Server Core vs. GUI: Is Server Core ready for prime time?

Windows Server administrators who are on the fence in the Server Core vs. GUI debate might have to rethink their positions after Microsoft introduced a few ways to make it easier to run the lightweight deployment option.

Despite Microsoft’s push toward Server Core, many administrators prefer the full Windows Server installation because it provides access to the point-and-click GUI menus. In theory, managing thousands of servers with a few lines of PowerShell sounds impressive, but when a workload falters and pressure begins to mount, many in IT would prefer to stick with the familiar management terrain of a full Windows Server deployment. The lack of configuration options and application capability issues have deterred administrators from investing in Server Core.

Microsoft released the Windows Admin Center to coincide with the Windows Server 2019 Long-Term Servicing Channel release. The company developed this new tool based on customer feedback to lower the barriers to Server Core deployment. Windows Server 2019 debuted the Server Core App Compatibility Feature on Demand to add certain functionality that certain apps need to run. And, for the first time, Microsoft added support for Server Core as a deployment option for Exchange Server 2019.

But are all these changes enough to end the Server Core vs. GUI debate?

Christopher Rivers, the IT director at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, has used Server Core since its arrival in Windows Server 2008. His organization has 300 production servers and approximately a quarter of them are Server Core, and most of those deployments handle infrastructure roles, such as Active Directory domain controllers and domain name system servers.

In this Q&A, Rivers talks about Server Core’s advantages and disadvantages and why containers just might tip the scales toward Server Core in some organizations.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does your server deployment look like?

Christopher Rivers: We have Server Core 2016 in production. We have three clusters running [Windows Server] 2019 right now.

Christopher Rivers, IT Director, Canadian Museum for Human RightsChristopher Rivers

It’s so new to the market, we collectively thought that having GUI as that final emergency step to go in and fix something was more of an advantage for us. Probably in six months to a year, we’ll start phasing the nodes that are currently running 2019 with GUI over to 2019 Server Core.

Why did your organization decide to use Server Core?

Rivers: The advantages that Microsoft offers in terms of what they’re trying to do with smaller footprints for patching and a smaller footprint in terms of resources. You don’t have to have as many resources running the server or actually get more out of the resources you have by running Server Core.

The security feature that there’s less of an attack surface for Server Core is definitely a consideration for us.

Why is Microsoft pushing Server Core when most people seem to prefer the GUI full installation, and what are the challenges with Server Core?

Rivers: In the end, [Server Core] will make everybody’s life easier. Windows Admin Center is much better than the RSAT [Remote Server Administration Tools] were where you have a single pane of glass for all your management needs.

But, to date, there hasn’t been a complete tool set. You still needed to go onto GUI for some things. So that’s where Microsoft needs to evolve to make Server Core a reality for everybody.

We are on Server Core 2016 and only using GUI servers where necessary, but we’re having a little bit of a management challenge with that. It’s more of a learning curve and the tool set maturity that we’re facing.

Windows Admin Center is a good first start, but it’s still not the total replacement Microsoft was hoping it was going to be. Most of the administration tools and the learning experience of the teams supporting them haven’t quite come up as fast as I would have liked. We still use GUI servers more than I would like.

If you’re working on a production server’s downed environments [or] you’re struggling with the PowerShell tools or the remote management tools like Windows Admin Center and your leadership is pushing you to solve this problem as quickly as you can, you’re just going to fall back to your old ways of going to the GUI. The comfort level’s not there.

The IT community and skill sets have to come up to embrace that methodology of you don’t use a GUI to manage the server; you either use a GUI tool like Windows Admin Center from a management machine or you are using a remote PowerShell session. That’s where I see the biggest gap in everybody I’ve talked to. PowerShell is a steep learning curve.

Have you found Server Core easier to manage with patches and security?

Rivers: Yes, [when] Patch Tuesday comes out, you see Windows Server with GUI end up being like 15 patches and one or two for Server Core. Yes, you’re still patching the server on Tuesday. It’s the impact. It’s not always, but most often it’s like, ‘Oh well, there’s a patch for Internet Explorer on Windows Server,’ and that’s just not an issue on the GUI.

Are there any applications you tried with Server Core that didn’t work, or certain functions that require PowerShell skills, even with the Windows Admin Center?

Rivers: When we were going through the process for government purchasing requests for proposals for our ticketing system, we specified Server Core would be our preference and they said it doesn’t support it.

There are a lot of features that Windows Admin Center still doesn’t do. They’ve come a long way since they first started. Every release, they come up with new features.

For example, I know there are some things in Failover Cluster Manager that you need to do on the console using the GUI just because the feature set hasn’t been there. Several presenters at Ignite last year mentioned the direction internally at Microsoft. There’s a big push at Microsoft to develop all the tools in Windows Admin Center first and then support the GUI and all that after.

Do you think that Server Core is ready for prime time?

The biggest challenge to Server Core is all the major players are either risk-averse or just not able to change as quickly as Microsoft wants.

Rivers: [It depends] on the organization. We’re small and nimble. I think we’re well ahead of the curve of most organizations with us having Server Core as production servers and Server Core on our new 2019 clusters within a year. In previous roles, I was in a big enterprise with hundreds of thousands of servers, and those types of organizations don’t move as fast as the people working there, or Microsoft, would like.

The biggest challenge to Server Core is all the major players are either risk-averse or just not able to change as quickly as Microsoft wants. The bulk of those people working in the industry don’t have the day-to-day experience to really champion a Server Core. Your champions are in smaller, more nimble organizations. Every once in a while, you’ll find a larger organization that is aggressive in their stance on adopting new technology.

That’s why I’ve always encouraged people to be in the beta program and have their own personal strategies. We actually have a bit of a corporate strategy of testing production workloads in our beta environment. A lot of places don’t. That’s what it’s going to take for Windows Server Core to be mainstream.

The other revolution that’s going to force people into [Server Core] is the containerization initiative everybody’s going through right now. There’s just no room for GUI in a container. Windows Server for containers is likely where Server Core is going to really flourish.

Server Core is the interim step between full-blown physical servers and virtual servers to containers. The whole world is going into containers. That [Server Core App Compatibility] Feature on Demand is that container relationship from what I understand, where you just light up features. You don’t have to have them all installed.

So if you need a .NET framework, for example, for an application, you don’t have to have the whole .NET framework itself; it just basically spins up that server in a container for what you need.

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