As predicted two months ago, Microsoft has indeed signed off on its beta versions of Windows 8 and Windows Server 8 but has chosen to label the former as a so-called Consumer Preview. That name is incorrect, however—this prerelease milestone of Microsoft’s next client OS is really aimed at technical users and, yes, you, the IT pro. You’re going to want to get it, and test it, as soon as possible. And that’s perhaps even truer of the Server 8 Beta, which appears to be more mature.

Downloading and Installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview and Server 8 Beta

With the Consumer Preview, Microsoft is offering up Windows 8 via a variety of download and installation methods. End users hoping to install Windows 8 over an existing Windows 7 installation—as a clean installation, in-place upgrade, or migration—might want to check out the new web-based installer. Microsoft expects that many consumers who would normally purchase a boxed copy of Windows 8 will choose this web-based route. It actually offers some key advantages over a more traditional media-based installation. For example, the product key is encoded into the download and already filled out in Setup. And it integrates two separate tools, the Upgrade Advisor and Windows Easy Transfer, for a far more seamless, and simple, experience.

Of course, most people reading this are going to want a traditional ISO download, which can be installed easily in a new virtual machine (VM) or burned to DVD or USB media for installation on physical machines. Microsoft is offering the Consumer Preview in this format as well, in separate 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) versions, at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview ISO images website and at TechNet and MSDN. For these versions, be sure to make a note of the product key Microsoft provides, because Setup will ask for it, and unlike with Windows 7 and Vista, you can’t skip that step. The downloads come in at roughly 2.5GB in size for the 32-bit version and 3.3GB for the 64-bit one. And what the heck, here’s some more installation advice: Get the 32-bit version for VMs. It performs much faster.

The Windows Server 8 Beta is available for download from the Microsoft Server and Cloud Platform website. This equates to the Datacenter SKU and is 64-bit only, in keeping with Microsoft’s previous decision to move to 64-bit only server OSs. But you have a choice of ISO (3.5GB) and VHD (virtual hard drive, 2.5GB) formats this time around, the latter of which is, of course, well-suited for Hyper-V, Virtual PC, or other compatible virtualization environments.

Both OSs installed flawlessly on virtually (ahem) everything I threw at them. And Windows 8 even installed on a Windows XP–class netbook, though it couldn’t run any of the new Metro-style apps, which require a resolution of at least 1024 × 768. And although Server 8 has some fairly modern chipset requirements for Hyper-V, supposedly, I was surprised to see it easily enabled on a range of hardware devices, including a fairly low-end micro server and a Core 2 Duo–based desktop I’ve requisitioned for a test server.

If you do step through Setup manually, you’ll find the process is very quick for both, about 15 minutes tops if you’re babysitting it. Server 8 defaults to a Server Core installation if you’re not paying attention; you can enable the full GUI, though, which is probably a good idea for testing purposes.

What to Test: Windows 8 Consumer Preview

I’ve written an almost embarrassing amount of Windows 8 Consumer Preview content on the SuperSite for Windows, so rather than reiterate any of it here, I’ll direct you to my Windows 8 landing page, which features well over 40 Consumer Preview articles (and counting). Also see my article "8 Days a Week: The Consumer Preview Arrives!," which is a decent overview of some of that content, and to the separate high-level overview of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview I wrote for this issue of Windows IT Pro.

Regardless of what you read and when, the first time you sit down and actually use Windows 8, you’re going to run into a single, unavoidable disconnect: that Windows 8 doesn’t offer up a single, cohesive UI that works equally well on all PC types. Instead, it offers up two: a Metro-style UI I’ll just call Metro, and the traditional Windows desktop. They run side-by-side, basically, but there’s little doubt that the desktop is subservient to Metro.

There’s no real choice about which to use, either. Those with traditional PCs—desktops, laptops—will stick mostly to the desktop. Those with next-generation tablets and, soon, hybrid PCs, will stick largely to Metro. What that means to you is that, for most users, for the foreseeable future, Windows 8 will work much like Windows 7. There are a few small exceptions—the Start button has been replaced by a Start tip that works consistently between the two UIs, for example—but for the most part, if it works in Windows 7, it works—and in the same way—in Windows 8.

But there are improvements. And it might be helpful to understand what’s going on here from a business perspective and call out a few features you should look at.

Microsoft first implemented Windows Defender in Windows Vista, but it gets a major update in Windows 8 and now offers full antivirus functionality in addition to its previous anti-malware duties. This means that many environments might be able to get away without a third-party security solution, but you’ll want to test that. (Note that Windows Defender is now essentially a basic version of Microsoft Forefront Client Security.)

