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Nano Server benefits means big changes for Windows Server

Windows Nano Server offers many benefits over traditional Windows Server deployments, including the ability to run multiple instances on a single host.

With the buzz surrounding the Windows 10 release to manufacturing and general availability, you may have missed an important out–of-band Windows Server announcement. It was totally reworked to be smaller, faster, more nimble and more secure. This version is Windows Nano Server, and it's an important development.

We first heard about Windows Nano Server in early 2015 when Microsoft distinguished engineer and lead architect Jeffrey Snover discussed it in a blog post. Windows Nano Server is a lighter version of Windows Server designed to run exclusively in cloud and container scenarios.

It strips out the graphical user interface stack, desktop and interactive application compatibility, as well as the entire 32-bit compatibility layer -- it will only run 64-bit applications. Nano Server doesn't support installing applications through Microsoft Installer technology, which further erodes traditional application support.

The benefits of this lobotomy of the traditional Windows Server product are legion:

  • The installed size of an entire Windows Nano Server instance can be up to 93% smaller than traditional Windows Server setups.
  • Reboots because of security patches and other sorts of configuration administration tasks are cut down by 80%.
  • In an analysis of security patches, Microsoft was able to demonstrate that 92% fewer critical patches would apply to a production Nano Server deployment than a traditional Windows Server instance.
  • The time required for a preboot execution environment to boot and install Nano Server over the network reduces from 19 minutes to three minutes.

Nano Server supports runtimes for C#, Java, Node.js, Python and more, so it makes for a compact, lightweight and robust Web server and Web application role. It also supports Hyper-V and scale out file server clusters, meaning you could have lots of these small Nano Server instances provide file server support on a fault tolerant basis; it would also be at a significantly lower cost than you can do so today because of the traditional Windows Server resource requirements in that role. You can program against it directly using Visual Studio, which is great for your development team to roll out a new application complete with a preinstalled operating system, such as Docker or other container options. You can also manage Nano Server instances with System Center, PowerShell remoting and the old-fashioned Windows Management Instrumentation. Most of your existing remote management tools will still work, but interactive ones and those requiring an agent to be installed on the system won't function with Nano Server.

Why is Windows Nano Server important?

I think Windows Nano Server is the biggest thing to happen to Windows Server, or maybe even the entire Windows platform itself, since Active Directory. Active Directory's introduction in Windows 2000 cemented a move away from the 16-bit kernels of Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and Windows 98 while ushering in the NT codebase as the one from which Windows would be built -- we still use that today. It improved the Windows platform's usability and stability, so much so that I don't think computing would be where it is today if Microsoft hadn't made that move.

Nano Server signals a similar sea change for Windows. It's a break with the past -- the complete elimination of interactive applications and 32-bit application compatibility -- and solves problems that can make Windows insecure and unreliable. A clean departure from the albatross of robust backward compatibility allows Nano Server to really get compact and rugged. It makes Nano Server instances extremely portable, executable anywhere -- from a local Hyper-V host to a server closet -- and makes having an "OS appliance" a reality.

Think about the pure scalability of this option. Microsoft has frequently put up to 1,000 Windows Nano Server instances on a single host. For Web hosts and others who always look to compartmentalize and consolidate, stacking hundreds of virtual machines on one host is a dream come true. Your scale out file server clusters can happen with a few thousand dollars' worth of hardware and your existing storage area network, not with thousands of dollars of machines equipped to run the full Windows Server version. Your developers can package up their own applications complete with a well-tuned, customized, fully set up Web environment and make it part of their installable package, fully realizing the promise of the DevOps movement while eliminating a lot of back and forth between the developers and the IT team to get configurations tweaked and "just so."

Windows Nano Server is a hugely important development. Watch for its general availability alongside Windows Server 2016 early next year. While it might not be totally practical for you right now, it will be soon.

About the author:
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. His books include RADIUS, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

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This was last published in July 2015

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