Windows Server 2019 — Server Core vs. Desktop Experience (GUI) Explained & Compared. Re: Datacenter, Standard, Essentials & Hyper-V Server

Windows Server 2019 — Server Core vs. Desktop Experience (GUI) Explained & Compared. Re: Datacenter, Standard, Essentials & Hyper-V Server

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Desktop Experience (GUI) vs Core Server

Windows Server 2019 is available in two forms: Server Core and Desktop Experience (GUI) .This article focuses on key aspects relating to those forms: Server Core and Desktop Experience. Both forms are available for either product edition:

  • Windows Server 2019 Standard
  • Windows Server 2019 Datacenter

To add to the confusion, the article also relates to Microsoft Hyper-V Server. Though names can at times be misleading, Hyper-V Server (which is an independent and free product) shall not be mistaken with its siblings: Windows Server Standard or Datacenter with Hyper-V role installed.

As needed, feel free to give a look at our previous blog post from earlier this week, comparing Windows Server 2019 Standard vs. Datacenter vs. Hyper-V Server vs. Essentials. In contrast, this blog compares the Server Core and Desktop Experience (GUI) modes, which again, are available for either Standard or Datacenter editions.

Too much talking already? Let?s Go!

Who?s Out There

Windows Server 2019 has just been launched earlier this month with the following products in its family:

  • Windows Server 2019 Standard (Server Core or Desktop Experience)
  • Windows Server 2019 Datacenter (Server Core or Desktop Experience)
  • Windows Server 2019 Essentials (Desktop Experience only)
  • Hyper-V Server 2019 ? (Server Core only)

A little confusing? Let?s try to clarify with a table.

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Family ? Editions, and Forms

As the table exhibits: Hyper-V Server is only available in the form of Server Core. Thus there are less decisions to make 🙂 Accordingly, everything which applies to Server Core, applies to Hyper-V Server just as well. Similarly, Essentials is only available in the form of Desktop Experience.

Server Core vs. Desktop GUI ? A Setup Decision

The specific edition and its form are selected in the beginning of Windows Setup. In previous versions of Windows Server, either the product edition or mode could have been converted later on. I.e. Windows Server 2016 Datacenter could have been Installed as Datacenter and then converted to Standard, and vice versa; Similarly, Windows Server could have been installed as Core Server and then converted to Desktop Experience.

However, this is not anymore the case with version 2019. Though converting between Datacenter to Standard is still supported, Server Core or Desktop Experience (GUI) cannot be converted anymore.

Either Server Core or Desktop Experience are determined at setup, once and for entire life of the product.

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Setup ? Server Core / Desktop Exp. Determined for the Product?s Lifetime

Who?s Who? (Simplified Description)

Windows Server Desktop Experience (GUI) is the classic and well known form of Windows Server, which has been with us (and evolving throughout time) since the iconic Windows NT. Desktop Experience obviously contains a GUI, rendering the machine comparatively user-friendly and easier to manage either remotely or locally.

Image for postWindows Server 2019 with Desktop Experience ? The Classic Look (e.g. Windows 10 1809)

Windows Server ? Server Core is a strapped down version of Windows Server. Generally speaking, it contains no GUI (but this does not always have to be the case, as explained in our coming blog regarding transforming Server Core in a GUI-based workstation). As Server Core setup completes, the machine boots into something like this…:

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Server Core: Looks is not Among its Key Strengths

Server Core it is meant to only be managed remotely, or it can be locally managed via command line and PowerShell, which is far from easy, even for experienced administrators.

Server Core ? Advantages & Disadvantages

The classic advantages of Server Core include a smaller footprint (lower consumption of CPU, RAM and disk space), less vulnerabilities and more resistency to cyber attack as it contains a smaller attack surface and less code. Less is installed with Server Core by default, and much can be added on a per-need basis. Some roles and functions, however, are not supported, regardless.

There are less updates and less patches (less to update and patch) and thankfully also less restarts ? which shall not be underestimated, as restarts can be a real pain in full-scale production environments.

