Four Server Core myths: Busted!

Microsoft's Server Core installation option for Windows Server has many benefits, but persistent inaccuracies have limited its widespread adoption.

Microsoft’s Server Core installation option for Windows Server has been around for a few years now, receiving its latest update in Windows Server 2008 R2. It’s more than likely that this GUI-free version of the server OS will someday become the normal and default installation option.

Microsoft has a lot of work yet to do in order for that to be feasible; in the meantime, it still makes sense to use Server Core whenever and wherever you can. That lets you become more familiar with it, and has some other tangible benefits like reduced patching, smaller memory and disk footprint (great in virtualized environments), and more.

Unfortunately, there are some persistent myths about Server Core that keep a lot of people from wanting to use it. Let’s take the four most serious myths and bust ‘em.

  • Server Core can only run the specific roles that were designed for it. Just not true. You can run anything on Server Core that (a) can be installed, and (b) doesn’t depend on Windows features that aren’t present on Server Core. In R2, Server Core picked up almost all of the .NET Framework, so pretty much any server-grade application should be able to run on Server Core. Installers are actually the big challenge, here, because vendors continue to build highly complex, graphically dependent installers that just won't run on Server Core. It’s kind of ironic: If it weren’t for those installers, you could probably get a lot more stuff running on Server Core. But, if an installer offers a scripted, “quiet,” or other GUI-free mode, then it should run fine.
  • Server Core can’t run the anti-virus agents, management agents and other tools you need on a server. False. I’m actually not aware of any current-version, server-grade anti-malware software that won’t install on Server Core. As for management agents, I’ve seen System Center, Tivoli, Landesk, and many others all happily humming away on Server Core. Sure, you won’t get a Notification Area icon since Server Core doesn’t have a Notification Area—or even a Taskbar—but the software will install and run just fine.
  • Server Core is hard to set up and manage. “Set up,” yeah. I’ll partially buy that one. It’s not exactly difficult to configure a new server from the command-line, but not many of us are familiar with all the esoteric commands. That said, a lot of the harder things—like configuring the Windows Firewall—should honestly be done in a Group Policy object anyway. As for managing Server Core on an ongoing basis… well, that’s no problem. Just administer from your Windows 7 client computer, using all of your favorite MMC snap-ins. Even Server Manager, in R2, can connect to and manage a remote computer.
  • Server Core doesn’t run PowerShell. A pure falsehood. In R2, Server Core not only runs PowerShell, it also runs WinRM, meaning that you can remotely connect to PowerShell so that you don’t even have to log on to the server’s console or start an RDP connection. Server Core doesn’t use PowerShell as its default shell; when you log onto the console (or start an RDP connection) you get good old Cmd.exe, but just running “powershell” will start the new shell. It’s likely that PowerShell will become the default console in a future version – at the same time that Microsoft provides a full set of PowerShell cmdlets for basic server configuration tasks.

So there you have it. Server Core is straightforward, and it offers a broad range of benefits. I know organizations that have moved all of their domain controllers, for example, to Server Core – and they’re delighted with the results. So give Server Core another look.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don Jones
is a Senior Partner and Principal Technologist for Concentrated Technology, LLC, a strategic consulting and analysis firm. Contact him through the company's Web site, http://ConcentratedTech.com.

This was first published in September 2011

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