MichaelvdV@Atos

Windows Server 8: Away with the GUI!

Blog Post created by MichaelvdV@Atos on Oct 10, 2011

During the BUILD conference Microsoft announced a lot more details about Windows 8. There are some big changes comming to the OS we all love. In fact, Microsoft is calling it 'The biggest change since Windows 95'. That is quite a bold statement, and with all the radical changes: also quite a gamble. Microsoft is drastically changing their flagship product - the real centerpiece of their business. The 'old' Windows interface is familiar to hundreds of millions of people. I think a lot of us will have to get used to the new 'Metro' style apps.

 

But not only has the look and feel of Windows 8 been changed, maybe the even bigger changes are 'under the hood'. A lot of the internal libraries and API's have undergone a complete overhaul. All Windows subsystems have been reimagined to be modern.

 

Windows 8 is designed to be used on Deskop PC's and touch devices. It supports the ARM CPU, which is an architecture that is used a lot on tablet computers and other smart devices.

 

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While Windows 8 got a lot of attention, an even interesting product got a lot less attention. I'm talking about the big server brother of Windows 8: Windows Server 8!

 

Windows Server 8 has the newest Hyper-V-hypervisor, which supports the vhdx format for virtual storage. Virtual disks can now be 16TB in size, where the previous maximum size was 2TB. Hyper-V 3.0 supports virtual machines with 32 cores, and 512GB internal memory. Also new are two new forms of deduplication. This technique should ensure more efficient use of storage and memory capacity.

 

Page Combining should ensure identical memory pages to be combined into one page. This should give a performance boost to virtual machines. Storage spaces ensures that a server with multiple disks can be combined into one storage pool, which can then be served over the network. This does not require a SAN array.

 

It seems the message with WS8 is 'virtualization, virtualization, virtualization'. This paradigm fits perfectly with the great demand for flexible computing (cloud computing).

 

One other change further emphasizes that paradigm: the removal of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) for the server products. Windows Server 2008 could be installed without a GUI, but that option was somewhat unpopulair. It seems WS8 is here to change that opinion. 'Graphical User Interfaces are for clients, not for server products' according to Jeffrey Snover - Lead Architect of Microsofts' Windows Server Division. 

 

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A lot of existing server software needs a GUI for configuration or operation. That's why the GUI is not completely dissapearing. It's recommended that you use the GUI-less edition, unless you really have to use a GUI. There are two possibilities for users that want to have some kind of graphical capability. The full grahpics shell (Metro Style) can be installed, or you can choose for a 'slim' version. This version does not have the Taskbar, Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer (among other items).

 

One of the major changes to the Windows 2008 Server GUI-less install, is that you can change your installation type afterwards. If you installed the GUI-less version, you can later switch to one of the versions with a GUI. Maybe this further supports the confidence of users to install their server OS without a GUI. Also the fact that the original Windows 2008 Server Core did not have PowerShell. This only became standard with Windows 2008 R2 Server Core. Besides that, only 230 PowerShell cmdlets were installed by default. With Windows Server 8, almost 2500 cmdlets are installed by default!

 

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The main reason why the GUI is being removed is the fact that a GUI uses CPU and memory which then can not be used to perform 'server duties'. Specially in the age where servers are more likely to be a part of a large cluster, there is no need for GUI's. In an ideal situation, cluster nodes should be controlled 'in bulk' instead of being configured individually.

 

The memory footprint of Windows Server 8 is far less when no GUI is installed. That installation only requires 512MB internal memory. There is no real data on how much is needed in production/practice; Microsoft says it is still optimizing the product.

 

One other reason of having a Server product without GUI is that it having a GUI is more of a security risk. The more code you introduce on your system, the more likely that code contains bugs that can be exploited. Having no GUI for your applications means less code, and therefore less change of having criticial bugs that can be exploited. Jeffrey Snover commented that the number of critical security patches required for the Core installation is reduced with 50 to 70 percent. Having no GUI also means faster installation. This is something that is getting more and more important with the dynamic nature of today's computer environments.

 

What does this mean for us developers? Well, at this point the compatibility with existing products should be garantueed if you install the full version with the GUI. Developers are encouraged (and recommended) to create the configuration options in such a way, that they can also be set without a GUI, for instance with the help of configuration files or command line options. There is an option to detect the installed WS8 version, so your application can adapt accordingly. 

 

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A good example is the new Server Manager. The new Server Manager is a Metro Style application (corrected: it's not a Metro style application, but it does have a new Office 365 like look), which uses powershell commands to control the server configuration.

 

Windows Server 8 both supports graphical interfaces and command line tools. We are encouraged to make use of the 'Core' edition, without any GUI. There is no real saying wether the GUI will totally dissapear from our servers, but the concept of having no GUI seems very reasonable.

 

Edit: included a handy table from this source

 

 

Server Core Installation

Features on Demand

Full Installation

Windows Core

o

o

o

Windows PowerShell

o

o

o

.Net Framework 4

o

o

o

Server Manager

o

o

Microsoft Management Consoles

o

o

A subset of Control Panel Applets

o

All Control Panel Applets

o

Windows Help

o

Windows Explorer

o

Internet Explorer

o

Outcomes