Workaround tricks for avoiding the Windows Server 2012 GUI

There are reasons to keep the Windows Server 2012 GUI, but many admins want a workaround. With a little know-how, you can skip the Modern UI.

You'd have a harder time finding a bigger target for system administrators' ire than the "Modern UI" that was created for Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. Admins see it as the antithesis of everything a server's user interface (UI) should be: too simple for its own good. The desktop and command line interfaces we've all come to know and love have been relegated to the status of second-class citizens, for instance.

There are many arguments for why the Modern UI is a good thing for a server UI, such as how it keeps things simple. But few admins are looking for reasons to keep it; what they want are ways to work around it.

Here are some basic ways admins can avoid using the Windows Server 2012 GUI -- and still get things done.

Install a Start menu replacement or bypass app

The most straightforward way to avoid the Modern UI graphical user interface (GUI) is to use a third-party program to bypass it entirely. Many programs not only provide a way to bypass the Windows Server 2012 GUI Start menu, but also offer a re-creation of the Windows 2000-through-7-era Start menu in some form.

The good news is there are tons of these programs out there. But that can also be bad news. Which third-party programs are best to eliminate the Windows Server 2012 GUI?

Since most such applications have not been tested in a server environment, my recommendation is to go with as minimal a program as possible -- one that only skips or disables the new Start menu and does little else to reduce the attack surface.

One such program is Skip Metro Suite. When installed and enabled, it automatically switches to the Desktop after login. Skip Metro Suite can also disable other Windows 8 visual fluff, such as hot corners, so it's also useful for admins already stuck with Windows 8. The program has recently been rewritten to reduce its footprint, and can now run as a standalone application without the need to be installed.

Move as many admin tools as possible to the desktop to avoid context switches

This requires some work but no additional software. Launch as many admin tools necessary for a day's work, and then pin them to the Taskbar on the desktop or make shortcuts to them on the desktop. Be warned: The amount of back-and-forth needed to set this up can be a bit annoying

If you want a way to launch apps on the desktop using the menu -- without flipping back to the Modern UI -- there are a slew of third-party launchers available. Among my favorite is PortableApps, which also works as a repository for many common and useful open-source and free-to-use apps.

To restore things like the My Computer and Control Panel icons to the desktop, you can install the Desktop Experience feature, which can be found in the Add Roles and Features Wizard under User Interfaces and Infrastructure.

Use the Minimal Server Interface

This may be a bit extreme for some, but it's worth mentioning. The Minimal Server Interface is a step up from Server Core in Windows Server 2012, and it provides just enough GUI functionality to allow you to run GUI-dependent programs. The Minimal Server Interface lets you run tools like the Server Manager without having to deal with the Modern UI menu.

The disadvantage is that it doesn't provide you with the desktop, Internet Explorer or Explorer, so it's minimal. Be warned that, because of this, any software you run that would use components like Explorer would most likely crash.

One nice thing about the Minimal Server Interface is you can toggle to it from a standard Windows Server 2012 installation with one command in PowerShell:

#Install-Windowsfeature server-gui-shell –remove –restart

A reboot is required, of course.

If there's one thing Microsoft does regularly, it moves peoples' cheese. Just when we've gotten used to the way things work, they shove things around. Sometimes it's for the better, but more often, it's for the worse.

On the plus side, this means whether we see the Windows Server 2012 GUI in the next version is up for grabs. Perhaps by then, Microsoft will have either replaced the Modern UI with something more amenable to an admin environment or tamed it in such a way that it doesn't feel quite so annoying. Until then, at least we have choices.

About the author
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine. Check out his blog at GenjiPress.com.

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