Top five Server Core management tips for Windows 2008

While there are several advantages to using the bare-bones Server Core Installation of Windows 2008, it can still be a challenge for some admins who are used to working with a GUI. Here you'll find some useful tricks to take the headaches out of Server Core administration.

The Server Core installation option for Windows Server 2008 may not have changed the world, but it sure altered the paradigm for interacting with limited-role servers running Windows. While the out-of-the-box and end-user experiences have been refined by Microsoft, there are still some powerful tricks that can make working with Server Core on a daily basis more convenient and error-free.

Here are five tips for using Server Core that I would recommend:

  1. Use a "non-blindingly" large screen resolution. When installing Server Core for the first time, the setup process will probe your video card to determine what resolutions it can support. Sometimes this probe fails because of an incompatibility issue or some type of ephemeral error, leaving you with a mind-numbing 640x480 resolution on your nice fold-out 19" flat-screen monitor.

    Luckily you can make a quick registry edit to enable another specific resolution. To do this, use REGEDIT and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Video. Look at the list of GUIDs to see which one corresponds to your video card. It might take some trial-and-error experimentation to get this right. Under the GUID, create or modify the following keys:

    \0000\DefaultSettings.XResolution
    and
    \0000\DefaultSettings.YResolution.
    Use the appropriate resolution values for each axis.

    Just be aware that if this registry edit doesn't work, you'll need to get back into the registry and change it to a different, supported resolution -- or reinstall altogether.

  2. Change the default prompt. You might find yourself with 17 different command prompts open on your administrative console -- all to different servers (imagine you are in a maze of twisty little passages that all look alike). There's a quick fix that can help differentiate these for you.

    Open REGEDIT and head over to HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Environment. Then create a value named "Prompt" of data type REG_EXPAND_SZ, and enter the following into the value data field:

    $_Server:[%servername%]$_Username:[%username%]$_$T$_$p$g
    A tip of the hat to Arlindo Ralves at Microsoft for this very useful sample prompt. He has some other variables that can be used to further customize the prompt on his blog.
  3. Get rid of the activation nag. You can activate Server Core from the command line using this same VB script file that manages activation in Windows Vista and the full installation of Windows Server 2008: cscript.vbs. The –ato switch accomplishes the activation. You can call the script using CSCRIPT.EXE in the following way:

    Cscript slmgr.vbs –ato
  4. Solving those pesky remote administration connection gremlins. There's nothing more frustrating than to remotely install a new role or software on a machine only to find out that it has shut you out of remote administration. This usually necessitates a late night or weekend trip to the office to figure out the problem and to make sure the machine is still responding. Here are a few commands that could help solve the problem quickly:

    • Remove firewall issues from consideration -- netsh advfirewall set currentprofile settings remotemanagement enable

    • Enable Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) calls -- netsh advfirewall firewall set rule group="windows management instrumentation (wmi)" new enable=yes

    • Enable Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connections -- cscript SCregedit.wsf /AR 0

  5. Disabling User Account Control (UAC). User Account Control isn't available with Server Core for Windows 2008, simply because you need the Windows Explorer shell enabled in order to use the right-click "Run as administrator" option -- something not possible in Server Core. With that said, if you install software or run scripts on a Server Core machine that play with registry entries that control UAC, life can become miserable as you begin to see Access Denied messages, timeouts and other errors.

    The easiest way to avoid this is to disable UAC through a registry hack. Just head over to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ Policies\System and set the EnableLUA value to 0. All you have to do next is reboot the system and you're done.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. Jonathan's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and most recently Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

This was first published in April 2009

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