In-Depth

Server Core: Windows Without Windows

The new Server Core is a stripped-down, rock-solid version of Longhorn.

One of the most innovative features coming in Windows "Longhorn" Server isn't really a feature as much as a whole new version of Windows. It's called Server Core, and it will only take one-sixth of the disk space of a normal Longhorn installation. It's not expected to need anywhere near as many patches and hotfixes as Windows 2000. It's a version of Windows that does not, in fact, use windows. It's breaking Microsoft's long-standing reliance on graphical interfaces and shaking things up in several of Microsoft's product groups.

Server Core reflects a changing view of servers. "Administrators are accustomed to thinking of servers by their role. That's my file server, that's a domain controller, that's an Exchange server," says Andrew Mason, a Microsoft program manager for Server Core. Some of those roles really don't use much of what is built into Windows.

Server Core also recognizes -- based on painful experience -- that fewer "moving parts" in an operating system equates to fewer vulnerabilities, stability issues and maintenance points. Reducing the amount of code can help reduce the amount of bugs. That's what Server Core is all about.

Server Core can only act as a file server, domain controller, DNS server or DHCP server. As such, it's far from being a full-fledged Windows operating system (although Microsoft is considering other roles for future versions). Besides these four core roles, Server Core also supports Cluster Server, Network Load Balancing, the Unix subsystem, the new Windows Backup in Longhorn, Multipath I/O, Removable Storage Management, BitLocker drive encryption and SNMP. Server Core also supports Remote Desktop administration, although you'll only get a command-line window when you connect.

That's about it. There's no Internet Explorer, no Outlook Express, Calculator or Windows Paint, no Wordpad, Windows Messenger or Media Player -- just the basics. Microsoft did add Windows Notepad to Server Core at the request of several sneak-preview customers, but even that's a stripped down version. You can't, for example, use the "Save As" function, because Server Core doesn't have dialog boxes for functions like Open and Save As.

There's also no Microsoft .NET Framework. This means you can't run any managed code on Server Core. Mason says his development team wants to add the .NET Framework to Server Core, but they first need the Framework team to modularize the code so they can add just the essentials. The Framework's absence in Server Core is significant. For example, you can't run Windows PowerShell, Microsoft's vaunted new management shell, on Server Core. That doesn't mean you're out of remote management options, however.

Server Core will come in Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter editions for i386 and x64 platforms. Most companies will probably opt for the Standard edition because most of the differences found in the Enterprise and Datacenter editions of Longhorn won't be present in Server Core. The Enterprise Server Core does, however, get you more processor and memory support, as well as clustering. Datacenter adds the whole Datacenter hardware program and 99.999 percent reliability -- although the current Datacenter isn't exactly flying off the shelves.

Get to the Core
Server Core comes up as an installation option when you install Longhorn Server. It's important to understand that going with Server Core requires a clean install (no upgrades from earlier versions or from the full version of Longhorn). There's also no "upgrade" path from Server Core. You can't, for example, make it into a full Windows server without performing another clean install.

The absence of a graphical interface is almost immediately apparent. Logging onto the server doesn't bring up the usual first-run "Finish setting up Windows" screen displayed by the full version of Longhorn. This also brings up your first quandary: How do you change the Administrator password? How do you join a domain? How do you activate the thing?

After all, without system notification, there are no "Activate Windows" balloon reminders (not that anyone will miss those). There's certainly no Start Menu from which to launch activation. The setup experience, in fact, is one of the primary challenges Mason and his team had to handle.

For all of Microsoft's boasting about the ease of remote Windows management, the Server Core team has dealt with a slightly different story. They've built custom utilities to cover for Windows' remote management shortcomings. The only file that comes with Server Core and no other edition of Windows is SCRegEdit.wsf, a VBScript the team cobbled together to set up Windows Update, configure a pagefile, set up the time zone and enable Remote Desktop. You would normally need a mouse and a GUI to complete those steps.

