In my previous article, “Getting Around in Windows Server 2012, Part 1,” I talked about how you must use the new Start screen interface and its associated Winkey combinations to get local server tasks done. Unlike Windows 8, however, server management is not about just the local machine; it’s about managing multiple servers and their roles remotely. That’s where Windows Server 2012 Server Manager comes in.

(Note: I've also made a video walkthrough of Server Manager.)

Server Manager is installed on every full GUI version of Windows Server 2012, and by default launches automatically on login. You don’t have to be logged in to a 2012 server to use Server Manager, however; you can install the Remote Server Administration Toolkit (RSAT) for Windows 8 (currently in release preview) to run Server Manager from a Windows 8 (only!) client.

Server Manager is organized in three major sections (Figure 1): The scope pane, the details pane, and the file menu. I don’t know if this is the most recent nomenclature (it seems to change with every release), but I expect these are the names you’re most familiar with. The scope pane contains the broad overview of what Server Manager is looking at. By selecting an item – the operational focus - in the scope pane, the details pane will change to provide detail on the focus area. The file menu in the upper right hand corner is the most obvious way to access a wide variety of management tasks for the servers in scope.

 Figure 1 - Server Overview
Figure 1 - Server Overview

To help make sense of what Server Manager is showing, let’s list the five servers in this environment with their associated OSs and roles:

  • HANSHI (R2 - AD DS, DNS, DHCP, Hyper-V, and File and Storage Services)
  • SCVMM (R2 - System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012, IIS, and File and Storage Services)
  • ROOTCA (R2 – AD CS, IIS)
  • WS2012RTM-1 (WS2012 – AD DS, DNS, File and Storage Services)
  • WS2012RTM-2 (WS2012 – AD DS, DNS, File and Storage Services)

Server Manager uses a far less dense information display than previous management consoles, relying strongly on tiles and colors to tell you what’s going on. As a result, it lavishly uses all the monitor real estate you can give it. (In lower resolutions, the scope pane will automatically compress when you drill into specific server roles or groups.) The first thing you’re going to want to do is hide the quick start area, thus allowing all the roles / group tiles to fit on the screen.

Adding Servers and Server Groups

As I said, the file menu contains a wealth of tasks you can perform both on the servers and in Server Manager itself. Manage allows you to add servers to Server Manager (note you can’t remove them from here though), add and remove roles and features to the servers you’re already monitoring, adjust a couple of basic Server Manager properties, and create a server group. Let’s create a legacy server group of only servers running Windows Server 2008 R2. Manage, Create Server Group brings up a dialog to select the servers for the group (Figure 2). Note the tabs on the top of the selection area; you can search by DNS, server pool, imported list, or Active Directory. (I’m all for a clean look, but this layout is so bare, with no shading of any kind, that it’s easy to miss these details.) For the Legacy Servers group, I’ve used AD to select systems with only R2 or Windows 7. Another complaint: Why does the OS choice pick list only offer both server AND client OSs of a certain generation (e.g. R2 and Windows 7) rather than just the server OS? Server Manager is just that – a manager of servers - and only offers limited client management capabilities. Further, in an enterprise environment this quick pick will also force you to scroll through thousands of clients to find the servers you need.

 Figure 2 - Creating a Server Group
Figure 2 - Creating a Server Group

Monitoring Downlevel Servers

The only older OSs Server Manager can monitor are Windows Server 2008 or R2. To enable monitoring these servers in Windows Server 2012 Server Manager, you must

·         Install .NET Framework 4.0. I suspect most servers with up to date maintenance will already have it installed.

·         Install Windows Management Foundation 3.0. This package contains PowerShell 3.0, WMI and WinRM updates.

·         You may have to install performance updates associated with KB 2682011. Again, I suspect if your maintenance is up to date you’ll already have this installed. See “Configure Remote Management in Server Manager” for details on monitoring servers remotely with Windows Server 2012 Server Manager.

Once the R2 servers are broken out into their own group and tile, it’s immediately obvious I’ve been having problems getting Server Manager and my R2 servers to play well together (Figure 3). Nevertheless, I continue to have trouble monitoring these older operating systems. Clicking on the Manageability item with 3 errors in the Legacy Servers tile reveals data retrieval errors from all three R2 systems (Figure 4). To hide these errors or any other errors you deem necessary, expand the Status pick list and uncheck the target item; the line item will revert to normal.