For very modern hardware with UEFI firmware, you can now take advantage of two security features: Secure Boot and Measured Boot, which prevent rootkit-style malware from starting before Windows boots and validate the PC's integrity against a remote service, respectively.

Microsoft first provided SmartScreen malicious download protection in Internet Explorer 9, but in Windows 8 it’s an (optional) feature for the Windows shell as well, meaning you can protect PCs against malicious software that arrives via other browsers or perhaps other means, like a USB memory stick.

The best IT pro feature, arguably, isn’t ready yet. It’s called Windows To Go and will let you boot and run a dedicated Windows 8 environment using a USB memory stick (or hard drive; it must be at least 32GB in size). This will be a very interesting solution for people who want to travel really lightly between branch offices, educational institutions, and other lab scenarios, and for temporary workers. I’m told there’s a way to hack a Windows To Go device together using the Consumer Preview and the Windows deployment tools, but my efforts have been time-consuming wastes of time thus far. Microsoft tells me this feature will be fully implemented and available for testing by the next milestone, however.

Finally, I should at least mention that Microsoft is obviously moving to a future of full screen, Metro-style apps, and while it might be hard to imagine why this would be useful in the short term, consider that not all users need to be tethered to a big screen with a keyboard and mouse, and that many can get real work done with a simple tablet device and, perhaps, a handful of Metro-style LOB apps. Metro might be controversial, but it also offers a modern runtime environment and modern APIs for developers. It’s something to consider.

What to Test: Windows Server 8 Beta

I’ve written considerably less about the Windows Server 8 Beta so far, but the reason is simple: This product was better-understood at the Developer Preview milestone, and what we see at beta is basically just a formalization and maturation of what was previously just promise. Server 8 is a major release of Windows Server that recasts this product as a true, next-generation server, where the admin or IT pro never sits down in front of the machine (physically or virtually, through remote desktop) and administers it as a single entity. Instead, servers should be GUI-less when possible, accessed remotely through tools, and managed together in groups.

It’s a stunning, if obvious, vision, one that's so clearly right that you’ll wonder how you lasted so long by administering individual servers. But getting to this idealistic future will require a lot of work, and a lot of training, and it involves two well-intentioned but thus far little-used Windows Server technologies, Server Core—which is now the default install type—and Windows PowerShell.

To the first point, Microsoft has added two huge, key improvements: Server Core is no longer a one-way operation, so you can move in (and out of) this type of installation by adding or removing roles. And it's no longer so absolute: There’s a happy middle ground between Server Core and the full GUI, and that's a minimal UI mode that combines Server Core’s command-line interface with the best tool of all, Server Manager.

Speaking of Server Manager, it was a mess in the Developer Preview, but it’s been fine-tuned and spit polished for the Beta with a less flat look and feel. It’s a nice interface, which is good because many admins and IT pros will be staring at this one application all day (preferably from a Windows desktop using Remote Server Administration Tools—RSAT). You can create server groups, applying changes and fixes to multiple machines, and it provides handy links to nearly every other server tool you’ll ever need. As a bonus, it can generate PowerShell scripts for virtually any action, providing a way to automate any activity more efficiently.

Hyper-V 3.0 is a monster of an upgrade, with support for 1TB of RAM per VM, VHDs of up to 64TB, support for clustering—including guest clustering over Fiber Channel—and more. Yes, the Metro UI is up front and center, though admins will be happy to know that they’ll boot right into the desktop—and Server Manager—if they leave the Aero Basic scheme intact. ( I recommend that.) A new Microsoft Online Backup Service offers cloud-based backup to the cloud and easy recoverability.

While much about Server 8 was previously known—and you can learn a lot more in my Windows Server "8" Preview —there are some new features in this release as well. The new Resilient File System (ReFS) has been implemented, and although you can use it only for file servers, it should provide a compelling large disk solution, especially when paired with the Storage Spaces feature, which duplicates data automatically between multiple storage devices. You can enable SMB encryption, which can protect data from attacks on untrusted networks with just a small performance hit. (In a similar vein, those with SMB2 file shares can now protect the integrity of data with the Volume Shadow Service. And a new feature called SMB Directory Leasing improves application response times in branch offices by reducing the roundtrips required between client and server, according to Microsoft.)

New Features, One Big Leap

You get the idea: Server 8 has hundreds of new features, but the really big functional leap is going to involve remote and multi-server administration and a new emphasis on server technologies such as Server Core and PowerShell that many admins, frankly, find difficult. It’s an exciting time to learn new skills, however, and the Server 8 Beta is an ideal place to start.