft, so I’m not going to link to the .7z file provided on My Digital Life, so download it from them, sorry.

Download the file and extract it to a location on the server. Once extracted, open an elevated command prompt, change the directory context of the prompt to your extracted .7z folder and enter the following command:
dism /Online /Add-Package /PackagePath:Microsoft-Windows-VdsInterop-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~~6.2.9200.16384.cab /PackagePath:Microsoft-Windows-VdsInterop-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~en-US~6.2.9200.16384.cab /packagepath:Microsoft-Windows-FileServer-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~~6.2.9200.16384.cab /PackagePath:Microsoft-Windows-FileServer-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~en-US~6.2.9200.16384.cab /packagepath:Microsoft-Windows-Dedup-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~~6.2.9200.16384.cab /PackagePath:Microsoft-Windows-Dedup-Package~31bf3856ad364e35~amd64~en-US~6.2.9200.16384.cab

If DISM fails or gives you any errors, then the most likely cause is that you didn’t use an elevated command prompt. The next likely cause is that you aren’t in the correct working directory so check that too.

Once all of the packages are imported okay, enter the second command:
dism /Online /Enable-Feature /FeatureName:Dedup-Core /All

No restart is required for the import of the packages or the enabling of the feature, so everything can be done online.

Once the feature is enabled, head over to Server Manager to get things started. Server Manager isn’t pinned to the server Start Screen by default, so from the Start Screen type Server Manager and it will appear in the in-line search results.

From Server Manager, select File and Storage Services from the left pane, and then select Volumes from the sub-options.

As you will see in the screenshot, I’ve already enabled dedup on the volume on this test Windows Server 2012 Essentials VM of mine and I’ve saved space  by virtue of the fact that I’ve created two data folders with identical data in each folder.

For you to configure your volumes, right click the volume you want to setup and select the Configure Data Deduplication option. On the options screen, first, tick the box to enable the feature. Once selected, you have options for age of files to include in Deduplication and types of file to exclude. For my usage at home, I am setting the age to 0 days which includes all files regardless of age, and I am choosing to not exclude any file types as I want maximum savings.

The final step is at the bottom of the dialog, Set Deduplication Schedule. This allows you to configure when optimization tasks occur and whether to use background optimization during idle periods of disk access. I chose to enable both of these and I have left the default time of 0145hrs in place.

Once you click OK and then OK again on the initial dialog, you have just enabled dedup on that volume. Repeat the process for any volumes you are interested in and job done for you. After this, the server has the hard task of calculating all the savings and the process of actually creating the metadata links to physical blocks on the disk and marking the space occupied by duplicate blocks on the disk as free space. This process is very CPU and memory heavy and depending on the size of your dataset can and will take a long time to run.

I am just about to kick off a manual task on my live Essentials server at home, so once the results are in, I will be posting here to report my savings and also the time taken, but I’m not expecting this to come in anytime within the next day or so.

 

The Problem with Storage Spaces

As you may well have gathered from a number of my previous posts about Windows Server 2012 and Storage Pools, I was intending on using them for my home server rebuild, and I am indeed using them, however I have neglected to post anything showing the new server (although I will change that shortly).

I ran into a problem with Storage Pools today which I think quite frankly blows. I got myself a new Western Digital 3TB Red drive to try out. The plan is to replace all of my existing six 2TB Western Digital Green drives with these for a number of reasons including greater bang for buck on power consumption, increased IOPS, cooler running temperature and improved reliability.

Not wanting to keep a mixture of Green and Red drives for very long, I proceeded to remove one of the drives from the pool to replace with a Red drive. The Storage Pool refused to remove it as a Simple non-redundant Storage Space was being hosted on this drive.

Problem 1:  Storage Spaces cannot be converted between Simple, Mirror or Parity. Once they are created, they are created. My only option for this was to create a new temporary Space marked as Mirror and copy the data from the Simple so that I could delete it. Once deleted, I tried a second attempt to remove the drive and I got an error that I needed to add another drive to the pool as there was insufficient capacity.

I’m sorry, what?