You can use existing tools like Netdom.exe to join the machine to a domain, rename it and so on. For automatic product activation, you can use Slmgr.vbs. That can even handle phone-based activation, although given the length of the activation code you have to type into the command line, you'll want to make sure automatic activation works if at all possible. You can even use Slmgr.vbs from another machine for true remote manageability.

Zen-like Simplicity
When you first log onto a Server Core console, you'll see two command-line windows. Why two? In case you close one, of course. The final version will probably display only one command-line at logon -- you can hit Ctrl | Alt | Delete and bring up the Task Manager to launch a new Cmd.exe process if you accidentally close one.

In fact, Figure 1 shows that the statement "Windows without windows" isn't exactly true. You'll see that it does have a bare minimum of Windows' GUI capabilities for simple dialogs like Task Manager and basic installation software. The mouse also works, in case you were wondering.

ServerCore
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1.While Server Core is essentially Windows without windows, you do still have access to some Windows tools.

Want to make a domain controller? Just run Dcpromo.exe, as always. Because Dcpromo.exe can't display graphically, however, you'll need to provide an unattended installation text file. This is the same kind of file you would use to promote any DC in your environment. Server Core uses Longhorn's technique of actually installing and removing the real binary code when you add and remove roles. It's not just starting a few services. It's actually copying real bits into the system directory. This helps improve security. If you aren't running a feature, physically removing its code ensures that it can't be used against you.

Managing the Beast
Forget about logging onto a Server Core console and managing it from there. Sure, you can do it. There's no GUI on the server, though, and there's no point making the trip to the datacenter or even firing up the Remote Desktop console. You can do everything you need remotely. Just use the Microsoft Management Console snap-ins you always have for administering DHCP, DNS or Active Directory.

Use Explorer for file and folder management. Heck, use your VBScripts or Windows PowerShell, since Server Core supports both remote Windows Management Instrumentation and Active Directory Services Interface connections. The only difference is that you'll run these management tools on your system, not the server console.

You can use Group Policy to centralize configuration. Server Core reads and obeys Group Policy objects (GPOs) from the domain just fine. In fact, GPOs are the best way to configure Server Core features like the Windows Firewall and Automatic Updates client.

If your workstations will be running Windows Vista, you can use a cool new feature called WS-Management. Server Core includes a WS-Management "listener." Vista has the new WinRS -- that's the Windows Remote Shell client. Type a command and WinRS transmits it to the server, where the command executes. Any output is displayed on your workstation. Finally, a compelling reason to upgrade to the much-delayed Vista.

Right now, WinRS doesn't support interaction. Your commands must be all-inclusive so the command doesn't need additional information. That may improve later in the Longhorn development cycle as the product teams try to add more back-and-forth capabilities.

Less Is More
Cramming Windows into a single gigabyte or less (down from Longhorn's 5GB to 6GB footprint) requires leaving out plenty of elements. Drivers are a good starting place. Server Core doesn't do sound, so it doesn't need sound-card drivers. It doesn't print, so it doesn't need printer drivers. This is the type of missing stuff that, quite frankly, you'll never miss.

On the topic of drivers, though, how the heck do you install new hardware without the Control Panel or Add Hardware Wizard? Relax, Server Core supports plug 'n' play, but it does so silently. If you need to provide a custom driver, install it first with the Drvload utility. Point it at the driver's INF file and your driver will become part of Windows' built-in list and you can silently install the hardware.

That will work if the driver itself is digitally signed. Right now, there's no GUI to configure driver-signing policy. Server Core does have the Group Policy client, so you could use Group Policy to configure driver signing. Microsoft is considering adding a command-line utility to control driver signing options for Server Core.

Server Core isn't the stripped-down Yugo of the Windows world. It has what you need, and only what you need -- IPSec, Windows Firewall, Event Log, Performance Monitor counters, Licensing, Windows File Protection, outgoing HTTP support and then some. Nothing strictly necessary was tossed overboard. The default services list is miniscule, with about 40 entries.

