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Remote Management in Windows Server 8

Windows Server 8 is set to improve on a solid remote management foundation, but there are changes, like the move to GUI-less deployments, to consider.

You’re in business in 2012. That means you’ve got all sorts of machines connected to each other, and the Internet, in a variety of different ways.

Windows hasn’t traditionally been good at allowing remote management, so this means that you’ve probably had to invest in third-party tools. Or, you managed the servers in location A from location A, and then when something went wrong in location B, you had to drive over to B or have someone there correct the problem. This type of extended sneakernetting is an even bigger problem when you consider that many companies are hosting their servers in data centers around the world. The new reality is that you have to be able to touch and manage machines wherever they are, and no matter how they’re connected.

Microsoft said the idea behind Windows Server 8 is to make it the platform of choice for all types of servers in all types of connections—public clouds, private clouds, data centers, server farms, you name it. However many machines there are, and however many ways in which those machines are connected to each other and the wide world of the Internet, Windows Server 8 plans to take on the challenge of making those operating systems and thus those machines easy to manage.

I see Microsoft succeeding in this challenge through three basic pillars:

The biggest change is the removal of the graphical user interface as the default interface and management option. How does this relate to remote management? It’s more of a conceptual shift, a change in the thinking that has pervaded Windows system administration theory since the operating system’s inception. In Windows Server 8, Microsoft has committed to making the command line the administrative “portal” of choice. You can install the traditional Windows GUI, but it’s entirely optional -- essentially, Server Core has become the standard installation option, and the full edition is now the less-desired cousin. This is important because it’s nearly infinitely easier to administer remote machines using command-line tools; there’s less to go wrong, a better surface for scripting repetitive tasks, easier connections and status reporting, and the ability to make generic the server-specific tasks you are doing today.

In short, making the GUI the “afterthought” -- despite the Metro-style updates to the look and feel that the company has made to its graphical management tools -- enables the entire operating system to interact with its pieces, itself and other instances and machines with a seamless, connected feeling. You manage the server under your desk from the same command prompt as you do the server in the data center across town, and you manage the server instance you have running in the cloud in the same way—from the command line, using PowerShell, using the same tooling to which you’ll become accustomed. One set of tools and commands for the OS that work anywhere; that’s the vision.

In Windows Server 8, just about everything imaginable is PowerShell-enabled. Many of the server products and services that ride atop previous versions of Windows use PowerShell at their cores, with the GUI management consoles simply functioning as interactive ways to build cmdlets that were then executed at the completion of a wizard. That motif has been extended to the very depth of the operating system.

The new Server Manager GUI piece, while still a GUI, is basically a shell that remotes anywhere and everywhere. Consider a scenario wherein you needed to deploy file services on 10 new servers that you purchased and have recently put into production. With Windows Server 2008, or Windows Server 2008 R2 for that matter, you would generally have had to use Remote Desktop to log in to each individual machine, step through the Server Manager’s Add Roles wizards, restart, and then verify—lather, rinse, and repeat for nine other machines until you were done. God forbid you got some new budget money and bought 100 machines. With Windows Server 8, however, that type of service and role addition and deployment happens like this: you load Server Manager on either one of the servers or on your administrative console. You run through the wizard and then export the selections you’ve made into an XML file. You shoot that XML file off to the new servers, and then execute the installation from the PowerShell-based command line, calling that XML file on each server. Everything else happens automatically. You get consistency-- every checkbox you have to remember to check or uncheck represents an opportunity for you as the administrator to make a mistake -- and the power to deploy a bunch of machines almost at once, straight from an XML file and native in-the-box tools.

In addition, the graphical elements of Server Manager roll up critical information across multiple servers. You can view, and perhaps more importantly, filter, events at your discretion in a single window, the data from which is harvested from as big a collection of servers—from disparate locations—as you want. If you select items on the screen, you can perform actions that apply to all of the servers that meet the criteria for which the item you selected applies. For instance, if you select multiple machines with Web services installed, you can restart IIS on all of them—right from a single console. You can also restart those machines.

If Microsoft can continue delivering on the vision it set out for enabling seamless remote management experiences with Windows Server 8, administrators everywhere will be better off.

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

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