 Figure 3 - Tiles
Figure 3 - Tiles

Figure 4 - R2 data retrieval errors
Figure 4 - R2 data retrieval errors

Tools and Notifications

There are two other important menu items in the file menu: Tools, and Notifications (the flag). Tools is the Windows Server 2012 replacement for Administrative Tools. Here’s where you need to go if you want to directly access the tools you’re familiar with (e.g. Active Directory Administrative Center, Group Policy Management, DNS, etc.) instead of through the Roles operational focus. (A brief observation here: There are only so many nouns you can use to describe an object on a UI, and as we use up the simpler nouns, the descriptions get more complex, such as “operational focus”. Henceforth, if I get tired of trying to find the latest description for a UI component…it’s going to be a thingie. Thank you, Michele Crockett.)

Notifications is a flag icon, and changes color to red if there are items that need your attention (Figure 5). Though it duplicates some of what the dashboard may be alerting you to, the advantage of Notifications is that it’s always visible when you’re drilled into some part of Server Manager and not in the dashboard.

Figure 5 - Notifications
Figure 5 - Notifications 

Local Server / All Servers

Let’s go back to the scope pane to look at the remaining ways you can look at your servers. The Local Server and All Servers views enable you to manage multiple servers in what I think of as a vertical basis, i.e. all the installed roles, features, and services on a server.

Role View

In addition to Dashboard, Local Server, All Servers, and any server groups you’ve created (e.g. Legacy Servers) the scope pane is automatically populated with icons representing all the roles you have under management (Figure 6). This allows you to look at your servers horizontally: A given role spread across multiple servers.

Figure 6 - Role view
Figure 6 - Role view 

Let’s look at the AD DS role view (Figure 7). Each view is a collection of windows (in this case Servers, Events, Services, Best Practices Analyzer (BPA), Performance, and Roles and Features. You can right-click on each entry in a window and context-sensitive tasks are available. Each view also has a Tasks thingie in the upper-right corner of each window that gives you yet another place trigger an action. Because there are so many ways to accomplish a task in Server Manager, you really need to just pick one way of getting something done. For example, remember there was no “Remove Server” in the same Manage file menu item that had “Add Server”? You can remove a server from monitoring by right-clicking on it in either the Servers view, or in any role view in which the server appears.

 Figure 7 - AD DS Role
Figure 7 - AD DS Role

A New and Powerful Management Interface

You can learn a lot about what Server Manager can do by right-clicking on any given area and seeing what the context menu allows. For example, you can reboot one (or all, depending on how many you select) server from the All Servers thingie by right-clicking and choosing Restart Server. You can configure NIC teaming, launch a remotely-focused PowerShell session, or otherwise administer common functions. It does cause some interesting reactions with older tools that haven’t quite been brought up to date; LDP.EXE, for example, launched three times (each with its own DC focus) when I chose it from a multiple selection of three domain controllers. It’s tantalizing, because the most popular command line tools are listed in the context menu - but they simply launch and error out because you didn’t (and can’t) supply any parameters.

A feature I immediately missed in this utility is the ability to use the mouse “back” button to return to your previous view, for example if you drill into a particular role then want to return to the overview. I’m surprised it doesn’t work, as it’s a basic enough function that I missed its absence about 3 minutes into using Server Manager.

There’s a lot of power to the Server Manager interface once you get used to working with it. For example, the role view helped me discover that I had installed the AD DS role on my SCVMM VM but never promoted it. A BPA result instructed me to apply the Default Domain Controllers Policy to the Servers OU. Huh? On further investigation I discovered the leftover AD DS role on SCVMM, which is in the Server OU. It would have been better to have had BPA tell me, “You have a server with the AD DS role installed that is not in the Domain Controllers OU.”

Server Manager or Start Screen?

One of the big challenges in working with both Server Manager and the Start screen in Windows Server 2012 is trying to figure out where all our familiar tasks are located and what convoluted route we must follow to get there. Overall, I really like Windows Server 2012 Server Manager. It’s a clean design that allows you to remotely view and manage local and remote servers in any of several different aspects, such as installed roles, OS level, or any other grouping you wish to build. The UI immediately alerts you to any warnings or errors, and you can perform multi-server actions that were never possible before.

But I'm yet to be convinced there's any value to the new Start screen and its associated Windows Key shortcuts for server management – certainly for on-console remote management through a Remote Desktop session. (And if you don’t enable “Apply Windows key combinations on the remote computer” in the Local Resources of Remote Desktop Connection, the new Start paradigm is darn near unusable.) Not all of us manage massive cloud data centers, so I can see a day when server operators will use touch screens at server consoles to drill into red Server Manager tiles to find errors. But I think it’s going to be a while yet before IT pros will be sitting at their desks administering their servers through touch screen windows. Such a Start screen system on a server just seems like an afterthought, or, worse, the aftermath of a fiat handed down that all versions of Windows shall have the same interface regardless of how appropriate the interface is for the requirements of the platform.

Sean writes about cloud identity, Microsoft hybrid identity, and whatever else he finds interesting at his blog on Enterprise Identity and on Twitter at @shorinsean.