If you use third-party software agents to help improve manageability, software deployment or other tasks, you should be in good shape. Most agent software doesn't display any kind of GUI, so they'll usually install fine. This is especially true if they're packaged in an .MSI file (Server Core includes the Windows Installer service). If they use .NET managed code, however, you're out of luck. Make sure you test any agents you plan to use in advance.

Systems Management Server and Microsoft Operations Manager, for example, seem to work fine. The anti-virus software used by Microsoft and many other enterprise-class anti-virus packages also work. Microsoft's "Designed for ..." logo program for Windows Longhorn Server will include a Server Core element, so third-party developers can identify code that's compatible with Server Core.

Ready for Your Core?
Perhaps more interesting than Server Core itself is what it promises for the future. With a stripped down version of Windows, Microsoft has to provide better remote, non-GUI management tools. These tools can make it easier to automate repetitive administration tasks.

Microsoft product teams will have to think in layers, imagining a minimum set of features that can run on Server Core with minimal dependencies. Then they can conjure a broader set of features for full versions of Windows. Manageability will become distinctly separate from server products.

Server Core is shaping up as the perfect infrastructure server. With a smaller disk and memory footprint, there are more system resources available for the server's workload. The reduced management and attack surface also make it more stable and reliable than other versions of Windows.

When Longhorn Server ships in 2007, Windows will have finally "caught up" to Novell NetWare 3.x. Server Core is a server that's just a server, not a full-fledged client as well. Get your hands on the public beta of Longhorn Server to check out Server Core. In the meantime, start getting used to that command-line prompt. It's your new best friend.

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Sat, Mar 15, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

Not having a full GUI is "innovative" in the server field? Oh yeah, sure, all those 99.99999% uptime linux servers really have been running guis since the beginning. And seriously, Redmond, if you're going to drop the GUI, don't make it a command prompt in a windowed environment. It defeats the purpose- all of the servers I know of don't even have video cards installed. I completely agree with "Sheep"; why can't microsoft just make an option to disable the GUI entirely?

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Mon, Jan 28, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

There are definite advantages to this. This gives you the ability to have a fully out-of-the-box AD environment that can be virtualized with a low footprint. While I have used Samba as a domain controller (in a real production network), it really took a lot to get setup, and at that point, there was no AD, just an NT-4 style domain (but with an LDAP backend, I got what I really wanted).

If someone develops a Linux or BSD minimalized installer that supports Samba and has some command-line wizards for setting up AD, file services, DNS, and DHCP, then Windows Server Core will be irrelevant... until then, it has its place, even if it is ever so small.

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Tue, Sep 25, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

hmm, how many ways can you configure your out of box installation of most of the linux distro's out there.

that's what I thought

Fri, Aug 31, 2007 Clarence Santa Barbara

It seems that many of the posters missed (or chose to ignore) the inclusion of the Unix subsystem.

The amazing things I thought were the lack of printing (there can be much printing done other than from a File...Print pulldown menu), and especially the absence of .Net . That means totally server-type applications written with .Net cannot be used, though it did imply that it would be included when (if) .Net is refactored to allow it.

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Mon, Jul 9, 2007 Biju Varghese India

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Tue, Jun 19, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

Sigh... Linux zealots have got to be the most annoying humans ever mutated into existence. Who cares what software you choose... other people have their own set of requirements. Believe it or not, often times Windows is simply the better choice (I'm a 20 year Unix vet., just FYI).

Strange idea: analyze the requirements, THEN choose the platform. --gasp, shock--

Thu, Jun 7, 2007 GSK California

According to a speaker at TechEd 2007, it will support virtualization. This is great for those who have resorted to a GUI-less Linux, but prefer Windows, for hosting virtual machines. Too bad it doesn't support Powershell, though.

