TechEd 2006: New Windows Server minimum installation fits on USB key

Boston (MA) - In a session Wednesday afternoon on ten classes of benefits administrators will see from the forthcoming operating system still called Windows Server "Longhorn," for lack of a specific year, Microsoft technical program manager Ward Ralston revealed that one installation option for Longhorn, entitled Server Core, will enable a command line-driven OS with just the basic services to be installed within a 500 MB footprint.

For those who remember the days when MS-DOS ran from a floppy diskette, this might not seem like much of an achievement. But DOS only had the duties of running the single hard disk on a client system. For Longhorn, the Server Core installation will be able to run the principal domain name server (DNS), Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), the file server, and most importantly, Active Directory.

With tongue-in-cheek, Ralston showed a packed audience Wednesday what he described as "the most uninteresting demo you may ever see." But then he made a very serious case in favor of using Server Core in a production setting: There's a greatly reduced attack surface for Server Core, because it's only running the basic services. Surrogate or ancillary services cannot be leveraged to generate overflows that a malicious user could take advantage of to gain control of these services.

In addition, Longhorn's recently announced inclusion of a complete UNIX subsystem - enabling UNIX and Linux utilities to be run from the command line - is optional for Server Core as well. Thus a skilled Linux admin should be able to at least make use of familiar commands for navigation and file access. Other background services that don't require graphics, such as BitLocker drive encryption, network load balancing, removable storage device support, and backup, are also installation options.

For now, Ralston suggests the use of Microsoft Management Console snap-ins for managing a Server Core installation remotely, perhaps through an MMC-equipped domain controller, or through Terminal Services. Sadly, since Server Core omits inclusion of the .NET Framework, a Server Core machine cannot run PowerShell locally as a management tool, even though PowerShell would never employ .NET's graphical features. However, Ralston said, PowerShell could still be used to administer Server Core remotely.

Server Core is not exactly problem free, as Ralston admitted. For the demo, a Server Core installation was running within Virtual PC 2004, but it showed up within two adjacent command prompt windows. Anticipating a question from the audience, Ralston said the reason for having two open was because his team had discovered in a previous demo that, when someone closes one of those windows, "they're done." So an inadvertent end-of-demo event was gracefully averted.

Stay with TG Daily for more from the site of Microsoft's TechEd 2006 conference.