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 multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s MVP Award, and is an Author Evangelist for video training company Pluralsight. He’s the President of, and specializes in the Microsoft business technology platform. Follow Don on Twitter at @ConcentratedDon.


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