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Microsoft Brings Back the GUI with 'Project Honolulu' for Windows Server Management

Update 9/22: Microsoft today announced that the Project "Honolulu" technical preview is now available for download.

Microsoft offered a bit of surprise by signaling that it's solidly behind producing graphical user interface (GUI) tools for managing Windows Server.

This notion is being ushered in with "Project Honolulu," which was announced today as Microsoft's "new Windows Server management experience." It's a lightweight set of management tools for carrying out "troubleshooting, configuration and maintenance" actions. It has a GUI, but yet it doesn't require an Internet connection to carry out tasks.

Project Honolulu will be rolling out as a public "technical preview" to try "by late next week," Microsoft's announcement indicated. At the Microsoft Ignite event on Sept. 25, it'll be described in this session.

Bad GUI
It wasn't too long ago that the GUI was considered passé at Microsoft, a fading relic for managing Windows Server. Instead, executing PowerShell scripts via the text-based command-line interface (CLI) window was all the rage because it enabled automation, which was needed to manage large server farms with complex workloads. In contrast, the GUI was portrayed by Microsoft as being woefully inadequate to handling such kinds of tasks.

PowerShell's "father," Jeffrey Snover, even decried Microsoft's placing of a GUI on Windows Server as "poison" in terms of administrative management. And Snover, a Technical Fellow and the lead architect at Microsoft's Enterprise Cloud Group, has been a guiding force in shaping Microsoft's recent server management innovations.

Slowly, though, Microsoft has been inching away from such GUI-less insistence, largely because of customer demand. For instance, early in the testing phase of Windows Server 2016, Microsoft added back the "server with desktop experience," which had gone missing in earlier versions. Another sign of change was the fate of the minimal-footprint "headless" Nano Server deployment option of Windows Server 2016. Nano Server is now seen as a choice only for container images. It's not for running workloads anymore. Server Core is Microsoft's recommendation for workloads.

In response to a question, Jeff Woolsey, principal program manager for Windows Server at Microsoft, elucidated how Nano Server fits into management scenarios now that Project Honolulu has arrived:

As part of this effort to focus on containers, we removed the functionality [in Nano Server] for infrastructure-related roles. Instead of using Nano Server for these scenarios, we recommend deploying the Server Core installation option, which includes all the roles and features you would need, and can now be managed remotely via Honolulu. These changes to Nano Server, combined with the new application innovations in .NET Core 2.0 which enables customers to use more of their code in more places, make Nano Server the best option for new container-based development. Finally, as a byproduct of Nano Server being a container-only deployment, no GUI is needed as containers are CLI only.

Server Management Tools Replacement
IT pros could use the CLI and PowerShell Direct to manage Nano Server, but there also had been a GUI management option for remotely managing it called "Server Management Tools" (SMT), which was accessible via the Azure Portal. The SMT tools themselves were housed in Microsoft's Azure datacenters, and that seems to have been a problem for some IT shops.

In a perhaps little-seen announcement, Microsoft indicated back in May that it was discontinuing SMT on June 30, 2017. That May announcement now contains an added link to today's Project Honolulu announcement (it even sports the Project Honolulu logo). Project Honolulu turns out to be the locally deployed management solution that Microsoft had promised would supplant SMT.

Woolsey affirmed that Microsoft had "transformed SMT" with the Project Honolulu tools largely because customers needed tooling with their private networks that was disconnected from the Internet "for compliance reasons," he said. Project Honolulu contains additional functionality, too.

"We've added more management capabilities into Honolulu that SMT never had, such as support for hyper-converged deployment scenarios, rich multi-machine support, and much more," Woolsey explained via e-mail. "Details are forthcoming at Microsoft Ignite," he added.

Microsoft's announcement today contained endorsements for Project Honolulu, which has been "in private preview for the past 5 months" with about 150 users. One of those private preview testers specifically referred to the inadequacy of SMT because it required an online connection:

"I really loved SMT in Azure but there was always the concern that it's running online. The cloud connection was a showstopper for many of my customers. But with this new solution [Project Honolulu] we really address the needs of IT."
-- Eric Berg, Principal IT Architect, Comparex AG

No More PowerShell Dependency?
Microsoft's announcement also contained an admission that IT pros weren't exactly warming up to PowerShell as their main management tool for Windows Server. In a section entitled, "Yes, we (still) love GUI tools," Microsoft admitted that "IT admins have repeatedly told us that PowerShell is necessary but not sufficient, and that Windows Server ease-of-use is still largely dependent on GUI tools for core scenarios and new capabilities."

Moreover, with Project Honolulu, Microsoft is now backing away from its prior insistence that PowerShell would be required to carry out some administrative tasks.

"Some Windows Server capabilities, which were previously manageable only via PowerShell, now also have an easy-to-use graphical experience," Microsoft's announcement promised with regard to Project Honolulu.

The new Project Honolulu tools also include "a new solution for managing hyper-converged clusters (Hyper-V with Storage Spaces Direct)," Microsoft's announcement indicated. It will provide a single view of virtual machines, volumes and disks, as well as their health status, Microsoft promised. Of course, it shows those details in graph form.

The tools in Project Honolulu are conceived as extensible to work within other management tools. "One tool can link to another with context, and these links are just URLs which can be launched from external sources," Microsoft's announcement explained.

Microsoft is recommending Project Honolulu as the management solution to use for Windows Server 2016 version 1709, which will be arriving perhaps in September or October. Project Honolulu tools apparently can be used with other versions of Windows Server, too, although Microsoft's announcement didn't clarify the point.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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