Nano Server – Future of the data centre?

Nano Server, a new feature of Windows Server 2016 is going to be huge, or actually very small. Let's find out what the big deal is all about.

Microsoft has been enthusing about this new installation option for around a year. By the end of this post, you will know why Nano Server is so significant and why Microsoft belives it is the future of Windows Server.

What is Nano Server?

Nano Server is Windows Server re-imagined for a cloud world.  Nano Server is lean, it's fast and secure. It's 25 times smaller for starters than the conventional Windows Server.  This all means less patching, a better uptime and lightening fast installation.  

Nano Server

The journey started with Server core which has been around since Windows Server 2008. Microsoft began to reduce the footprint substantially by removing features that should be unnecessary on a server.  This still left a lot of bloat in the OS though.

Components Removed in Windows Server Core

Now starting with Windows Server 2016, Microsoft is going further with Nano Server.  Microsoft has removed even more components. There is no GUl, meaning no option to remote desktop to manage Nano Servers for example.

Even when locally attached to the console, all you can do is reconfigure the network and firewall settings. Nano Server is intended to be 100% managed remotely

Components Removed in Nano Server

What can Nano Server be used for?

You can use Nano Server to provide many of the same services as before.  This includes workloads such as for an IIS web server, Hyper-V host, or a File or DNS server.

Nano Server can be used with:

  • ​Physical machines
  • Virtual machines
  • Hyper-V Containers
  • Windows Server Containers

What do you mean I can't remote desktop into a Nano Server?

This may seem radical but I'll let you into a secret, Microsoft doesn't want you to remote desktop onto any server for administration.  It's a security risk, it's inefficient and it doesn't scale.

Jeffrey Snover, Microsoft Chief Architect, Enterprise Cloud even goes as far as comparing using remote desktop into servers akin to drug addiction.  If you regularly remote desktop into servers, Microsoft wants you to break that habit.

What can you use to manage Nano Server remotely?

Most of your usual management tools should continue to work as normal.  Simply point tools like Server Manager' & 'Hyper-V Manager' and remotely connect to a Nano Server. Traditional MMC snap-ins will continue to work when remotely connected to Nano Server.  

Full PowerShell support is being added.  PowerShell Desired State Configuration look like an interesting new feature.  The new web-based Server Management tools will work as well. There are plenty of options.

Here is a Server Management Tools demo:

Learn about this new web-based GUI management tool that is hosted in Azure and available for no charge.

Especially useful when managing headless servers such as Nano Server and Server Core, it can be used to manage on-premises infrastructure alongside Azure resources.

How good is Nano Server?

​Compared to the conventional version of Windows Server, there are these benefits: 

  • ​90% fewer critical updates compared to current Windows builds
  • A quarter of the number of reboots 
  • Significantly reduced attack surface with around two-thirds less open ports
  • 40 seconds installation time versus 19 minutes for the full version of Windows Server
  • 25 times smaller with a footprint of just over 400 MBs

For a good summary and some demos, check out this video from the Microsoft Mechanics show:

What should you use Nano Server for?

Initially Microsoft is focused on these two scenarios

  1. Private cloud infrastructure with clustered hypervisor, clustered storage and some critical network roles
  2. Cloud application platform - building the best small, lightweight applications with containers and microservices

Infrastructure servers are a definitely a winner, who wants to reboot a Hyper-V server loaded with VMs unless you really have to? 

Nano Server

Server Core - The New Standard

For the things you can't do with Nano Server today, Server Core becomes your standard option:

"The Server Core installation option removes the client UI from the server, providing an installation that runs the majority of the roles and features on a lighter install. Server Core does not include MMC or Server Manager, which can be used remotely, but does include limited local graphical tools such as Task Manager as well as PowerShell for local or remote management."
Nano Server

One of the few remaining reasons to use the full version of Windows Server is Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and supporting third-party apps that just won't work on anything else. Server with Desktop Experience is what Microsoft call the full version of Windows Server 2016.

Nano Server Caveats 

Since writing this article, Microsoft has provided more specifics on how Nano Server is to be made available.  There are two really important things to point out from this announcement:

 Windows Server 2016 new Current Branch for Business servicing option

Firstly, Software Assurance is mandatory:

​Software Assurance is also required to deploy and operate Nano Server in production.

Secondly, Nano Server will follow a Current Branch for Business (CBB) service model:

​Our goal is to provide feature updates approximately two or three times per year for Nano Server. Because Nano Server will be updated on a more frequent basis, customers can be no more than two Nano Server CBB releases behind.

What does this actually mean though?

​Only two CBB releases will be serviced at any given time, therefore when the third Nano Server release comes out, you will need to move off of #1 as it will no longer be serviced. When #4 comes out, you will need to move off of #2, and so on.

Ultimately this means you will have to update Nano Server every 6 to 8 months. This will be a manual process.  

This won't always be ideal but that's the price you pay for all the benefits I have discussed. This does mean Microsoft will rapidly improve Nano Server making it more suitable for additional workloads.

Over to you

Finally, Windows Server 2016 Technical Preview 5 is available now and it's your opportunity to get an early look at Nano Server.  Microsoft has a 'Getting Started with Nano Server' that is well worth checking out.

Windows Server 2016 will be officially launched at the Microsoft Ignite Conference in Atlanta on September 26-30.

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