Problem 2: I have six 2TB drives in an uber-pool. I am currently less than half of it, so removing the drive should be no problem. I tried this a few more times and each time I got the same error that I would need to add more capacity to the pool before I would be able to remove the drive, which I know to be cobblers.

In the end, I just pulled the disk from the server and let the Storage Pool have a cry about the missing disk. From here, I marked the disk for removal to allow Windows to think that the disk was failed and that it was never coming back. This worked although is time consuming as it forces all Mirror and Parity virtual disks to enter a repairing state, copying blocks to remaining disks in the pool to keep up the protection level.

This brings me softly onto another point which is more of a beef.

Beef 1: One of the tricks of Windows Server 2012 was deduplication. Anyone familiar with Windows Server 2012 will know that Storage Pools and deduplication do work together, but in Essentials, deduplication is absent, missing, not there. The feature is completely missing from any of the Server Manager interfaces and from PowerShell, the command Get-Command -Module Dedup* returns nothing.

Why is it missing from Essentials? Essentials is the release of Windows Server 2012 targeted at SMB/SME and pro-home customers, the customers most likely to be storing a lot of data on a tight budget, so why strip out the feature that they will probably be highly interested in, in Windows Server 2012.

I really hope that Microsoft get enough complaints from customers of Essentials to release a Feature Update to re-add the support for deduplication.

With this done,

Azure Online Backup Service Outage

So I came home today to check up on my trusty Essentials 2012 server and I was confused to see on the Online Backup tab for my free six month trial of Azure Online Backup reported absolutely nothing, no data, no stats or anything. I closed the Dashboard and headed over to the Azure Online Backup MMC console to see some more ‘direct’ information. Again, nothing.

I logged into the Azure Online Backup Portal to check up on my account to make sure that my trial hadn’t accidently been suspended or cancelled for some reason and spotted this:

Uh oh. Looks like the whole worldwide Azure Online Backup service is down, so this will be effecting Server 2012 Essentials, System Center DPM 2012 SP1 as well as conventional Azure Online Backup customers. Hopefully the service gets restored okay without anyone having to re-register their servers.

 

Active Directory and the Case of the Failed BitLocker Recovery Key Archive

This is an issue I came across this evening at home (yes, just to reiterate, home), however the issue applies equally to my workplace as we encounter the same issue there.

One of the laptops in my house incorporates a TPM Module which I take advantage of to BitLocker encrypt the hard disk and using the TPM and a PIN. This gives me peace of mind as it’s the laptop used by my wife who although doesn’t currently will likely start to take her device out on the road when studying at university.

Historically, I have used the Save to File method of storing the recovery key, storing the key both on our home server and on my SkyDrive account for protection, but as of our new Windows Server 2012 Essentials environment, I wanted to take advantage of Active Directory and configure the clients to automatically archive the keys to there.

The key to beginning this process is to download an .exe file from Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=13432). I’m not going to explain here how to extend the AD Schema or modify the domain ACL for this all to work as that is all explained in the Microsoft document.

Following the instructions, I created a GPO which applied both the Trusted Platform Module Services Computer Configuration Setting for Turn on TPM Backup to Active Directory Domain Services and also the setting for BitLocker Drive Encryption Store Computer Configuration Setting for Store BitLocker Recovery Information in Active Directory Domain Services.

After allowing the machine to pickup the GPO and a restart to be sure, I enabled BitLocker and I realised that after verification in AD, nothing was being backed up. Strange I thought, as this matches a problem in the office at work however we had attributed this problem at work to a potential issue with our AD security ACEs, but at home, this is a brand new Windows Server 2012 with previously untouched ACEs out of the OOBE.

After scratching my head a little and a bit more poking around in Group Policy, I clocked it. The settings defined in the documentation are for Windows Vista. Windows 7 and Windows 8 clients rely on a different set of Group Policy Computer Configuration settings.

These new settings give you far more granular control of BitLocker than the Windows Vista settings did, so much so, that Microsoft elected that the Windows Vista settings would simply not apply to Windows 7 or 8 and that the new settings needed to be used.

