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Lorin Thwaits A geek says what?

I've been experimenting with the Server Core version of Windows Server 2008 for a project I'm working on.  You may be aware that Win2K8 ships with this great new streamlined "Server Core" mode that you can select during setup.  Installation is lightining-fast, just 10 minutes on my Core 2 Duo machine.  (And that's including the 2 reboots, hardware detection, and everything!)  You end up with only a very minimal set of GUI tools, including notepad and regedit.  The thing is lean and mean, and can run very well in just half a gig of RAM.  You can still copy some Windows executables into the environment and have them run.  Here for instance is Solitaire running under Server Core:

While this simple GDI-centric app works, others will not.  One of the major limitations is that no trace of Internet Explorer is available.  At first this probably doesn't sound like that big a deal, perhaps even a welcome change for a server environment.  But before you start rejoicing, consider that all of the Common File Dialogs, like File Open and Print, come from Internet Explorer.  Okay, so easy enough to install an older standalone version of IE to bring this functionality back, right?  No.  All you will get is an error message about how the terminal server needs to be in application installation mode to continue.  If you try to do the common "CHANGE USER /INSTALL" trick from the command line to fool it, it comes up with a message about terminal servers in remote administration mode can't be set to install vs execute.  I didn't find an easy way to install Internet Explorer anyway, but I didn't try very hard either.

Another limitation with not having IE around is that all of Microsoft's versions of the .NET Framework (the ones for Wintel boxes anyway) require Internet Explorer 5.01 or later.  You can still install Mono from Miguel deIcaza and team, and it will serve out ASP.NET content using XSP pages.  But for those that prefer the standard configuration of ASP.NET 2.0 that comes out of the box with Server 2008, that's not possible with Server Core...  yet.  But there is talk of creating an updated version of the .NET 2.0 framework that will work in Server Core for ASP.NET.

Another limitation related to IIS 7 is that all those cool new hooks available in integrated pipeline mode can only be used with native code, so no managed modules.  And you can't do remote administration since it also relies on the .NET Framework.  IIS 7 is still a great high-performance architecture when running under Server Core, but just not as convenient as when it's on a system that can run managed code.

The final limitation with not having the .NET Framework onboard is that PowerShell is not available.  So needless to say, I'm really looking forward to a custom release of the .NET Framework designed for Server Core!

On the upside, what you get is a great little server platform with a really small footprint.  You can make it a domain controller, DNS server, DHCP, IIS with FastCGI, and so on.  No SQL or Exchange since they also require IE and the .NET Framework.  It's quite possible that SQL and Exchange will never be supported on servers using this kind of small footprint.

When administering, you get a couple of handy GUI-based tools to help you out.  First, MSINFO32, which won't let you change settings, but does let you at least visualize how the machine is configured:

You get basically a read-only view of device manager, the services running on the system, and many other handy tidbits of info available through WMI.  For services this is a very handy view to know what's running, and the short names you need to use with NET START and NET STOP.

Second, you get the always useful Notepad program.  The standard File / Open and File / Save dialogs have been changed out to use the old-school 32-bit API calls that were first made available back in Windows NT 3.1:

Third, you still get regedit!  The good one that lets you change permissions.  It's also modified to work with the older common file dialogs, so you can import and export whole keys:

A final tool worth mentioning is a command line tool that you can only get in Server Core.  It's oclist, which is designed to help you out when you use ocsetup:

Consider that since you don't have access to Server Manager (which is the new Add Remove Windows Components thing in Server 2008), it's harder to install stuff.  Imagine how annoying it would be to figure out the cryptic command line junk needed to install and uninstall features of Windows just using ocsetup.exe and pkgmgr.exe blind.  It would be a nightmare.  Fortunately you can run this tool, oclist, to see exactly what features are available to install, and it shows them in a hierarchy that describes the dependencies involved.

There's no facility to upgrade a Server Core install to a full install of Server 2008, or vice-versa, but you can at least copy the oclist tool over to another machine that's running the full Server 2008, and then run it to see all the cryptic names of exactly what is installed on that system.  This allows you to more easily replicate that same server scenario on the smaller-scale Server Core.  Note that the full (non-Core) install of Server 2008 has LOTS more stuff that gets listed when using oclist.

One final thing to mention is that although the full Control Panel is not available, you get two of the applets, the timeDate.cpl and intl.cpl:

Everything runs as the elevated Token.  No Vista-style "whack-a-mole" with UAC popups.  Notice that the command prompt itself is running elevated all the time.  I don't even think you can start a process as LUA.

All in all I'm impressed with this option for Windows.  Kind-of reminiscent of the good ol' DOS days when we were all rooted in the basics, and the command line was king.  I expect lots of shops will take advantage of this lightweight and secure environment.

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2007 6:02 AM IIS , Efficiency | Back to top


Comments on this post: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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I work in an agency that had the chance to chat with the Microsoft developers behind Windows Server 2008.

Check out the vids here:
http://www.youtube.com/microsoftdevelopers
and meet some colourful characters....
Left by Penny on Nov 25, 2007 6:32 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Great Article! I was wondering how long it would be until someone started pushing the limits of what could and could not be done within a core install. Have you tried this again in RC1?

-Paul

http://windows2008.informedcio.com/2008/01/13/dude-who-stole-my-gui.aspx
Left by Paul Shearer on Jan 13, 2008 4:07 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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The greatest version of windows yet released...so that we can play solitaire?
Left by Buy Bullion on Jun 12, 2009 6:48 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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The greatest version of windows yet released...so that we can play solitaire?
only in draft ))
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# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Left by DDos Protection on Nov 08, 2009 11:34 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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That great post.
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Left by Execter on Nov 09, 2009 12:10 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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I agree, i love the look of this new window and i enjoy the features.
Left by Men's Wallets on Nov 18, 2009 9:11 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Thanks for telling us some of the limits of W2K8 server core. Helped me decide how to use it going forward (just as small VMs for DC, DNS, etc). I had it the other way around, thinking it was best as the Host OS for VMs.

The limitation of the .net framework w/o the powershell is what killed it for me. Did not read that limitation anywhere else, but here. Thank you for clarifying!

For the record, I did install both server core and the GUI version of the Enterprise editions.

There was only a 3.5 GB difference in disk space, and 110 MB of ram.

Now, I know once you start opening those UI windows and clicking around, that memory consumption goes up.

Again, thanks for the article. I thought I'd share my recent experience as well.
Left by Eric Duncan on Apr 02, 2010 1:07 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Very informative and crisp post. Thanks much for it!
Left by Sho on Apr 03, 2010 3:13 PM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Very cool. It's true that memory consumption goes up once you start opening those UI windows and click around.
Left by Industrial Design Services on Jun 17, 2010 12:52 AM

# re: Windows 2008 Server Core is worth a look
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Thats sweet that everything runs as the elevated Token, and that there is no Vista-style "whack-a-mole" with UAC popups. Awesome.
Left by Design Firms Seattle on Jun 17, 2010 12:54 AM

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