Looks are certainly not among the strengths of Server Core. Once installation completes, the system boots and asks for a password in a non-intuitive manner. This is just the warm-up for the keyboard strokes which are yet to come. Server Core remains non user-friendly all the way through: Once logged in, you are greeted with a command line, perhaps making you feel like something in the range of ?now what?? or ?I want to die? ;).

Since Server Core is designed to be managed remotely, the fact that it?s local management is complex, is less of an issue. With that said, remote management remains more complex and consuming with Server Core.

Server Core makes it easy to turn off Windows Update, simply by setting updates to manual via Sconfig. What a relief! Working with an interface, even if it?s a text-based one, is more convenient than a plain command line. We just wish there was more of that. Furthermore, disabling the annoying (yet important) Windows Update might just be what you?ve been anxious to do for quite a while now. Disabling means that Windows Update does not check for updates, nor downloads them (which is configurable).

Once updates are disabled (set to manual), Windows will show you its resentment by saying ?System will never check for updates?, as if it was a little child saying ?I will never love you again?. But that?s not true. It would love you back as you turn updates back on?

Image for postDisabling Windows Update on Server Core via the Sconfig , for Ever! 😉

For the ones whom are not much experienced with Server Core, Sconfig is a text-based menu for the configuration of few basic Windows settings. The tool is actually a VB script which is executed by Wscript.

Server Core can be looked at as more with less, i.e. less resources are consumed by the OS and more resources are available for the user and applications. However, there?s a price for that.

Image for postServer Core ? Gives More for Less, Remotely (Snapshot from Windows Admin Center)

Core does not have the ?desktop experience?, i.e. it lacks a proper GUI to locally manage the server with. Supposedly this is not a a big issue, considering that servers are managed via remote management tools anyways, right? And still there?s a learning curve associated with Server Core, plus you shall set up the remote administration tool to begin with.

Image for postRemote Administration of Windows Server 2019 Core with Windows Admin Center (Firewall)

With the said above, Server Core can receive an ?upgrade? in the shape of GUI-based tools, thus allowing it to be locally managed in a user-friendly manner. Actually we?re just about to publish a whole blog dedicated just for that subject: transforming Server Core from a dull PowerShell product into a full-scale GUI-based workstation, which contains GUI-based file manager (in similar with File Explorer), Virtual Machine manager (in similar with Hyper-V Manager), as well as additional tools. Though such tools transform Server Core into easier to manage, setting them up is far from intuitive and even then, Server Core remains the difficult child of the Server product family.

In conclusion, Server Core gives more (resources) though it also takes more: more hard work for managing it. In addition, some applications are not supported and cannot be installed on it, regardless. You thought that installing a PDF reader is easy? Let?s see you doing that with Server Core. Server Core is not designed to accomplish such tasks, though it would make it somewhat harder to accomplish any task.

Server with Desktop Experience (GUI)

Perhaps one of the good things with Server Core, is that it lets you appreciate Windows Desktop Experience once again. Suddenly the standard Windows GUI may be seen in a different light, as if it less trivial or something.

Desktop Experience is the classic and well known form of Windows Server, which has been with us (and evolving throughout time) since the iconic Windows NT. Desktop Experience obviously contains a GUI, rendering the machine much more user-friendly and easier to manage. The well known Server Manager dashboard appears upon login as in previous versions of Windows Server. Compared with Server Core command line, the dashboard is much of a relief.

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Desktop Experience ? The Welcoming Dashboard We Got Accustomed to

This is not to say that Windows Server is intuitive or easy to manage in either of its versions. But yes, Desktop Experience it is by far more human intuitive compared with its somewhat hostile siblings: command line and PowerShell.

The GUI of Windows Server 2019 is similar to Windows 10 version 1809 (aka Windows 2019 Enterprise LTSC). However, the default configuration and settings of Windows Server lean more toward security and privacy, in contrast with Windows 10.

Desktop Experience comes with more features and capabilities preinstalled by default. In one hand that?s great as more things are available at the palm of the and, rather than require multiple steps to accomplish (as might be the case with Server Core).

In the other hand, this methodology also renders Desktop Experience a heavier machine, which consumes more resources, operates slower, while at the same time being more vulnerable to cyber attacks (as the attack surface is broader). Desktop Experience, providing more, also requires more patches and restarts.

