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It's Official: The Windows Server GUI Is (Slowly) On the Way Out

I've written about it before, and I'm here to do it again -- but it's still worth a read. However, before I dive in, I want to remind y'all that I'm just the bearer of the news. While I personally think this is a good direction for Microsoft, much of that stems from my own IT background. Based on the comments in previous articles, some of you disagree -- and you should make that opinion heard at Microsoft, where it'll matter. In case there's any confusion, I don't work for the company.

You'll want to go here and read a short article from the Windows Server team. Go on, read that. I'll wait.

The points to take away:

  • The full GUI experience on the Windows Server OS is now optional. Software meant to run on a server should not assume a GUI will be there, nor should it take for granted any of the many other dependencies that the full server OS has traditionally included. My analysis on this: It's Microsoft's shot across the bow. You'll see a stronger position on this sometime in the future -- maybe a few years off, but sometime. They want server apps to assume they're running on what we used to call "Server Core."

  • The recommended way to run the Server OS is without the GUI. Didja see that? No, you don't have to think it's a good idea -- I'm not pushing acceptance. I'm pointing out what's happening. These are the facts on the ground.

  • Microsoft has taken a (what I think is a very good) middle-ground step by introducing a "minimal GUI" mode in the server OS. That means you can have your GUI tools on the Server OS, as well as on your client computer, provided those GUI tools play by a few basic rules and don't assume too many dependencies (like the presence of IE). They'll have the full .NET Framework at their disposal, for example, which should help -- especially if they're tools based on the MMC architecture. So this gets you a "lighter" version of the Windows Server OS, but still lets you manage right on the console.

    My opinion, for what it's worth: Anyone who thinks "minimal GUI" mode is anything more than a holding measure is crazy. To me, this clearly says Microsoft is trying to get us off the console for good. They know we're not ready to give it up completely, so this is them trying to wean us off. Maybe I'm wrong on this -- it's happened before -- but it sure seems that way when I look at the big picture.

  • Notwithstanding the "minimal GUI" mode, Microsoft is recommending to software developers to not assume a GUI will be present. The full, rich GUI experience happens on the client. Not allowed connect to your servers from your client computer? The suggestion appears to be "rethink your architecture."

Again, folks, I'm not advocating the news -- I'm just reporting it and offering some interpretation. I'm well aware that many, many, many admins out there aren't looking forward to a GUI-less server operating system from Microsoft. I've heard and read many cogent and thought-out arguments against it. I'm sure Microsoft has too. They're proceeding anyway. We have two choices: adapt or die. I'm sure the NetWare folks felt exactly this way when they saw their first Windows NT 3.51 server. My point is that Microsoft is going in this direction, despite the fact that they surely know there will be disagreement. They're obviously taking baby steps -- take this "Minimal GUI" thing as a clue. We can either be prepared to manage our servers in the brave new world, get different jobs or get promoted out of harm's way.

Don't think Windows Server without a GUI is a good idea? I'm not judging you, and I'm not saying you're wrong. Think Microsoft is stupid for heading in this direction? Time will tell -- we'll wait and see, since that's all we can do. For myself, I'm going to make sure my job is secure by making sure I know how to operate in the world that's coming. It's like taxes: I don't have to like them, I just have to figure out what numbers to write into the little boxes.

(I'll admit that I'm personally biased to like the direction Microsoft is headed on this. I come from an IT background where going in the datacenter was practically verboten; I spent more time trying to make sure I could remotely do everything, without an RDC connection, then actually doing anything. But the environment I cam from was a minority back then, and it's probably a minority now. Although I'm glad it prepared me for what appears to be coming.)

My opinion is that Microsoft is pointed toward a world of "headless servers:" Minimal functionality from the console, rich management from a client computer. This is a step in that direction, and it's intended to put us, and software vendors, on notice. Me, I'm going to take the hint. I hope y'all do as well. Windows Server "8" is a chance to start getting on board with what Windows will become -- it's not throwing us directly into the fire, but I think we have to take the opportunity to start adapting to this new direction.

