Hands on with Windows Server 8 beta

The Metro user interface doesn't work well for a server OS -- but other than that, no major complaints

Leap Day brought with it the chance to download the beta release of the next version of Microsoft's server platform, along with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and first looks at the next versions of the company's developer software. Then, this morning, Microsoft announced the new features and enhancements that have made it into the server beta, which you can download here.

I've spent some time putting the beta through its paces in my test environment. I used a Dell PowerEdge T300 with a 2.5-Ghz Intel Xeon processor and 24GB of RAM, and tested with both a native installation and as a virtual machine within Windows Server 2008 R2's Hyper-V platform.

Here's my hands-on look at build 8250 of Windows Server 8. It's important to note, though, that the company hasn't yet committed to this being the final beta -- it's not yet feature-complete, in other words.

[To see a slideshow of all the screen shots in here, including larger versions, click here.]

The big change: The new user interface

There are two things to be aware of when you first install the beta: first, the emphasis for Windows Server has changed from a GUI-first philosophy to a GUI-optional mindset. Indeed, when you first install the OS, you're asked to choose between a core and a full installation, but core is the preferred and encouraged option.

Once you install a core version of Windows Server 8, you can flip on a GUI simply by installing the GUI role, and you can then opt to take it off without a full reinstall. This is a great feature when you first deploy a server, since you can use the GUI to take care of all of the mundane configuration tasks, but when the machine is ready for production, you can turn the GUI off and deploy, reducing the attack surface, resource load, energy requirements and so on.

Metro in Windows Server 8 beta
The Metro overlay in Windows Server 8 beta.

Second, once you boot the beta with the GUI, you'll notice that the server OS shares the new Metro UI with its client brother, Windows 8. Most notably, this means there's no Start button, an interface feature that's been around since Windows 95. It's been replaced with the Metro Start layer, which you can access by hovering your mouse in the bottom left corner of the screen and clicking on the resulting bubble. Then the Metro overlay comes into play and gives you the standard options for installed programs, Internet Explorer and the link to lock and sign out, among other things.

I am not personally a fan of the new interface changes, partly because I've been a Windows administrator for over 15 years now. That's a lot of habit to change. After playing with the preview and the beta for a while, I'm not sure how, at least on a server, the Metro interface overall offers anything useful. Opening the Start menu and typing in what I needed was excellent for me and, I'll bet, for millions of other administrators.

Hiding all of that behind more clicks and hovers seems counterproductive -- and servers are not going to be using touch interfaces, the big intended target of the Metro redesign, so the screens full of big tiles and icons feel wasted. Plus, if Microsoft's saying the GUI is not preferred on the server, then why update the GUI offered on Windows Server 8 with all the whizbang eye candy? I'm not sure it logically registers for me.

Overall, that change is negative in my opinion.

That said, most admin tasks in Windows Server 8 are done in Server Manager, and the Metro design principles and execution within that app itself are really superb.

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