Fri, May 11, 2007 Malek B Anonymous

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Thu, Apr 12, 2007 Gardog Midwest USA

Pehaps I missed it in skipping a few pages, but it seems like comparing this to UNIX or to Linux, or even to Netware 3.x misses a huge point. MS has finally created an actual operating system which can run on its own to be a successor to Xenix! DOS was not an OS, but Xenix was, and to date was the only MS product which delivered OS functions without a GUI. What they have finally caught up to is a mainframe! Or perhaps it is that the user community has finally gotten tired of sacrificing so much of their machine capacity to a GUI which is totally unneccessary for a server...at least for a server administered by someone who can type a command.

Sun, Nov 19, 2006 Steve Anonymous

I have a great idea: how about a full-featured server without any UI whatsoever. All settings are done from a console utility that can run on any version of Windows, say even Windows XP Pro, and it simply hooks into the features that are available on the server, and changes them. Sort of the way VMWare Server works, but with everything.

Fri, Nov 17, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

For all of us former NetWare engineers that have had to convert to Windows, this quote is just hysterical (and a little sad),

"When Longhorn Server ships in 2007, Windows will have finally "caught up" to Novell NetWare 3.x. Server Core is a server that's just a server, not a full-fledged client as well."

Former CNE (Classic, NW3, NW4, NW5), ECNE, MCNE (x2)

Fri, Nov 10, 2006 AvG Sweden

JD, you're spot on. What everybody's missing is ease of use. Sure *nix is good at things considering eg raw performance, but the the ease of use? It's a no-brainer... MS going CLI can't be bad. We have a mixed environ too, and the interoperability windows/linux is a PITA. The deal MS made with Suse recently and Windows Server Core can definitely not be bad, with interoperability in mind, IMO.

Fri, Oct 27, 2006 Greg Messemer ACSC california

It sounds like Microsoft is building the base for an Virtual OS just like ESX.

Tue, Oct 24, 2006 JD Anonymous

As a Linux and Windows users they both have their pluses and minuses. Linux is great for what MS is now trying to do - they've had the remote command and administration capability looong ago but it lacks the ease of LDAP etc. You need a PhD to do the more easy things as you can in Windows. Windows is for the masses - that was the goal and it rightfully stomped on Novell and Linux in that realm. Linux however is one that keeps getting better. Linux is going where Windows is now and Windows is going where Linux was or is already at - if that makes sense. As far as Novell Netware goes, don't even include them here as they were a non-factor long ago. Why else is Novell dumping it or integrating with Linux?! I can't wait when Linux finally has the ease of use on LDAP peer to peer replication (ease is keyword here). Windows AD is just to easy! Linux zealots always faults MS, but if you look at it the graphical end, Linux is always copying or trying to outdo MS - after years later - example XGL (better than MS own Vista graphics IMHO). So, they both have their pluses and minuses and they are both trying to accomplsih what the other has already.

Tue, Oct 24, 2006 Fat Northern Biffa UK

Well it's a start in the right direction...I mean, have you ever tried to remove IE from previous versions of Windows?

Fri, Oct 20, 2006 Dave Seattle

In responds to Alajarhead and other Mixed mode admins out there, why bother?!? WHY having to directory structures?!? Running AD and NDS together is just double the hassle, minimum double the servers needed, doubled up places where things can go wrong, higher costs since you need user CALs for both Novell and Windows. I've worked in both environments several times and find AD only environments so much cleaner and easier to manage.

Wed, Oct 18, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Finally, a stripped down version of Windows Server. For those of us running hundreds of Windows servers, this is a GREAT alternative to *nix. Seemless integration with AD, a proven scripting environment, and without all the unnecessary fluff components. This may not be for the SOHO, but it is a giant leap forward for large enterprise customers that already use lots of automation and centralization.

Wed, Oct 18, 2006 Amazed in Florida Anonymous

I must agree with ajarhead and the anonymous followup, as I too am in a mixed environment. All of the Novell Admins I new at the time HATED the GUI that was introduced in NW5.
It's ashame that Ray Noorda died 2 weeks too soon to see this.

Wed, Oct 18, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

So Microsoft is finally catching up to NetWare 3.x, ya gotta love it!