Posted by Don Jones on 01/12/2012 at 1:14 PM


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Reader Comments:

Wed, Dec 19, 2012 Mark Ross

Just an observation: If it's window-less, what makes it Windows?

Mon, Feb 27, 2012 Wash DC

Just a thought....with GUI-less Windows servers-- maybe the non-tech managers who make the management/buying decisions to buy Windows servers on how easy the pretty pictures make it look to manage, will finally listen to the pros as to what is the best system to purchase as well as what resources are needed to manage/maintain/administer them. I can't help but notice with over 20 yrs experience ranging from Xenix to Unix to Linux to Netware 3.12 -6.5 plus DOS 3.x -6.x to Windows III, NT, 2003 and 2008 that the UNIX/Linux sys admins are rarely tapped to do "other stuff as needed" nor their recommendations or stated requirements(resources, manpower, etc) second guessed. The command line, as noted by many, can be so much more efficient than the GUI, but it does take a bit more learning, especially if you aren't familiar with it. The GUI/pretty pictures are a bit more universally understood -- thus newbies can appear adequately qualified even though they never really will be. It will interesting to watch this all unfold....

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 Hugo

Am I missing something, all you have to do is use windows remote server tools on a windows desktop to remotely manage the server, 90% of the time you dont have to log in locally into the server unless something goes horribly wrong, with the new windows 8 server remote tools makes things even easier by allowing you to remotely administer groups of servers.

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 Mark United States

This is what many of us who have been doing server virtualization or Linux for a long time have already gotten used to. Think of all the management tools Microsoft offers that you use every day that don't need to be run from the server console. For those not comfortable outside a Windows GUI for Windows Server management, you're going to have an equally hard time adapting to using PowerShell for custom management also. This is the way things are going to go, and for many of us the way they've always been.

Fri, Jan 20, 2012 Terry

No matter the size of your network, anyone who administers a server as their job should realize the tools are already in place now to administer windows without logging on to the console. I do my job almost in it's entirety without logging in to the server. You will need to learn how to move data around via command line because the command line provides much greater functionality anyway. If you look at the trends, it's the IT persons job to follow them. You don't know how to use command line? Learn, it's not that hard. And once you learn it, you'll wonder why you haven't been doing this the entire time.

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 GY

@SCOTT I think you may have misunderstood the article. The server will be CLI only, but the management tools installed on PC's will have GUI's.

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 GY

@REDSTONE_EARTH "Let's face it, managing large networks is much easier with tools that can do tasks quickly rather than hunting for seldom-used CLI" Do a quick search for the distributed shell command used in UNIX, it's an extremely powerful CLI tool that my MS admins are truely jealous of. I think the best part of this has already be touched... eleminate the admin by hunt & peck.

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 Scott

The fact is the GUI has its place. Small to midsize business with IT staff that wear many hats dont sit in front of a console day in and out using the CLI to configure AD etc. It seems to me using the CLI to input lines long commands with cryptic neverending switches is just inviting catastophe. I can now administer an entire domain DNS DHCP AD Sites and Services DFS etc.effectivly and efficiently using a GUI. I fail to see how this is return to CLI is going to save me time at all.

Tue, Jan 17, 2012 JJ

@B0101: It's WinRM/WinRS. You can run remote shell commands using winrs or use PowerShell remoting (which runs over WinRM) to get an interactive remote shell.

Sun, Jan 15, 2012 Craig UK

At last, whoever thought a GUI on a server was a good id had at last seen their asinine idea have its day. A server is there to serve, not to draw pretty pictures on a screen for those who can't shell. - old IT fart

Sat, Jan 14, 2012 Pierre Zurich

Being an (ex) 25+ years Windows-veteran forced to migrate by necessity rather than by choice, I can only value Redmond moves based on reality.

We all have to recognize that in our (multi-Core) future, the 'free lunch is over' and software will have to take great care of the technical constraints of the hardware.

There's still a seat remaining vacant for The BigCo doing the job much-much-much-better than all others on the server-side.

Time will tell if MSFT will have what it takes to seize this opportunity.

