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Not as crazy as it sounds: How to run Server 2008 on a notebook

Whether it's for fun or a necessity of the job, here's how to get Windows Server running on a notebook.

From time to time I hear about people—mainly admins, software engineers and high-end tinkerers—who have Windows Server installed on one of their notebooks as the main OS.

Because I've myself been at the "tinkerer" end of the spectrum for so long, it never really hit me until recently how unusual this might seem to some other people. For one, you're using a version of Windows which has most of its attractive end-user functionality disabled by default, and has a lot of its friendlier features either disabled or hidden. Why use it on a production system?

There seem to be two major answers to that question. One is "I have to." Many times the user in question is working with certain things—IIS, Hyper-V—that are only available in their full unadulterated form in Windows Server. You can install IIS in Windows 7 Ultimate, but it absolutely isn't the same thing as running the full-blown version of IIS on Windows Server.

The other reason is "I want to." For some reason, many admins feel that much more comfortable using Windows Server as their native environment, if only because they don't have to switch to a different computer to run things they may need in the course of their work. There may be other reasons, but I'm sure they could all be placed into one of these two categories.

That said, getting Windows Server to run properly on notebooks can be tricky. Part of this is because notebooks aren't really the primary target hardware for Windows Server, although I wouldn't be surprised if over the last several years some concessions were made in that direction under Windows Server's hood. To that end I've assembled a list of a few key areas where Windows Server may need some special nursemaiding to run properly on notebooks, and some advice for each area.

Device drivers
When you first install any edition of Windows on any PC, chances are most of the crucial device drivers—storage, for instance—are available out of the box from the installation media.

This isn't always the case, though, and it seems doubly true for notebooks than desktops. My Toshiba slate notebook can support hardware-level RAID if more than one internal hard drive is supported, but that means it requires a storage device driver which isn't included in Windows. The only place to find it is Toshiba's website, otherwise the installation won't proceed at all.

It sounds like a pain in the rear, and it often is, but in some cases it's actually a blessing in disguise that you're being pestered for a very specific device driver, especially for storage and especially on Windows Server.

Windows Setup will attempt to use a generic, non-manufacturer-specific storage driver just to get things up and running. It might even work, and you might not notice any ill effects from doing so—no data corruption, no BSODs. But a fair amount of the time, that generic driver will not support manufacturer-specific behaviors (e.g., scatter/gather operations) which can improve performance and deal better with the sorts of demands imposed on Windows in a server environment. The same goes for video, network, and a great many other types of hardware drivers, which may need to come from the manufacturer to support hardware-acceleration features or proper power management functions.

With this in mind, take the time before starting the install process to gather all the drivers and installation packages needed for that particular notebook, and place them on a removable drive. The storage device drivers should be unpacked and in their own directory, so the installer can access them when it looks for storage drivers and installation media. This way you won't have a false sense of security about whether or not the storage driver Windows found on its own is in fact the right one. This also saves you the trouble of scratching around for each missing driver afterwards.

One creative approach to the driver problem was suggested by TechNet blogger Robert Larson, which also works as a way to make that much more use of a dual-boot scenario. His recommendation was to install Windows 7 (x64 Enterprise or Ultimate) on one partition, Windows Server on the other, and then update each missing driver by automatically searching the Windows 7 partition for it. It's a clever solution, especially if you were planning on running Windows 7 and Windows Server side-by-side anyway.

I mentioned earlier one of the major reasons people run Windows Server on a notebook is to have ready access to Hyper-V. Whether or not they can do this will depend entirely on the CPU they have—which, unlike with a desktop or server system, is almost never upgradeable. If you're about to drop the money on a new notebook and you want to run Hyper-V, make sure the specific chipset you'll be using can support Intel VT / XD or AMD-V / NX at the very least, and that those functions are enabled in BIOS before you install Windows Server.

Note that support for these functions can also vary deeply even between different revisions of the same model, so be absolutely sure of what you're getting. Also note that not all notebook chips may support other virtualization-acceleration hardware features, like IOMMU (VT-d on Intel), so you may not be able to take advantage of those functions on a notebook either.

Wireless networking/Bluetooth
One function which isn't set up by default in Windows Server, but which is commonly used on notebooks, is wireless networking. It's not difficult to add it, though: go to Server Manager > Features > Add Features and select the Wireless LAN service. After that finishes installing, reboot (just to be safe) and then install the drivers for your wireless adapter.

Adding Bluetooth support, unfortunately, requires a lot of handstands and trickery—see this thread from the TechNet forums for an idea of how complicated it can be. The short version is that Windows Server requires signed drivers for all of its hardware, something Bluetooth makers don't often provide. Few people involved in making Bluetooth hardware—both the devices themselves and the makers of the Bluetooth stacks installed in Windows—see Windows Server as being a crucial target. To that end, it might be best to only attempt installing Bluetooth support if it's absolutely crucial.

Power management
This is another area where you're likely to run into issues. Windows Server does indeed support suspend / resume and hibernation, but it requires that you have a PC that can support it and a graphics driver that supports it. The stock VGA graphics driver, the one most likely installed with Windows Server by default, doesn't support advanced power management. Check with your notebook maker for the proper video device driver.

Two other things are worth keeping in mind. One, the "sleep" and "hibernate" options may not be visible from the main menu, but my way of getting around that is to use the "Choose what the power button does" submenu in Control Panel | Power Options to set the system to sleep or hibernate if the lid is closed or the power button pressed.

Two, if you have Hyper-V enabled, sleep and hibernate are automatically disabled for the system. One way to get around this on a per-session basis is to create a separate boot option that disables Hyper-V (as Ben Armstrong has demonstrated).

User experience features
The last major set of changes you may need to make in Windows Server is optional, but useful. By default Windows Server omits many of the "user experience features" that are included in Windows 7: the disk cleanup utility, Windows Media Player and codecs, support for scanners and cameras, desktop widgets, speech recognition, and so on.

The good news is that Microsoft makes it possible to add the vast majority of this stuff in one swoop, in the Server Manager via the Features Summary> Add Features selection. Look for "Desktop Experience" in the list that comes up, check it off, and let it install. A reboot is required. If you want to enable Windows Aero, you'll have to add a video driver that supports it (as described in "Power management" above) and then select an Aero-enabled theme from the Personalize menu you get when you right-click on the desktop.

The above-linked Microsoft article also has some useful notes about enabling desktop search and a few other miscellaneous end-user Windows features in Windows Server. In the same vein is this blog post, which sports some further suggestions. One of the first listed is one of the best: disabling the shutdown event tracker, which is nothing but an annoyance if you're using Windows Server day-to-day.

One could write a history of computing entirely from the point of view of the use of things in ways never intended by their manufacturers. Windows Server isn't intended to be used as an everyday, desktop-oriented OS, but from what I've gathered here, it can in fact be used that way with a little tweaking. You still can't get all the way (Bluetooth is still a major hurdle), but you can get close enough that it ought to come as quite a surprise to the skeptical.

Serdar Yegulalp
has been writing about personal computing and IT for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including (among others) Windows Magazine, InformationWeek and the TechTarget family of sites.

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