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Is Windows Nano Server a data center game-changer?

Jonathan Hassell | July 9, 2015
Windows 10 might be getting all the attention, but Microsoft’s new Nano Server could start a quiet revolution in server rooms across the globe.

Nano Server PowerShell
Nano Server is not only GUI-less, but must be managed remotely - here via the Remote Server Management Tool. 

Back in April, Microsoft somewhat quietly previewed what its Windows Server engineering teams had been working on for quite some time. While it would be easy to write it off as just another iteration in a long line of never-ending releases, Windows Nano Server has the potential to reinvent your data center.

What is Windows Nano Server?

Windows Nano Server is a project that was previously codenamed Tuva (although kudos to Microsoft for breaking the trend of having very cool codenames that turn into incredibly drab actual released product names) and is designed to be Windows without the GUI or legacy baggage. It's different than Server Core, the GUI-less installation option introduced in Windows Server 2008, because Windows Nano Server strips out basically every part of Windows that is designed to ever service the GUI or a GUI oriented application.

Server Core merely takes off the GUI but leaves a lot of the underlying Win32 API surface area and structure so that when you put the GUI back on via a checkbox at least in Windows Server 2012 and later you don't have to reinstall all of the plumbing that goes along with it. Windows Nano Server rids itself of all 32-bit application support, support for Microsoft Installer (MSI) applications and a lot more historical baggage that causes a lot more problems than it solves for machines running in the cloud.

Windows Nano Server is headless and sessionless. As mentioned, there is no GUI. But there's also no local login, so there's no point in attaching a keyboard or mouse or running this in any kind of Remote Desktop-oriented session. Consider it like a Linux box in the cloud that you don't have SSH access to you use it remotely, you manage it remotely, and all it does is run services and applications like an appliance would. It's incredibly compact and has a very small surface area just as much as is needed to fulfill its role as a specialty purpose server operating system.

The entire point of Windows Nano Server is that it should run applications designed for it headless applications that provide their management tools for remote use, and that service end user requests over the wire without the need to populate a lot of user session interaction. These applications which can be built for Nano Server and run inside containers can be run via a variety of supported runtimes, including C#, Java, Node.js and Python for responsive, high quality Web applications.

Windows Nano Server can also be used to run infrastructure services like a scale-out file server, DNS, DHCP, Hyper-V within a limited deployment scenario, Hyper-V failover clusters and others. There will be limited support for standard Windows APIs; basically the APIs that will work are the ones that don't require user interaction or involve GUIs or 32-bit application support.


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