Sat, Jan 14, 2012 b0101 Atlanta, GA

This is a good idea and all but.... How do you remote into one of these machines? Telnet?? Now thats really secure. Wireshark will snap up that admin password in a heartbeat. IF Microsoft adds SSH this will be an improvement if not this will be a great front door to walk through. Telnet?? come on.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

As a single small business admin who learned on sbs and have only dipped into command when required, I'm done for. You may think I should be out of a job already because I am not "pro", but not one of you would accept what I get paid to do as much as I can do with the pretty pictures.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 RevSpaminator

@Justsaying: It won't make things harder, just different. Ultimately it will make site management a lot easier.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 RevSpaminator

Once people recover from the loss of their crutch they will discover how much power and control they really can have. Automation will once again rule in the server room. (All too often I see some, not all, Win Admins doing the same thing 50+ times over, on each server, because it has to be done with a GUI.)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Justsaying

Perhaps Mircrosofts idea about removing the GUI is more about limiting attack areas that that can be used against windows servers then making Windows server harder to manage? Just saying....

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 EVVJSK

Striking a balance will be important here. Yes and good admin can work with command line if necessary, but one of the things that made Windows NT 3.51 so widely adopted is that once it was up and running, a NON admin could do quite a bit with it and LEARN to do some admin as they went along. Netware was NOT easily adopted by newbies when it had only command console (Linux/Unix had the same for years). Not to mention loading device drivers and other MORE complicated tasks. What would be great would be some form of Dynamic loading (ala the Netware NLM ?) that would allow loading and unloading of these addition GUI functions (possibly with the option of requiring the Admin password to be entered to allow it to happen for extra security). MS has been working to get rid of the restart and according to the Author, they are now building requirements around bringing it back big time (especially in an emergency when it is often needed the most).

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Nooneofconsequence

@hahaha: do you know what the difference between a windows server and a windows desktop is? Registry entries. They've been mostly functionally equivalent for years so that terminal services in particular would allow software to run the same on both. From a purely admin perspective, there are several tasks that are easier/quicker to do with a GUI than from a command line. Anything involving a list of items can be done quicker and often with more precision in a GUI. A major example for Microsoft in particular is dealing with patching. Unless they completely revamp how patches are classified and distributed, I don't see how patching will be accomplished successfully by small business admins without a GUI pick list. My guess is that they will create a remote access GUI similar to how we interact with VMware.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 RZ

So here MS was attacking and poking fun at Novell all these years (I used to be an avid CNE before I became an MCSE and dropped any care in the world for Novell products) and are now morphing Windows into what Netware used to be? Oh how the world has changed!

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Becky Nagel Editor, Redmondmag.com

Hi Guys -- Let's stop with the flames/personal attacks. A LOT to talk about here without actually attacking anyone. (You can feel free to flame me at anytime at bnagel@1105media.com; let's just keep the thread clear). Thanks all -- Becky

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

hey REDSTORM_EART thanks for keeping us real admins employed dipshit

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 redstorm_ Earth

I like the idea of a non-GUI Windows server provided the tools can still remain "GUI-fied". Let's face it, managing large networks is much easier with tools that can do tasks quickly rather than hunting for seldom-used CLI or using CLI that would equal dozens of commands to get the same thing a few clicks will do. There is a time management issue to face as well. I definitely love the fact that they remove IE and hopefully much of the other B.S. in these server OSes which do not belong..media players, browsers, etc. as if a server is a desktop. I don't mind either way. Actually, the more CLI like the OS, the more likely the good admins will have jobs for life ;-)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

more like arguing a plastic wrench vs. a metal wrench

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Chad

Criminy people. Arguing about Linux vs. Windows is like arguing whether a wrench or a screwdriver is the superior tool. A decent IT guy uses whatever is best suited to get the job at hand done. Enough with the obnoxious holy war already.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Not_A_Badger

The problem however is the generalization. I'd say the vast majority of Linux admins are just not concerned with with what MS is doing. We may take a peek, pat them on the head, then go back to what we're doing. It's just a preference to us. Welcome to the party. The small amount of people you may be referring to are trolls, and those people should be /ignore at fist glance :)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