You can find the new settings in Computer Configuration > Administrative Tools > Windows Components > BitLocker Drive Encryption. The settings in the root of this GPO hive are the existing Vista settings. The new Windows 7 and Windows 8 settings live in the three child portions: Fixed, Operating System and Removable Drives.

Each area gives you specific, granular control over how BitLocker affects these volumes, including whether to store the key in AD DS, whether to allow a user to configure a PIN or just to use the TPM and probably the best option second to enabling AD DS archive in my opinion is whether to allow the user to select or whether to mandate that the entire drive or only the used space is encrypted. The Operating System Drives portion gives you the most options and will likely be the one people want to configure most as this is ultimately what determines the behaviour when booting your computer.

I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s a lot of new settings here over Vista and that this gives you much greater flexibility and control over the settings, but with great power comes great responsibility. Make sure you read the effects and impact of each setting clearly and that you test your configuration and if possible, backup any data on any machines which you are testing BitLocker GPOs against in the event that the key isn’t archived to AD DS and that you enter a situation where you need, but don’t have that recovery key available.

Media Center Auto-Start on Windows 8

With my backend server update to Windows Server 2012, I was keen to get my media front-end up to Windows 8 also to take advantage of SMB 3.0 for improved performance of opening and accessing the media stored on the server. I rebuilt the front-end about two weeks ago, taking advantage of the free Media Pack upgrade prior January 31st. I had already tested the components I use to make my media center tick including Shark007 Codec Pack, MyMovies and MediaControl so I knew all was good.

After installing Windows, the software needed and configuring auto-login for the media center service account, I proceeded to copy the shortcut I used in Windows 7 to launch the Media Center application into the Startup start menu group for the account. In Windows 8, the Startup group can be found in %AppData%MicrosoftWindowsStart MenuProgrmsStart-Up. With the shortcut added, I restarted the machine to test the result.

In Windows 8, to help attract people to the new Start Screen, the Start Screen automatically opens at login of any account. What I found was that this screen would pop over the Windows Media Center application which is hardly seamless for a keyboard and mouse free front-end. Using the remote, I clicked the Desktop tile on the Start Screen and Media Center appeared as expected, but I couldn’t control it. The reason was that although the application was now visible, it didn’t have focus so any inputs were ignored. Attaching a mouse to the machine and clicking anywhere in the Media Center interface restored focus but short of writing an AutoIt macro to do that for me (which is a nasty hack) this isn’t what I wanted or needed.

Luckily, a colleague pointed me in the direction of a Group Policy setting used sometimes in Remote Desktop Services or kiosk computer scenarios where the Explorer interface is hidden and a default application launched in it’s place. The setting still existed in Windows 8, so I gave it a shot and guess what? It works perfectly. I’m in the fortunate position that I am using Windows Server 2012 Essentials in a domain scenario so I was able to apply the Group Policy from the server, however this fix will work equally well for a non-domain scenario.

The policy setting can be found under User Settings > Administrative Templates > System. The setting is named Custom User Interface.

Enable the setting and specify the name of the application you want to launch. In my case, it is %WinDir%eHomeeShell.exe /nostartupanimation /mediamode.

It’s highly recommended to use environment variables here and not local paths if you can as I have done above. This will also work for Windows XP, Vista and 7 along with working for XBMC, Plex and other media clients you may use besides Windows Media Center. The byproduct of this is that startup performance is actually improved as you are no longer waiting for the Explorer shell interface to launch, and it prevents a few processes from running on the machine, giving you a little more CPU and Memory available.

As you will see, I use a couple of switches with my Windows Media Center startup to control the behaviour of it, which I would also recommend. These two switches stop the animation of the Media Center logo upon startup which I find saves about a second in load times and the second enters Media Mode. In this mode, Media Center’s close and minimize buttons are disabled causing Media Center to always run full screen and cannot be closed unless you use the manual Exit Media Mode option in the menu.

In the next couple of days, I’ll try and get a YouTube video up demonstrating the process for configuring this setting both via Windows Server 2012 Essentials domain and locally using the Local Group Policy Editor.