Tue, Oct 17, 2006 Ski Anonymous

What is the point? Most of the SOHO routers have DNS and DCHP capabilities and it has a Web Interface to manage them and you have NAS servers for storage. All’s your lacking is a DC, but if we are considering a peer-to-peer model-you don’t need a DC. What market or targeted environments are they aiming for? (Small Business or Large Enterprises?) It’s a waste of a server (and processing power or lack of being entirely used) to run those basic services on a single server – why not just create hardware boxes that do those functions. They should look at creating a core OS with a Web Interface and off shoots of Virtual Servers to run the various servers needed on the network. I think that Google will create a new stream-line server OS that will make MS shake in their boots. Hasn’t MS noticed that a lot of development has gone web-based and not much with ActiveX. What’s MS thinking?

Tue, Oct 17, 2006 Backfire Anonymous

Fun to see that MS is going on the novell way of working with a server. Why they didn't do that 10 years ago?

Fri, Oct 13, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

I still don't get it why microsoft has put things like sound-support and Media Player in Windows Server versions. I have never met one customer that needs multimedia capability in Windows Server. Also I don't need any background bitmaps, midi tunes, wav-files or whatever on a server. Give me a server and nothing more.

Thu, Oct 12, 2006 Bob London

I've been saying for years they should make a cut down boot mode for games. Games run in fullscreen why should we have the overhead of Windows running in the background?

Just DirectX and a Shell, lighing fast.

The recent anouncement by MS that games will be 10-15% slower in Vista only reinforces my case.

Thu, Oct 12, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Alajarhead hit the nail on the head! I manage a mixed environment that consists of Novell 6.5 servers with Windows servers handling roles that software developers simply can't (or won't) get to run as a nlm. I've managed a Windows 2003 AD system and compared to Novell it is horrible! I liken it to programming in RPN. If this will just now "catch up to Novell 3.x" then just give me Novell.

Wed, Oct 11, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

It is called UNIX/Linux and has been around for years.

Tue, Oct 10, 2006 CGC US

When it comes to MS, they haven't figured it out. Do one thing and do it better than anybody else. I wish that MS would just make a good, solid, inexpensive OS and let the other developers write the other software that runs on it. Instead MS tries to cram a browser, a media player, recording software, and the kitchen sink. Now MS has realized how this strategy is biting them in the arse when it comes to servers. Well I have news for them, it's going to hurt them on the desktop someday soon too.

Tue, Oct 10, 2006 Alajarhead US

The Novell programmers must be turning over in their cubes screaming! Yes, MS has finally caught up to Netware 3.x. Too bad that AD is still 3 generations behind what Netware 5 was as a directory service. As both a CNE and MCSE, I have realized that there is a place for both OS's but NDS is far superior to AD. Unfortunately, Novell has never been able to market their product effectively. Is it not interesting that in the IT world we seem to be in a circular cycle of Thin to thick clients and back; CMD line to GUI and back? Disributed to Centralized and back? SOmeone please make up their minds...

Tue, Oct 10, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

"When Longhorn Server ships in 2007, Windows will have finally "caught up" to Novell NetWare 3.x."

'nuff said... sad...

Mon, Oct 9, 2006 PX NZ

That seems like typical Linux fanaticism. I asked why bash is better than cmd.exe and I get "because it just is." Riiiiight.

Mon, Oct 9, 2006 Wesley Parish Christchurch, NZ

I have to admit I am puzzled about what they can't include in this, their latest server product. If they truly can't add this functionality to Server Core, then it indicates that that functionality as it exists in MS Windows today, is crippleware - much too heavily reliant on the bundling of MS IE, which in turn is heavily reliant on the GDI framework, which isn't multiuser-friendly ...

Frankly, it sounds interesting, but it only brings them up to the level of Novell's Netware 3, and the world has moved on since then. I think a Solaris, FreeBSD or Linux installation would be a much better fit for most situations besides serving ASP.NET on IIS ...