"luckily Linux admins can always find a job there tough guy. BTW pointing to DOS as an example of command line prowess ---- LOLOLOLOL" Thank you for helping to make my point. Please do keep talking.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Jose Fajardo Australia

You fail to mention a huge important piece to Win 8 Server.. And that is POWERSHELL!! I believe even if the server is installed in GUIless mode you can use powershell to create .net(XAML)UI's. This really needs to be mentioned because i believe it's this dynamic creation of UI's that is the real story and future of Server. The more resources from boot and in idle mode that is free from UI type services/apps the more resources will be available for more business critical functions.. Thats the basic idea behind GUIless i believe, freeing up critical resources for business needs. Again to bring home the fact that you should ONLY create your UI's for your apps when needed, hence powershell .net->Xaml up when needed :)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

luckily Linux admins can always find a job there tough guy. BTW pointing to DOS as an example of command line prowess ---- LOLOLOLOL

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

Os How does Terminal Services work with out a GUI ?

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Hahaha

@NOONEOFCONSEQUENCE that has got to be the most ignorant comment I read here. Desktops are made for media. Servers are not. If that's too hard for you to grasp, please quit your IT job because you obviously suck at it.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

I did not say ALL linux guys were like that, just seems to be quite typical. Have a nice day ;)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Not_A_Badger

Ouch, a stick up a badgers bum? I'm terribly sorry you feel this way, seems like you're mad? Why are you so mad? @karl Nah, it's just going to be well done...no flavor, no juices, just tough and chewy :-)

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

I've been a Win admin for years difference is I started back in the days of TRS-DOS, so back to where I started is fine. Some things never seem to change though. You typical linux admins that posted nasty comments have the soft skills of a badger with a stick up his rear end. Get over yourself already. You are just as easily replaced as anyone else. Which is what I told the last linux admin I canned for being just like you guys.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 DETROIT, MI

I have to say, It has been 10 years or so since I last touched a windows server. Now the company I am working for wants to combine the Unix and Windows teams and cross train. I got to tell you that reading this article make me feel a bit better and not quit my Job. GUIless windows. I can do that!

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Chad

This is a welcome move in my opinion. Even more so if it filters out the truly competent techs from the charlatans that pose as professionals. I thought command lines were a pain at first, and then I experienced the alternative. Halfway through my MCSE classes, the swirling torrents of windows, drop-down menus, MMC snap-ins and thousands upon thousands of clicks had me longing for the blinking cursor that could accomplish the same task much more quickly and efficiently.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 adsf

This is the best - love to see the lame windows "admins" cry HAHAHAHAHAHAHHA more jobs for linux users!! we can handle your console no problems

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 AskQuestionsLater

Minimal functionality on the console? Experienced Windows admins already know their way around wmic without having to reach for a mouse.

Speaking as an experienced Unix admin, if it can't be done from the shell, it can't be done. It's just going to take time for Windows admins to realise that starting a SSH connection, identifying and fixing a problem and moving on to the next server is a matter of a few seconds or minutes work that doesn't require pretty pictures. And that embracing the headless world also opens up opportunities for managing a thousand-plus servers from one laptop, and still staying sane.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012

Sweet can we get rid of default parameters for console commands too so we don't have 'return key happy' admins?

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Nooneofconsequence

Why stop at the server? Do we really need all of these pretty pictures on our PCs? Why not just do away with all of the bandwidth hogging video and images on the web, too? These are all just wasting our time while we wait for our super powerful systems (compared to 1986 DOS days) to strain to load all of this pixelated waste.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Ralph W Siegler

Microsoft also needs to do away with any kind of GUI client, and to have a robust command line only. Real operating systems have always worked that way, and Microsoft hopefully starts turning their low quality glorified program loader into a real OS. This will raise very low bar for what is now a "windows admin", a click, point and hope ignoramus.

Thu, Jan 12, 2012

Hopefully this also has the side effect of cleansing the industry of admins who definitely shouldn't be admins. Seems these days anyone who can click calls themselves a server admin.

Thu, Jan 12, 2012 karl prosser

@Greg , yep, and now it gets to be done well :)

Thu, Jan 12, 2012 Greg

This has been done already.... It's called Linux.

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