In-Depth

5 Hot Tips: Get More out of Windows Server 2008

IT pros are learning how to take advantage of the hidden talents in Microsoft's newest server OS. Here are five tips to get you started.

With Windows Server 2008 in the hands of IT shops for a year, you would be pleasantly surprised at some of the cool things folks have done with it. Through interviews with a range of tech experts and developers, we've dug up a handful of worthwhile tips and tricks that can either save time or help you function a bit better. There're an enormous number of tips we could report, but we decided to give you just the top five for now.

1. Make Server 2008 Act More Like Vista
It might be hard to imagine why anyone would want to do this. But when Windows Server 2008 was first available in beta and as a release candidate, the consensus was that it actually performed better than Windows Vista. Folks were jokingly calling it Workstation 2008. So, I decided to give it a shot and installed Server 2008 on my laptop. Immediately I realized why its performance was so good: It was missing all the extras.

What happened to my audio, Media Player, Sidebar and Aero? Not there. Typically these are items you don't need or want on your Windows servers, so Microsoft forces you to enable them.

In order to get your Vista features back, you need to open Server Manager (either from the Quick Launch toolbar icon or from Administrative Tools). Next, select the Features node and click the Add Features link. The feature you want to add is called Desktop

Experience. If you select the option, you see a description that explains that Desktop Experience includes features of Windows Vista, including Windows Media Player, desktop themes and photo management.

Even after you have the features installed, you still have to enable the Themes service before you can work with Aero. To do this, open the Services console (either by typing services.msc from the Instant Search box or by going to Administrative Tools and selecting Services), locate the Themes service, right-click it and enter the Properties, and change the startup type to Automatic.

Note: While you're in the Services console, you might as well look for the Windows Audio service, too, and change the startup to automatic if you want the server to have audio.

2. Extend the Evaluation Period
Here's a really good trick that made its debut with Vista. Did you know that you can extend your evaluation period on your system without activating? Typically users start looking around for the Microsoft police at this point, and they think this is some really hush-hush accident on Microsoft's part. But as you can see by reading Knowledge Base article 948472, Microsoft already knows about it. Essentially, you have a 60-day period from when you install Server 2008 to the point where you must activate it. However, if you use the slmgr.vbs script, you can reset the evaluation period. This will not work forever (only three times), but you can extend the evaluation period for up to 240 days.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. The results of the slmgr.vbs -dli script.

Here's how it works: Open a command prompt and type slmgr.vbs -dli. This gives you the current status of your evaluation period (as shown in Figure 1), which is important because you don't want to re-arm the process until you reach the end of the 60-day period. Once you're ready to reset the process, type: slmgr.vbs -rearm.

Note: You can automate the process by configuring the Task Scheduler to run the slmgr.vbs script at the conclusion of the evaluation period through the use of an .XML file and some coding that Microsoft gives you in Knowledge Base article 948472.

3. Get Rid of the Annoying Shutdown Event Manager Screen
In the real world, you rarely want to reboot a server if you don't have to. But when you're constantly testing new things and installing applications and features, you tend to reboot often. And so it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine that I'm constantly questioned by my own server as to why I have the nerve to reboot the machine (see Figure 2). I get that queasy feeling in my stomach, as though Ward Cleaver (the dad from "Leave it to Beaver") just showed up and said, "Now where do you think you're going, mister?" and I have to give an explanation.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. Where are you going, young man?

To get rid of this little annoyance, go to the Start menu and in the Instant Search box, type gpedit.msc for the local policy editor. Expand out Computer Configuration, Administrative Templates, then System. Double-click the Display Shutdown Event Tracker and click Disabled. No more Ward. I'm once again an adult network admin. Keep in mind, however, that you will not be second-guessed anymore when shutting down the server, so make sure this is what you really want to do before you initiate the shutdown.

