Home Windows Server 8 Sheds Its Graphical Baggage

Windows Server 8 Sheds Its Graphical Baggage

Since its inception, Windows Server has been carried a unique, embedded burden: Windows itself. From the beginning, there hasn’t been much justification for all the graphical resources one requires from a client operating system inhabiting a server. Now with remote management evolving away from virtual sessions, and with server OS images becoming virtualized almost by default, Windows Server doesn’t really need even the option of the Aero environment.

While the Windows 8 client took bold steps last week to align itself more closely with the expectations of a tablet operating system, Windows Server 8 took similar, bold steps in an equally inevitable direction: Its “preferred” installation buildout (coming oh, so close to being called the “default”) will be Server Core, which is entirely command-line-based, without the front end (UI). But a new alternative, in-between installation lets admins install a limited set of graphical resources – just enough to run the new Server Manager and Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

“To manage a cloud-optimized operating system, we need a new management experience – one that gives us the power of many servers but the simplicity of one, and something that allows us to robustly automate everything,” said Jeffrey Snover, now Lead Architect for Windows Server, during version 8’s preview rollout last week at Build 2011. Snover was the creator of PowerShell, the enormously versatile command-line-driven management tool which now provides the operating platform for Exchange Server 2010. He was lightweight when lightweight wasn’t cool.

Clearly demonstrating that the design principles gleaned from Microsoft’s new “Metro” style aren’t just for novice users, Snover showed a more graphically pleasing, better laid-out, easier to navigate Server Manager, the basic front-end controller for Windows Server. It could very well be renamed “Servers Manager” for its ability to manage events and resources on several servers simultaneously.

“Starting in Windows Server 8, the preferred deployment configuration is Server Core,” said Snover. “That means if you have a rich management experience like [Server Manager], you need to migrate it off the server to the client and do remote management.”

With Release 2 of Windows Server 2008, it became a simple matter for admins to make PowerShell run entirely in the command line (previously – and ironically – it could only run in tandem with the graphical environment since it’s built atop the .NET Framework). At that time, the PowerShell team introduced a set of cmdlets (read: “command-lets”) that echoed all the functionality of Server Manager, without any of the front end. The new Server Manager is effectively a graphical UI for that set of cmdlets, similar to how the Exchange Server management console is now a graphical layer for PowerShell-based tools.

Microsoft’s old design philosophy was to bury a flurry of settings in a middle pane behind hierarchical layers of categories on the left pane, as shown in the above example from the first Server Manager in Windows Server 2008. It seemed to make sense when you explained it to someone: You chose a category from the left, an object from the middle, and then an action from the right. The problem with this philosophy was that it ensured that every setting you wanted to make was inevitably at the bottom of some pile someplace. Admins got their certification based on knowing just what pile that was.

The differences in the new version (above) starts at the surface and goes straight to the core. It’s the same information, but now it’s presented on grid controls that are flexible, sortable, and adaptable. Events and Services no longer appear on separate tiers that have to be navigated like a tax code; here, they share the same screen. And when you select more than one server from the list, the events and services applicable to all those you’ve chosen appear here too.

At Build 2011, Snover showed a scenario where he needs to deploy IIS on multiple servers, then deploy the Web site to those servers and ensure it’s running. “In the past, what I would have to do is Terminal Service to each one of the servers, install IIS locally, and then do a set of manual processes to deploy and test the Web site. That takes a lot of time; and every time there’s a manual step, there’s an opportunity to screw up. And I don’t wanna screw up, because I’ll get fired.”

With the reformed Server Manager, the new Add Roles and Features Wizard can be adapted to install roles not only on multiple live servers, but also directly to a virtual disk (VHD). The multiple-server adaptation requires exporting the role installation to an XML file, which can then be copied to the other servers and run from the PowerShell command line, thus automating the deployment. (This particular Wizard actually has not changed very much in style from its predecessor, except for the capability to install to VHD and to export settings to XML.)

“The power of PowerShell is the ability to generate abstractions that allow you to think about you want, and type in and get it.” Through PowerShell, Snover showed how he could direct a script to read the XML file and direct its contents to two other servers. Scripts in PowerShell 3.0, which premieres with Windows Server 8, start to look a lot more like modular .NET code through the use of the new workflow keyword, which designates a function much like the function keyword in JavaScript. “This looks just like a PowerShell function, but instead using this workflow keyword, we can convert that into a Windows Workflow [using WF] and run it across multiple machines.”

Simply trimming down the Windows Server package to a solid kernel, with or without a basic but manageable UI, will dramatically change the profile of the operating system in virtualized environments, and could radically improve performance.

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