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Rolling Review: Windows Server 2008 Server Core

Pros
Tight security, thanks to reduced attack surface
Small build installs lightning fast
Only binaries required to run server role are installed

Cons
How do you feel about the DOS prompt?
No upgrade path from Server Core to full build, or vice versa
No shell, so apps installed via unattended setup files

Veteran network administrators, prepare for a blinking cursor flashback: When you log in to a Server Core build of Windows 2008 Server, all you'll get is a DOS box. And unlike with PowerShell, if you minimize a Server Core command prompt, you'll be plunged into green-screen oblivion. Here, there's no escaping DOS, and that's exactly what Microsoft was aiming for.

"We heeded the call from our customers to provide an installation option that reduced the overall attack surface of Windows Server," says Andrew Mason, Windows Server team principal program manager.

Last month, we profiled PowerShell in the second edition of our Windows Server 2008 Rolling Review. In keeping with the command-line-driven theme, we present our take on Server Core, Microsoft's stripped-down OS build. We found Server Core to be a secure and optimized platform for running critical Windows services in dedicated roles, most remotely manageable via Microsoft Management Console snap-ins.

So what did Microsoft strip out of the base Windows Server build to make it faster, more stable, and more secure? For starters, Internet Explorer, 35 unnecessary services, the .Net framework, even the Windows Shell itself. But just like in the real world, high security comes at a price--in this case, cumbersome configuration.

Because Server Core is a scaled-down version of Windows Server, it's limited to a select number of standard roles and features: Active Directory, Active Directory Lightweight Directory Services, DHCP server, DNS server, file and print services, media services, IIS, and Hyper-V virtualization. Optional features include failover clustering, network load balancing, multipath I/O, backup, SNMP, and BitLocker.

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