Sun, Oct 8, 2006 Geo Anonymous

I like these guys that think everything is *nix. Not my freinds corporate life need lite windows from many many years before so they got it :) Yes!!! And we dont speak about "few" servers here and not not the same as *nix bash or any stupid comparements of people who dont thing with heads :):)We just got what we want now :):)

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Printer drivers won't be missed?!?
Wouldn't a stripped down windows best be used for simple print servers?!?

Where I work, it's Linux where we can, Windows ONLY where we must. Yecch!

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 TT Sweden

This can be done today...

www.nliteos.com

I have several of these W2K3 babies running IIS PHP MySQL like a charm, less than 600MB installed...

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 kilolima BW-GER

You must be kidding, when you compare cmd.exe with bash...better go and klick and pray my friend ;-)

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 PX NZ

What makes bash better than cmd.exe other than a more flexible scripting language?

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 linuxadmin Austria

Certainly a step into the right direction from Microsoft. The thing it might lack yet though is a slightly more flexible shell - a great OS without good userland utilities (think of Solaris, for instance) isn't exactly what gets you a lot of fans and (early) adopters. Things like flexible windowresizing, maybe even PowerShell or Zsh or a similar shellenvironment might make this windows a very interesting alternative to quite a few fileservers, domaincontrollers etc.

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 o9 miami

great! now, will they make a 200mb stripped down WORKSTATION??? something that would run like DSL linux or Knoppix? i doubt it. as far as i am concerned, there is no reason to even mess with this if you need a server... go to the pawn shop and get a low heat, low power consumption Macintosh G3 notebook and install linux. you can do so much more with that and it wont make any noise in your house.

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 VAleks Anonymous

Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter edition on x86 and x64 of ... DNS, DHCP, file server and Domain Controller? Why not to talk about functionality instead of releases? "We've got six flavours, but, unfortunately, none of the will suite you best."

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Actually the network interface running on Vista is faster than Linux's, Freebsd's and way faster than windows xp's. I am also betting that Vista will be more secure than an default Linux installation.

I love linux and I use it everyday, on my ubuntu/mandriva/fedora desktop and especially on my server which is running fedora core 6 with a server kernel. Although I will never switch to windows for webserver or similar operations, Microsoft is seriously becoming competetive

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Of course it's not *nix quality, it's stripped down, not built up. Looks pretty useless for the "real world", but it's nice to see MS starting to consider some of the better-ways of doing things that the minority of geeks and half-geeks have been enjoying for years (like those tabbed browsers ;)

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Stupid microsoft:)))

Sat, Oct 7, 2006 Sheep Anonymous

Looks like a good idea this; stripping Windows from Windows. And indeed they seem to know a bit which way to go, yet the road is still very long. In it's current form it still looks terribly bloated (for crying out load, drop the GUI!).

What hits me most, though, is this "compelling reason to upgrade to the much-delayed Vista":
"Type a command and WinRS transmits it to the server, where the command executes. Any output is displayed on your workstation."
Reminds me of... telnet?? So they really should take a leaf out of *Nix' books here: reusing tools made by other people is not evil, dear team. It's usually called 'effective' instead.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

linux/bsd are far superior to windows when it comes to servers... even by getting rid of the GUI msft has nothing on linux/bsd. don't even bother wasting your time or money.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 chris from USA Anonymous

Windows has finally caught with.... netware 3? Wow... it's amazing that it's taken MS this long to figure out that a server does work from just a command line.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 Mike Anonymous

Fanboy..I disagree. I think that it makes sense. You're the aarogant one.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Typical response of a linux fanboy. Everyone has their own preference, we don't need arrogant responses like yours flooding websites all the time.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 Chris Australia

Honestly, why are they bothering? Just install Linux minus the GUI and you get a far more flexible environment than this is offering.

Anyone whose used cmd.exe knows how limited it is to, say, bash.

Fri, Oct 6, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

It's a step in the right direction but it seems to be of rather limited use for now. Oh well, they might catch up eventually.

Thu, Oct 5, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

wow...... it looks like windows without explorer running.... i assume its really NOT that......

Thu, Oct 5, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

slackware has been like this for years now...

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