Decision Maker

The Future of Windows Server? Server Core

Server Core isn't there yet, but now is the time to learn this tool that will be the key managing enterprise Windows in the future

I was recently working with an ISV that's creating a suite of tools for managing certain Windows components. The company had asked me to take a look at its efforts, help it really understand the potential market for its tools, and give feedback on go-to-market plans. An hour or so into the conversation, it came out that one of the firm's main selling points was that its graphical-management tool could run on Windows Server Core.

I almost cried. Fortunately, the company revised its approach. After all, the whole point of Server Core is to not have a GUI. That wasn't an oversight on the part of Microsoft -- it was intentional. Loading a GUI on it misses the point entirely.

Toe in the Water
In the three or so years that Server Core has been available, I've spoken about it at a number of conferences and events, and spoken to a number of administrators about it. So far, everyone's opinion on Server Core could be best summed up as "meh."

But Microsoft often starts out tentatively. Believe me, Exchange Server 4.0 (the first version) was no great shakes, but look at Exchange 2010. The first version of SharePoint? A thinly disguised hack of Exchange Server. SharePoint 2010? A market-leading collaboration platform that's rapidly putting a dent in the number of plain old file servers that organizations use.

Diminishing GUI
Back to Server Core. Folks, I can do the math. Looking at a lot of the stuff going on at Microsoft, and a lot of the demands the marketplace is putting on the company, I can practically guarantee that some future version of Windows Server won't have a GUI at all. Yep, it's back to the NetWare days, when you got a command line and that was it. It's a server, for pity's sake, not a workstation; you shouldn't need a GUI on it. We're already seeing some of Redmond's investment in this direction: a highly modularized server OS, where you add just the roles and features you need. A robust (and growing) command-line interface that's leagues ahead of cmd.exe. Lightweight, non-GUI remote management protocols like WS-MAN. The foundation is being laid right in front of you.

Oh, the company isn't there, yet. Right now, there are too many things that you have to do from the console, or via a Remote Desktop Connection, especially for initial server configuration. But Microsoft has been whittling away at those things and the list is getting smaller. When this eventual "Windows without windows" comes along, I wouldn't even expect it to include Remote Desktop (unless it's acting as a Remote Desktop Services host, of course). Why? Because Windows PowerShell and WinRM will let you manage the server just as if you were sitting at the console, with much less overhead than Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).

None of this is revolutionary. Every other server OS has done pretty much the same thing. You'll still have all of your GUI tools -- you'll just run them on your client computer, which will still have a rich, robust GUI. Server manufacturers already make low-level remote access cards so that you can watch a server's POST screen remotely; that technology might migrate right to the motherboard as a standard feature.

Here's your action item for now: Take another look at Server Core. Use it where it makes sense to do so today, because you'll be setting yourself up for an easier time ahead. If your IT folks are managing server features on the console, or via RDP, start looking at how to stop doing that. Use the remote admin tools instead, and find their weak spots. Point those out to Microsoft so they can be fixed. The GUI isn't dead, but it's dying on the server OS -- don't be caught off-guard when it's finally gone.

About the Author

Don Jones is a 12-year industry veteran, author of more than 45 technology books and an in-demand speaker at industry events worldwide. His broad technological background, combined with his years of managerial-level business experience, make him a sought-after consultant by companies that want to better align their technology resources to their business direction. Jones is a contributor to TechNet Magazine and Redmond, and writes a blog at ConcentratedTech.com.

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Reader Comments:

Sat, Feb 18, 2012 Mark Dean

"Right now, there are too many things that you have to do from the console, or via a Remote Desktop Connection, especially for initial server configuration." Once you put an IP on a Windows server and enable remote management, what are those "many" things that you _have_ to do at the console or even via RDP? I'm not aware of anything from a server standpoint (if there are, it's a very small amount of things) and very few from an application standpoint, especially Windows roles or features. It's more likely third party apps may need an interactive logon with the desktop, but from a Windows standpoint and most Microsoft applications standpoint, you almost never _need_ to interactive logon or worse, get to the actual console. Pure and simple, Windows admins have gotten used to it. They don't respect the role of a server. When you need to manage an AD user, you logon to the DC and run dsa.msc. Need to manage DNS? Logon to the DC/DNS server and run dnsmgmt.msc. Need to view event logs? Logon to the server and run compmgmt.msc. The issue is not CLI vs GUI but interactive logon vs remote management. It goes to a less secure way to manage a server. When you logon to a server, you are bringing a desktop along. Most admins don't bother unchecking the printer button so you get attempts to map printers. The logon robs resources from the task that the server is supposed to be doing (and now that more servers are virtual, that becomes more important). And what kind of rights does the admin have? Well, usually full Administrator rights. So even if the admin doesn't mean to do something, a wrong click here, a drag and drop to the wrong place, and accidental deletion here. These things are often done while doing something entirely different and unrelated. There's just too much temptation to launch a browser and hit the web, just this once _on the server_ . I once had to help a client because their DC got infected with a virus. There's only one way that happened: someone logged in with Domain Admin rights and did something, went to a web site, browsed a file share and launched an executable-they may not even have known it. So this is a good direction to go.

Mon, Oct 3, 2011 Robert MD

I would say the GUI could blow away some scripting if it was designed better (talking cloud here). When you want to execute certain complex tasks in large environments I think it is fair to say most, if not all of the cool scripting actions could be ran via a complex GUI (not today's point and click GUI). Going the server core route makes good sense if it means you patch less and have a more secure OS. Keep in mind that ease of use must also be a consideration, but hey, who am I to judge. Should the GUI die? I think it should be reborn into a more friendly interface.

Tue, Sep 27, 2011 Possom Ubuntuland

And I thought the majority of most servers run on the Linux operating system! Silly me!

Mon, Sep 26, 2011 Don Jones

I like how Mark Minasi put it: "A Server Core that Scores I have always loved the idea of Server Core, a version of Windows server without a GUI. GUIs include things like Internet Explorer, which seems to need patching -- and rebooting -- every week or so, and that just doesn't do a thing for our quest for five-nine-ness. What's always made the desire for a slimmed-down server frustrating is that you know, those Linux guys have a GUI that they can choose to turn off whenever they want to. Sure, I'm a command line guy, but there's about 10 minutes a month that I'd like to have a GUI on my server. But with 2008 and 2008 R2, you have to make a hard-and-fast choice: full-blown flabby patch-ridden GUI server, or austere no-GUI no-Start Menu figure-out-wevtutil-while trying-to-fix-a-crisis, good-luck-with-those-HP-teamed-NICs Server Core. With Windows 8, however, you can essentially turn the GUI on and off at will, meaning that you can be running that lean-and-mean Server Core most of the time, but when the thought of writing a 180-character PowerShell command to tweak one Web site just seems like it's too much to face, you can fire up the GUI and Server Manager your way out of trouble." And of course, if the GUI can live on your client and reliably manage everything you need to manage, why not just do that? Nobody's talking about killing the GUI entirely - just moving it off the server.

Sat, Aug 27, 2011 Jack Netherlands

There will be a move to a "private cloud" environment, server core will ofcourse be the perfect host to be running on the physical machines and some roles like SQL and DC are perfect to run on virtual Server Core machines as they can be easily remotely managed. Tools like SCCM and SCVMM2012 help in building your own private cloud. Ofcourse this is my personal opinion.

Sat, Aug 6, 2011 Jonathan Merrill

My comment is I think your wrong and articles like this have a habit of implying general masses actually "want" the GUI to die. Let me be the first to say... I don't want it to die. And most of the people I've shown this article to actually laughed out loud. What is Windows without a GUI? I didn't get into this business to learn another CLI. I've been in this business a long time too, going all the way back to Windows 3.0, and why the server OS wins the masses is not just compatibility, but it's been ease of use and configuration. Want to use Windows without Windows? Already been done... It's called Linux. Go defect to that side and be happy and don't screw with what has worked for 18 years.

Mon, Jul 18, 2011 Chicago, Ill

I have core deployed on 3/4 of my domain controllers and like the fact that it has a smaller attack and update surface. What do you need a GUI on a DC for. The answer is nothing.

Sat, Jul 9, 2011 Shahid

Only SQL server latest release is planned to have support for core editions. As for Exchange, it is neither possible to install nor is supported on server core for the reasons not very big for MS to rectify. RPC-HTTP componet cannot be installed on core actually which is a dependency for exchange. Well having said that we must say that it seems like MS itself if taking this technology out of picture as it might not be healthy for them financially. Realistically they should.

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