Multiserver administration and more with RSAT in Windows Server 2012

Microsoft's Remote Server Administration Tools received an update in time for Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8. What's new?

As server hardware moves out of the back room and into the cloud as a virtual resource, remote management becomes the default. Many of us are already used to that. We've managed remotely hosted hardware for a long time, almost never setting foot in the server room unless we had to unplug something.

But with servers becoming elastic commodities, the way we administer them remotely has evolved as well. Case in point: Microsoft's new Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) for Windows Server 2012, especially the edition created for Windows 8.

For those used to connecting via Remote Desktop and performing all of your admin that way, these tools represent a major break from that tradition. They're installed on a local client and allow you to perform the vast majority of high-level administration tasks at a distance.

Here are some of the main benefits that come from using the newest incarnations of RSAT.

Multiserver administration. It almost goes without saying that a major advantage of using Server Manager on a remote client is the ability to manage multiple servers at once. What's particularly new in RSAT for Windows Server 2012 is the ability to manage multiple servers at a glance by role. All servers that have a file-and-storage-services role can be examined in a single dashboard view. Anything that needs action, whether on a given server or within a given server role across multiple servers, is called out with quick links to the appropriate administrative tools. This cuts down on the amount of blind rooting around needed for a given admin task.

Security. The less a given administrator has to touch the server desktop, the better. This is not just because there are some things he might be better off being compartmentalized away from. Access to the desktop means that it can be easier to make a foolish mistake with a broad and detrimental impact (for example, mistakenly deleting the wrong directory). Using a remote management tool confines the admin's behavior to making only needed changes, and it also confines users with reduced privileges to only making the changes they're allowed to make.

Automation. This isn't to say automation (via PowerShell, of course) isn't possible when directly connected to a Windows Server 2012 system. But the capabilities of PowerShell 3.0 allow for even better automation than before from a remote host via functions such as disconnected sessions, the PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment and workflows.

Remotely administering Server Core. Server Core was slightly expanded in Windows Server 2012 to include a stripped-down GUI called the Minimal Server Interface. However, like so many other Server Core components, it's optional and not mandatory. If you'd rather keep your Server Core configuration stripped down and reduce the amount of interaction with Server Core for safety's sake, you can perform all of your Server Core management behaviors via remote admin.

Remotely administering offline images. Role administration through RSAT isn't just something you do to live servers; it's something you can do directly to images of servers stored in virtual hard disks (VHDs), even if those VHDs are offline. This is another sign of how thoroughly Windows Server and Hyper-V have become complementary.

There are some great benefits in using RSAT in Windows Server 2012. But as with all benefits, there are other things to keep in mind. These are some of the potential caveats when using RSAT, thanks to the changes it imposes.

Get the right version for your client system. Microsoft has different versions of RSAT for different Windows clients, including 32- and 64-bit, as well as Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. These versions are not cross-compatible with each other since the installer for each edition contains components specifically for that OS version.

In Windows 8, for example, the tools for managing Hyper-V are native to Windows 8 and don't need to be installed because part of Windows 8 has its own local implementation of Hyper-V. This is one of many small incentives Microsoft has implemented to promote the adoption of Windows 8 in the enterprise, but it has limits. One of these limits? Windows RT for ARM architectures does not have any RSAT tools.

Bear in mind the backward compatibility of the tools. The current generation of RSAT allows for the administration of previous editions of Windows Server, which should be welcome news for admins presiding over a mixture of Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012 systems. Now for the bad news: Not all of the features in previous Windows Server editions can be managed through the current RSAT generation. Some of this is due to the features in question simply not existing in previous editions of Windows Server. Another reason may be because the management of that particular feature can't be accomplished in the same way. I recommend taking a look at this article; it has a good rundown of which earlier-edition features can and cannot be managed through RSAT.

Start with the client tools, not the desktop. This one is for those of you still dealing directly with Windows Server 2012. Get used to the new tools as quickly as you can because you'll get more out of them once you're used to them. Many people grumbled about the way Windows 8 boots into the new Modern UI menu (also known as Metro), and the same grumbling has come with Windows Server 2012 also using the Modern UI menu. Some of these complaints are justified. The more common complaints about the new UI include it being somewhat jarring, heavily simplified and seemingly out of place on a server. On the other hand, the new menu exposes direct links to the very tools that an administrator will be spending most of his time with, which can provide the best distillation of the administrative experience.

Serdar Yegulalp
has been writing about computers and IT for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.

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