Server Core — Too Dry and Crunchy ?

I’ve got a kind of love/hate relationship with the core installation of Server-2008.

I love: That it has the smallest foot print (I remember the days of Netware 2.0a – 3.x – why does a file server need a GUI ? ) , the smallest attack surface, lowest patch requirements (even if some – like an IE update which is needed because web proxy access for activation is provided via an IE component – seem like they shouldn’t be there).

I hate: The obscure command lines needed to set it up from scratch. Feeling brave on our roadshow, I configured core in front of the audience to show the steps. I was very clear that they should have Step-By-step guide by their side if they were going to do a fully manual configuration of core. I tried to be clear about the question of to core not to core

    1. Don’t bother with core on a small scale. One server ? Forget it. In fact if you’re doing a fully manual installation (instead of  using centralized deployment tools like WDS) you should be asking if core is for you.

    2. Core is for lights out operations. Once configured you remove the monitor and keyboard, and don’t ever connect to the console again. Not even via terminal services. Use remote management tools exclusively

    3. Where “management tool X” can only run locally and can’t run on core – and this applies to some tools for setting up storage – then you can’t use the product on core.

    4. Don’t use core for just one function. If your file servers run in a lights out data-centre and your DCs run in lights out data centre, they can both be on Core.

Core is not for everyone. If you have a battery of file servers then the most optimized way to run them is on core, with file serving as the only role. Serving static Web pages ? Best optimization is to run a farm of web servers on core. Consolidating 10 racks of servers down to one rack with Hyper-V ? Core could be for you.  But be clear – just as the optimization of a sports car for racing means saving weight by stripping out the comforts that would make it a Grand Tourer , so Server Core is pared down to optimize its footprint – which means giving up some of the things which make Windows Servers easy. Just as a racing car isn’t optimized for comfort, Server core is not optimized for ease of setup. And if anyone tells you that every file server , or every DC , or every web Server or every hyper-v server MUST be on Core, or even should be on Core, then they are assuming that every use needs the same optimization. I’d question any advice I got from someone who made assumptions like that.

Unfortunately a few Microsoft folks are putting that message out into the world. So I guess we only have ourselves to blame when VMware post a blog item entitled “Hyper-V with Server Core -- Too Dry and Crunchy for our Taste” . And they make the points that I’ve just made.  They say Microsoft execs are keen to say Hyper-V is just part of Windows. That’s certainly true, it’s covered by Windows support contracts, and support doesn’t increase in cost when you deploy on 4 processor boxes as it does with VMware. It doesn’t force any hardware choices on you. And it’s managed like any other part of Windows – including using the umbrella technologies of the system center family. It does cut training costs - if you know how to set up a high availability  file-server or exchange server you know how to set up a high availability hyper-v server. Next week at VM Expo I have a session where I’m going to install Hyper-v, install failover clustering, set up a VM and show it failing over in 30 minutes. It is easy. But I never run it on core.

The VMware post talks about the Microsoft execs using the phrase “it’s the Windows you know”  and then go on to say that actually for many people Core isn’t the Windows they know: true. “It’s the Windows you know, or an optimized Windows you might not know yet” isn’t a good sound bite. Of course those customers who will find core a good fit for Hyper-V probably do know it already; but there is no getting away from the fact that when you make your installation decision, core needs more expertise than full Windows. Of course that is a choice you get to make and one I don’t think VMware gives customers; so you’d expect ESX to be easier to set-up than core: something would be very wrong if it were harder.

Of course VMware ducks the issue of what happens after you’ve set up the server. Which is easier to manage once it is running ? Customers who are exclusively on VMware have been showing a lot of interest in System Center Virtual Machine Manager (the most expensive piece of our virtualization family). These are people who don’t see their strategy changing  to Hyper-v in the short term, and have spent a lot buying everything VMware has to offer (See Brett’s story about our VMwareCostsWayTooMuch site for VMworld). Yet they still feel that VMware’s management doesn’t cut it and  like the idea that with SCVMM they can make raise the management of VMware to the level we offer with Hyper-V.  Ironically by protesting that it takes longer to set-up Hyper-v in the worst case scenario, the VMware post emphasizes that the up-front investment needed if Hyper-V is to run in the optimized environment of core isn’t especially great when set against the savings Hyper-V offers.

Comments (3)
  1. Anonymous says:

    For those of us who have known Windows since LAN Manager/early NT, Server Core _is_ the Windows we know.

    All this GUI namby pamby stuff is fine for client OSs but fluff for a server OS.

    Microsoft keeps on talking about GUI-less Windows… I’ve yet to see it.  Server Core may be based around a CLI but there is an awful lot of GUI there too.

    Server Core is a good first step.  But I want more – well, less really – oh, you know what I mean!  Real command line only Windows – still with GUI support for remote management via MMC etc. but CLI only (not cmd.exe in a cut down graphical environment).

    Don’t misunderstand me – Server Core rocks… but it’s still only a half-way house.

    (and don’t get me started on the size of Hyper-V Server… that’s another rant entirely…)

    In the meantime, I have two videos on TechNet for those who are struggling to get their heads around a command line…

    Getting Started with Windows Server 2008 Server Core is at and Windows Server 2008 Server Core – Remote Management, Tips and Tricks is at

    Cheers, Mark

  2. Anonymous says:

    Setting the Record Straight One Post at a Time … That’s the tagline of the Virtual Reality VMWare blog,

  3. Mike DiPetrillo says:

    Finally, something we can sort of agree on. 🙂

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