Windows Server Core vs. Graphical User Interface (GUI) Debate

Windows servers in most environments allow for two forms of installation: the Server Core and the Desktop Experience, also known as the Graphical User Interface (GUI).

The main difference between the two installation options is that the Server Core does not have the GUI shell packages; the Server Core is simply the Windows Server Shell Package.

The PowerShell approach implies that there may be a simple way of switching between the two forms of installation, if all are available in a single Server installation.

Some IT professionals argue that the introduction of the Windows Admin Centre is a move in the right direction and it is a step closer to boosting the mass adoption of the Server Core.

However, this does not free the IT administrators from encountering more challenges.

Are We Ready for the Server Core to Take centre stage?

Windows Server Admins who are not sure where to place their feet in the Server Core vs. GUI debate should consider new positions. Microsoft has come up with new ways of running Windows Server in lightweight mode.

Microsoft, in an attempt to move towards the Server Core, still leaves some Administrators comfortable with the use of the full Windows Server installation because it gives access to the easy-to-use point-and-click GUI menus and tools.

Theoretically, managing many servers with a single or few lines of PowerShell sounds impressive until there is a lot of workload and pressure pile up. Even experienced IT administrators will run to what they have been using ever since—the GUI.

It is this lack of configuration options and the less capability of the shell programs that keep Server Administrators away from installing or using Server Core as a preferred line of defense when working on network issues.

The release of Windows Admin Centre came in at the same time when Windows Server 2019 Long Term Servicing Channel release hit the market. The development of this new tool came from customer feedback: to lower the hindrances to Server Core deployment.

The Windows Server 2019 made a debut with the Server Core App Compatibility Feature on Demand to increase the functionalities that some apps need to run.

During this time, Microsoft added support for Server Core as a deployment option for Exchange Server 2019.

What are the Effects of These Changes on the Server Core vs. GUI Debate?

For administrators who are still in doubt, Server Core is capable of handling infrastructure roles such as Active Directory Domain Controllers and Domain Name System Servers.

In the next session, we’re going to feature a seasoned IT director at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in an interview that highlights some Server Core advantages and disadvantages.

He is also going to talk about why he thinks containers might tip the balance towards the Server Core in some organisations.

  • What deployment method do you use?

The Server Core 2016 is the base system that we use to implement three clusters that run Windows Server 2019 right now. The 2019 version is still new in the market, and the department decided to use GUI as the last emergency option in a crisis. Within six months to a year, we will phase out nodes running 2019 with GUI to 2019 Server Core.

  • Why did your organisation decide to use Server Core?

The advantage is dealing with smaller footprints for patches and resources. Server Core does not demand as many resources to run, but you can get more by running it.

There are fewer incidences of security attacks on the Server Core, and that is something we needed to consider.

  • Why is Microsoft pushing Server Core when administrators prefer to use GUI, do you have any challenges using Server Core?

Server Core will make an Administrator’s life easier. Windows Admin Centre happens to be better than the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT). RSAT gave a single panel for server management.

However, we are still to get a complete toolset. As it is, we may get into GUI for one or two reasons. Microsoft needs to be creative on that aspect and make Server Core a reality for all Administrators.

We are using Server Core 2016 and using GUI as necessary, but with some management challenges, though we take it as a learning curve.

Windows Admin Centre is an excellent place to start but still far from being the perfect replacement Microsoft was hoping would happen. Some of the Admin tools are not coming up as fast as I would like, meaning we are still using GUI more than our liking.

When you are in a production server environment that needs quick troubleshooting, you will struggle with the PowerShell tools or remote management tools like the Windows Admin Centre, but your managers may not give you enough time to solve the problem, so you end up going back to the GUI approach. Using PowerShell in such an environment offers no comfort zone.

The IT community is trying to adapt to the methodology of not relying on GUI to manage the Server. You can either use the GUI tool like the Windows Admin Centre from a management machine or use a remote PowerShell session. Consequently, PowerShell is a steep learning curve.

  • Is Server Core easier to manage with patches and security?

Yes, with the new patches, you will see Windows Server with GUI ending up being like 15 patches and 2 for Server Core. It is easy to find patches on other applications than it is to find consistency in patch releases for the Server Core.

  • Which applications did you use with Server Core that never worked? What are the functions that require PowerShell skills, even when using the Windows Admin Centre?

When we sought proposals for the purchase of the ticketing system, our specification was Server Core; unfortunately, they could not support it.

The Windows Admin Centre still does not support many features, even though they have come a long way, and they add new features in every release.

For instance, there are some things in Failover Cluster Manager that you need to do on the console using GUI. Reason being the feature is absent. This has increasingly necessitated System Administrators to keep pushing Microsoft to develop all tools in Windows Admin Centre and then offer support for the GUI.

  • Do you think Server Core is ready for the market?

The answer differs from one organisation to another; our organisation is not so huge, but we made a lot of progress on the learning curve. We managed to install Server Core as production servers on the new 2019 clusters within a year. Whereas embracing Server Core could be more fulfilling in the long term, most organisations are slow in taking on the new technology.

The biggest challenge to Server Core mass adoption is due to the players in the industry fear of taking risks, or they are not as fast as Microsoft would want them to be. The majority of the workforce does not have the day-to-day experience needed to set up and run the Server Core.

Most IT practitioners who take on Server Core installation and Administration tasks are those working in smaller organisations. A large organisation will always look ready and aggressive to take on new technology, but making the first step is the biggest challenge.

That explains why it is important to encourage people to try out the beta program as much as possible. In our case, we have a corporate plan of testing production workloads in a beta environment. Very few places have a testing environment, which is everything needed for the Windows Server Core to be in the mainstream.

  • Do you think containers might tip the balance towards the Server Core in some organisations?

Another thing that will force people to embrace Server Core is the use of containerisation. A container does not give room for GUI. Therefore, Windows Server for containers seems to be the likely place where Server Core is expected to flourish.

Server Core is the middle step between full-blown physical servers and virtual server containers. The Server Core App Compatibility Feature on Demand is bringing in the ability to include features without the need of installing them.

For example, if you need a .NET framework for any application, you will not install the entire .NET framework, as it will bring up the server in a container only for the features you need.

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