4. Get Server Core up and Running
Perhaps you have installed the Server Core version of Server 2008 and were greeted by that standard command prompt. Did you think: OK, now what? I know I was a bit lost without the GUI after so many years of living in a GUI-only world. I think what saved me this past year was working extensively with PowerShell in Exchange 2007. So, when I was face-to-face with that black box staring at me, I didn't freak out. I was, however, slightly put off by the fact that it was the traditional cmd.exe and not the sleek new PowerShell, which is due to the additional security afforded you by Server Core in that .NET Framework is missing (an essential element to PowerShell). Perhaps the Framework team will create a modularized version of the Framework for the future of Server Core, but for now we can work with what we have.

Note: Not all applets will work through the .cpl method, but these two were kept to make life easier for admins. There are a few other tools that are available to you as well. For example, you can type notepad at the prompt, and it brings up Notepad, or Taskmgr for your Task Manager, or even Regedit to bring up the Registry Editor.
Once you have the server configured, the next step is to install the roles and features you want. Under Server Core, the commands you need to learn are:

  • oclist.exe: shows you a list of which roles and features are already installed, and also shows you the proper spelling and case of those roles and features.
  • ocsetup.exe: allows you to install or uninstall the roles and features you need.

Keep in mind that you need to configure the server without the GUI, and this includes activation, computer name, networking, joining a domain and so forth.

Then you'll worry about configuring the features that are available.

Here's a list of commands that you may want to keep handy when configuring your Server Core Server:

  • Netsh: To establish IP configuration settings (or firewall configuration with netsh advfirewall). KB article 242468
  • Net User: To change the administrative password. KB article 251394
  • Netdom: To provide a server name and/or join a domain. Microsoft TechNet Library Netdom Examples
  • Shutdown: To restart your system. KB article 317371
  • Slmgr: The Software License Management Tool, which we discussed earlier, is used to install and activate the license for the system. KB article 555965
  • SCRegEdit.wsf: To enable Remote Desktop. KB article 555964

    Note: If you decide you just don't want to be forced back into command-line life all over again, you might consider the Windows 2008 Core Configurator from CodePlex.

One of the cool things you might consider is putting together a list of configuration commands for Server Core Server into a batch file. That will certainly make life a bit easier. For other configuration changes, you may consider using some of the GUI tools that are still "live" in Server Core. For example, you can type intl.cpl (to access the Regional and Language Options applet) or timedate.cpl (to adjust your Time and Date settings through the applet).

5. Install Roles and Features Using ServerManagerCmd
To all those Windows admins who don't want to let go of the GUI, my apologies. But the question remains: If you can perform a task faster and better through the command line, why fight it? On the other hand, others are grateful for the command-line craze. I found this next tip when I was working on free Exchange clips that I was putting together to help the community at large learn Exchange 2007. One thing I've found over the past year as I've set up about 100 Exchange Servers is that the actual prep work is maddening. There are many little details to remember, such as installing .NET Framework and PowerShell, and making sure IIS is installed and configured (depending on the Exchange Server role). There had to be a better way to install roles and features than going through the Server Manager GUI.

And there is. It's called ServerManagerCmd.

Here's a simple example: If you want to install PowerShell, you don't have to open the Server Manager and locate the feature and make about a dozen mouse clicks. Just type at command prompt:

ServerManagerCmd -i PowerShell

Note: To remove a role, you can type -remove, and if you have to restart the system after any given installation you can add -restart to the end of the command. Learn more about Server Manager Commands in the Microsoft TechNet Library article, "Overview of Server Manager Commands."

This tool is an excellent shortcut to locating all sorts of information and making some easy configurations on the server, especially if you put it together as a batch file. By doing so, it ensures you will have consistent results on each server you set up for your organization.

One thing you might try is typing servermanagercmd -query to get a list of the current roles installed on the server, as you can see in Figure 3. You will be shown which roles are installed-displayed in green-along with the others that aren't, as well as the features beneath those roles. Again, you can use this for roles and features as previously noted with PowerShell.

Figure 3
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Figure 3. A list of installed roles.

If you want to install your IIS Server, you can use the following command:

Servermanagercmd -install Web-Server

Just the 'Tip' of the Iceberg
As always, there are plenty of exciting tips and tricks about a new OS, and hopefully we've whetted your appetite a bit to go out and find some more. Anything that can help us to work smarter and enjoy what we do as server admins, well ... that's worth searching for.

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