Server Manager: A closer look at its role in Windows Server 2008

Integrating a central wizard-driven interface, Server Manager in Windows Server 2008 helps IT departments tailor their servers just the way they want them.

Windows Server 2008, when it arrives on the scene early next year, will come with a host of new features and functionality. Upgrades like improved clustering support, better Terminal Services and enhanced Group Policy make it an easy win for many IT managers. But one enhancement to Windows Server 2008 that's getting a lot of attention is Server Manager.

Compared to your father's operating system, Windows Server 2008 goes far into consolidating many previously separated administrative consoles. Integrating a central wizard-driven interface for installing and uninstalling server components along with many management functions, Server Manager helps systems administrators tailor their servers just the way they want them.

There are major differences in relation to how you'll be working with your servers once you move to Windows Server 2008. First, with security being a major Microsoft focus in this operating system, you'll find a big change in what is installed onto a basic instance of Windows Server 2008 - essentially nothing.

In previous operating systems, files that supported extra functionality may have been installed with the OS. Now in Windows Server 2008, those files aren't even on-disk until you need them, which is great for security. If the files aren't on-disk when a particular server function isn't needed, then malware can't make use of them as an exploit. It's also good for the stability of the server. If a function isn't needed, Server Manager removes its files, reducing excess and unnecessary waste on the system.

To manifest this change, Windows Server 2008 and Server Manager break up all the possible server functionalities into one of three possible areas: roles, role services and features. These three groups separate out possible functions for component-based installation. Need to create a file server? Just install the file services role. That role comes equipped with a set of role services that provide the functionality of the role.

We need to stop here because there is going to be some confusion about whether the bits and bytes we used to know are now categorised into a role, role service or function. Figuring out the specifics will take a little time on your part.

But, let's review the rules for the categorisation. According to the Windows Server 2008 help files, roles are intended to describe the primary function, purpose or use of a computer. Role services are software programs that provide the functionality of a role.

Thus, you can say that a role effectively explains what the server dreams of being. In the case above, the role that our server aspires to is that of a file server - hence the file services role. But to get there, our server needs a little help. That help comes in the form of role services.

In the example of file services, here are the possible role services that can optionally be installed to support our server's file services aspirations:

  • Distributed File System
    • DFS Namespace
    • DFS Replication
  • File Server Resource Manager
  • Services for Network File System
  • Windows Search Service
  • Windows Server 2003 File Services
    • File Replication Service
    • Indexing Service

Some of these role services have requirements on other role services for their functionality. So, the DFS Namespace role service is actually a component of the Distributed File System role.

Features are also a part of this mix. Whereas Roles and Role Services work hand-in-hand toward an end result of server functionality, some components don't necessarily fall into a "role-able" category. Instead, those components drop into the group of features.

Features don't necessarily affect a role or role service, but sometimes they can. For example, you may want to encrypt the volumes on your file server using BitLocker. However, BitLocker isn't necessarily a component of a file services role. So, it arrives as a feature.

Yes, there will be some early confusion about where all these items are, but time will eventually have you finding them correctly.

To install a role or feature to a server, open Server Manager. It should automatically start at logon - but, if not, it is still available by right clicking on Computer and choosing Manage. To start the installation, right click either the Roles or Features nodes in Server Manager and select Add Role or Add Feature.

You'll immediately see the entire list from which you can select your function of choice. You'll also see that Microsoft has encapsulated much of the initial installation questions into the interface, so your role or feature comes online with much of the initial configuration already done.

Installing role services is done in a different location. To install a role service, right click on the role in which the role service is a part and choose Add Role Services. The resulting wizard will show only those role services that directly relate to your selected role.

One interesting omission in Server Manager is that you cannot use it to "remote" other servers. At first blush, this appears to be a design decision. With previous versions, computer management could remote other servers on the network to do further work. Many of these remote server management tasks are now intended to be performed through a feature called the Remote Server Administration Tools or RSAT. Navigating to the list of features that make up the RSAT in Server Manager finds each possible option broken out under the RSAT feature.

This will have some people scrambling for a change in their process for server administration. Hopefully this functionality makes a return to Server Manager in the finished product.

Read more on Network monitoring and analysis