Server Core is an important piece of technology advancement for Microsoft. Although people tend to look at MinWin, Singularity and Midori for future versions of Windows, it's actually Server Core that will play an important role in Microsoft's infrastructure products for the coming couple of years.
Server Core and MinWin
There is a relationship between Server Core and MinWin. Server Core is version of Windows, which is deprived of most of the graphical interface and a lot of features that are not directly infrastructure related. This approach leaves a lean, mean server installation of roughly 1,2 GB after initial installation. Server Core still exists of standard components at its core.
MinWin follows an approach the other way around. Instead of leaving features out it starts with the Windows NT Kernel and gathers the most relevant parts of Windows to surround it. MinWin doesn't exist mostly of standard components.
Both Server Core and MinWin reveal interdependencies within Windows and both play a role in componetizing, virtualizing, securing and improving the reliability of future versions of Windows.
There is also a larger than life difference between Server Core and MinWin: Server Core is a product, where MinWin is a technology.
According to many Windows needs to become more componentized to avoid a collapse under it's own weight. The logical answer is to divide Windows into components that you can install / uninstall and combine. The only way to do this is using a strict architecture.
Microsoft follows two paths when it comes to componentization. It's removing features from Windows and moving them into the cloud to become Windows Live Services. On the other hand it's also dividing Windows architecturally. Kernel Mode vs. User Mode is one of the first steps in this process. State vs. Code separation seems to be the next step for Microsoft.
Server Core is Microsoft's first attempt to componentize Windows Server. The choice was made to make it an Enterprise Infrastructure focused version, but the experience Microsoft has developing, managing, distributing, marketing and supporting this version will prove to be immensely important for future versions, including but not limited to MinWin.
State vs. Code separation is one of the pillars for Application Virtualization (App-V) and other pieces of Microsoft's Virtualization strategy. This strategy consists of four different technologies and includes Terminal Services, Application Virtualization (App-V), Server Hardware Virtualization (Hyper-V), Windows Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktops (VECD) and the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) that in a future version will include the recently acquired technologies from Kidaro. (Med-V)
Server Core already plays a significant role in virtualization, when it comes to Hyper-V. Microsoft already recommends using a Server Core installation of Windows Server 2008 to act as your Hyper-V Parent Partition. Your Parent Partition would require less patches, less reboots, less bandwidth and is less vulnerable to malicious software. I bet Server Core will also play an important role in the soon to be released Hyper-V Server SKU.
Experiences from Server Core enable Microsoft to make the Windows Operating System inherently safer. While Server Core does without Explorer, Internet Explorer, the Event Viewer and many other Graphical User Interface (GUI) components, it's still able to update using Windows Update. You're still able to manage it in secure ways remotely and you can use Group Policy settings within your securely managed Active Directory environment, including auditing.
A Server Core installation of Windows Server 2008 is not only a really manageable Windows installation, but also a secure Windows installation by default. It's attack surface is significantly reduced compared to a Full installation of Windows Server 2008. It is a perfect example of the "Deploy secure, keep secure" thought that is the basis of Trustworthy Computing.
Removing rogue interdepencies between different architectural layers of Windows, applications and users and replacing them with standard buses can serve as a reliability and stability measure.
Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 were the first versions of Windows without Kernel Mode video drivers. In previous versions a Windows hang could easily be invoked by a rogue video driver. In Windows Vista this risk has been drastically reduced.
Do not underestimate the importance of Server Core.
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