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Manage headless servers for free with Server Management Tools

Windows Server management can be complicated -- especially headless server deployments -- but Microsoft attempts to ease this task with its free Azure-based Server Management Tools.

Microsoft's new Server Management Tools service in Azure can help administrators who need to manage headless servers in the data center. Another perk to this offering? It's free.

In Windows Server 2016, Microsoft deemphasizes the traditional graphical part of Windows management with its introduction of Nano Server. In this lightweight server deployment, Windows doesn't actually mean Windows anymore -- it means a text console on a headless server. PowerShell-savvy administrators will have no trouble with Nano Server management, but for those new to headless servers, there's the Server Management Tools (SMT) offering.

Limited Nano Server management

Server Management Tools gives the administrator simple Microsoft Windows Server Manager- and Task Manager-style information about nano server and Windows Server Core, the headless versions of Windows Server. It's not meant to be a full management product, and it is decidedly not a full graphical user interface. Rather, it's a web-based tool for accessing headless servers and performing ad-hoc administration that doesn't justify building PowerShell scripts and remoting into the systems. It's also an option for IT shops that cannot invest in System Center.

While Windows Server Core is generally more hospitable than Nano Server when it comes to direct administration from the console or over Remote Desktop Protocol, they are both meant to be managed from afar. But, Windows Server doesn't come with easy-to-use tools to do this management -- aside from the Remote Server Administration Tools set, which basically puts the Windows Server GUI back on another system. The SMT suite is designed to provide quick management and diagnostic information about Nano Server and Windows Server Core machines: information at a glance, basic control over networking, user accounts, startup, shutdown and updating.

Assessing the use of the Azure Server Management Tools

Most organizations are still heterogeneous when it comes to Windows Server versions; between the Azure cloud requirement to use SMT and the fact it only manages later OS versions, the appeal is limited.

On the other hand, the tool is free. There is no runtime cost in Azure, and there is no license fee for the gateway machine, other than the OS it runs on. This is one more tool in your management arsenal and it's definitely the visual tool of choice for handling headless Nano Server deployments.

The administrator can use SMT on Windows headless servers to:

  • Look at and change system configuration information like system name, installed roles and networking settings;
  • Monitor performance of the server's processors, memory, disk and networking;
  • Start, stop and monitor processes and services in the same way that they would use Task Manager;
  • Manage devices -- and their drivers -- attached to servers;
  • View and handle event log entries; and
  • Access a PowerShell console to do further analysis, troubleshooting or management.

SMT can only manage Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows Server 2016 machines. No 2008 and 2008 R2 servers will show up in this tool and must be managed via another method.

Head in the clouds

Microsoft hosts Server Management Tools in Azure. This allows SMT to run independently of the IT organization's infrastructure and security perimeter with one crucial exception: a gateway server that communicates both with Azure and the tooling in the cloud, and also with the private servers that are  management targets for the tool. A lot of administrators prefer the convenience of a web-based toolkit. This is essentially a role on a machine running Windows Server 2012 R2 or Windows Server 2016. For the 2012 R2, install the Windows Management Framework 5.0 toolset; the 2016 version is ready to go with no additional software support.

Microsoft Nano Server is a no-frills 64-bit server operating system that debuted in Windows Server 2016. The default deployment has no graphical user interface (GUI) nor any embedded server roles.

To deploy Server Management Tools requires a Microsoft Azure subscription. Log into the new portal -- do not use the manage.windowsazure.com portal -- and browse to the Azure Marketplace. Find "Server management tools" and click the Create button at the bottom of the pane. Add the name or IP address of the servers to be managed, and create a new gateway -- the machine that sits in the middle and passes management requests to and from Azure and the endpoint -- in this process. Click Create and continue to the SMT pane where you can connect to the machine via username and password. Here you'll be prompted to create a new gateway.

The gateway installation process involves downloading a small ZIP file, extracting the MSI file and a configuration JSON file and installing it on a Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows Server 2016 machine. After that's complete, head back to Azure and click Refresh, and after entering your credentials again, you should connect to the endpoint.

Next Steps

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