In conclusion, Windows Server can be seen as giving less (resources) for less (maintenance and hard work). Therefore, if the prime focus is on CPU and resources utilization then Server Core takes the lead. However, that would also require the knowledge to managing Server Core as well as the required infrastructure or settings.

Server Core ? Limitations & Incompatibilities

Generally speaking, Windows Server with Desktop Experience can do anything that Server Core can, though Server Core is expected to perform better whichever tasks it is capable of accomplishing. The same does not hold true the other way around. Server Core lacks compatibility with variety of applications and features, thus it cannot fully substitute the good old Windows Server (with Desktop Experience). Mainly Core fails to be compatible with applications which require a GUI.

The following applications are incompatible with Server Core:

  • Microsoft Server Virtual Machine Manager 2019 (SCVMM)
  • System Center Data Protection Manager 2019
  • Sharepoint Server 2019
  • Project Server 2019

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Application Incompatibility: Serve Core vs. Server w/Desktop Experience

According to Microsoft, the following capabilities are not supported as well (though we have not validated it): Windows Tiff IFilter, Internet Printing Client, RAS Connection Manager Kit, Simple TCP/IP Services, TFTP Client, Windows Search Service, XPS Viewer, and much more.

Features On Demand

Windows Server 2019 Features On Demand is available for Server Core only. Generally speaking, Windows Server 2019 Features On Demand (FOD) is a pack of tools or features which Microsoft offers for free, though they are not integrated with the Windows installation. Rather, they are available as an extension, i.e. they shall be installed in separate from Windows setup.

Normally this is done via command line using the DISM with the /image:<path_to_image> /get-capabilities command switches, as explained here. However, it did not really work for us on first try. We doubt whether the instructions provided by Microsoft are crystal clear, thus if we are asked, we?d publish a proprietary article just to explain and demonstrate key DISM usages and the installation of FOD. Let us know in the comments if this sounds interesting, ok?

Windows Server 2019 Features On Demand can be downloaded for free as an ISO file here (direct download). To download it manually form the Microsoft Evaluation page: expand Windows Server 2019, then select ISO and click Continue. However, recently we noticed that Microsoft removed Windows Server 2019 from many locations (including Bizspark and Evaluation Center). We are unsure why, and happy to share the direct links to the entire product family, in our blog here.

Image for postDownloading Features On Demand from Microsoft Evaluation Center

In Conclusion

Image for post

The decision whether to install Windows Server 2019 Core Server or Desktop Experience (GUI) must be made beforehand, as once the product is installed, it cannot be converted between Core Server and Desktop Experience.

Server Core is not as ?pretty?. It is not user-friendly and not meant to be managed locally but rather from remote, via proprietary remote management solutions. Even with such tools, it requires more effort to be managed, and moreover, setting such tools might take some effort to begin with.

Setting up Windows Admin Center for instance, requires transferring the installation file to Server Core, which can be done via PowerShell on the VM host, and then executing the setup file via CMD. This is not impossible, but if you are not so familiar with such a practice, then there would be a quite learning curve. In contrast, setting up WAC on a Desktop Experience, would be something in the line of clicking the familiar next, I agree, next,next,next, finish 🙂 .

Server Core does not support many apps, regardless. You?d probably not want to run Google Chrome on a server. In the case of Server Core, you couldn?t even if you wanted. However, you may wish to run Hyper-V manager locally, which Server Core won?t let you just as well.

On the other hand Server Core consumes less resources and requires less updates and restarts. It is also less vulnerable. For the hard work you put into it, it returns with more availability of resources. Where exactly does the line of productivity cross, is a subjective and depends on the user and infrastructure. But for sure now you know who?s the bad guy and who?s the good and ugly 🙂

Image for postWindows Server 2019 Datacenter Core ? ?Transformed? into a GUI-Based Workstation

To make Windows Server 2019 Core edition more user-friendly, via GUI-based tools allowing local administration (e.g. file management, virtual machine management and more), see our coming blog: Transforming Windows Server 2019 Core into a Full Scale GUI-Based workstation.

Thank you!

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