Author's Note: In the developer preview version of Windows Server 8, some functionality is missing or will change over the course of development. Some of the descriptions in this article might become obsolete as Microsoft responds to the mountains of feedback that it's no doubt already receiving.

In Windows Server 2008, Microsoft added the Server Manager interface, and it was good. Server Manager provides a central location for managing a server's roles and features, and although there's occasionally a need to use other tools, many admins can live in this interface all day long. But Server Manager has a fatal flaw that's obvious with the passage of time: It works against only one server at a time. If you need to manage multiple servers, as many admins do in this new world of distributed computing services and virtualized environments, Server Manager becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit.

And that's where the next version of Windows Server, code-named Windows Server 8, comes in. Among the many benefits and new features in the upcoming Windows Server OS revision is a completely new version of Server Manager, written from the ground up to accommodate today's multiserver management style. And the new Server Manager is indeed brand new: It doesn't look or behave like any administrative console you've ever used.

The difference isn't just in the look and feel. Server Manager 8 (as I call it) is different from previous versions because Microsoft expects most admins to access it on their desktop PCs, remotely connecting to the servers that they manage from a single interface. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the more typical administrative model, in which you use Remote Desktop Connection to interactively access each server's desktop -- or worse yet, physically sit down in front of each server.

A Server Manager for the 21st Century

When you run Server Manager 8 for the first time, it's obvious that things have changed. Gone is the Microsoft Management Console (MMC)-based UI, with its old-school panels and panes and tree-based navigation of roles and features. Instead, Microsoft has wrought a new, flatter UI that seems to incorporate some Metro-style user experiences from Windows 8 or Windows Phone, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1: Server Manager in the Windows Server 8 developer preview
Figure 1: Server Manager in the Windows Server 8 developer preview 

If you're familiar with the process of configuring a new server that runs Server 2008, you'll also notice the absence of the Configure Your Server wizard on your first boot of Server 8. I don't see a direct replacement for that wizard, at least not in the Server 8 developer preview, so you'll need to set up certain features manually before digging into Server Manager. A temporary Welcome to Server Manager pane in Server Manager provides a more obvious way to configure roles and features, add servers to manage, or create a server group, as Figure 2 shows. This pane can be handy until you know your way around.

Figure 2: Adding roles or servers and creating groups
Figure 2: Adding roles or servers and creating groups  

Dive into Server Manager, and you'll see that the dashboard UI is still segmented, with a navigation pane of sorts on the left. But you no longer expand nodes in a tree-like structure, as you do in Server 2008 Server Manager. Instead, selections simply replace the main view in the console. For items that have subnodes, a new pane opens, as Figure 3 shows. If you're familiar with how the Windows Intune management console looks and works, this approach will feel somewhat similar. For most Windows admins, it will be a new way of doing things.

Figure 3: Example of a top-level node with subnode views
Figure 3: Example of a top-level node with subnode views 

From a usage perspective, Server Manager 8 provides a tiled dashboard as the default view. Each tile represents a role that's installed on one or more of the servers that you're managing. So you'll see individual tiles for such things as Active Directory Domain Services, DNS Server, File Services, and whichever other roles you've configured across your environment. These roles also appear in the navigation pane, so they're always a click away, but the dashboard provides at-a-glance capabilities, including red highlighting of events, services, performance alerts, and other role-related items that need attention. For example, one of my Server 8 virtual machines (VMs) is perpetually low on available RAM, so the performance-alerts item is usually highlighted in red.

These alerts aren't just for show: You can also act on them. To do so, click the item in question. A Detail View window appears and provides more information, as Figure 4 shows. What you can do from this window depends on the alert. In the case of my performance-alerts warning, I can see which machine is affected and the warning type, and then I can right-click that warning to get even more information in the Performance View window. Here, I can view individual alerts and see information about which processes are consuming so much RAM. In my case, simply providing the VM with more memory solved the problem.

Figure 4: Detail view for an alert
Figure 4: Detail view for an alert 

Multiple Servers, One Pane of Glass

Of course, Server Manager 8 really shines when you use the interface to configure and manage multiple servers. You add servers to Server Manager through the Manage menu in the top-right corner of the main console. Then, via the Add Servers option, you choose other machines in your environment and add them to the console. You can add Server 8 machines, of course, but you can also add machines that run Windows 8, Server 2008 (or Server 2008 R2), Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003, or Windows XP. (So far, I've tested this function by adding Server 8 machines only.)

After you've added two or more servers, you see that each configured role tile in the Server Manager dashboard has a number next to the role name. This number describes how many managed servers offer that role. In my test environment, I have two Active Directory (AD) domain controllers (DCs), but only one offers the File Services role and only one offers the DNS Server role. From the dashboard, you can view information about multiple servers, with a single click. Simply click the appropriate item -- services under Active Directory Domain Services, for example -- and the Detail View window appears, showing an aggregation of the running services on each machine.

In this Detail View window, which Figure 5 shows, you can filter the view by using the Servers drop-down menu, which lets you choose which servers to include in the view. In the Services example, you can also filter by startup types, services, and service status; the choices vary according to the type of item that you're viewing. The Performance Alerts Detail View offers filters for Resource type in addition to Servers.

Figure 5: Filtering in the Detail View window
Figure 5: Filtering in the Detail View window 

The Server Manager dashboard is good for viewing information and for acting on alerts. But when you need to actually configure roles and features, you need to dive into individual nodes in the navigation pane. For example, when you select the Active Directory Domain Services node, as Figure 6 shows, the Server Manager view changes to show the configuration options for that node.

Figure 6: Active Directory Domain Services
Figure 6: Active Directory Domain Services 

Common to most of these role views is a top pane, in which you can see each managed server that is configured with that particular role in your environment. By default, all roles are selected, so in the tiles below the top pane -- tiles for Events, Services, Best Practice Analyzer, Performance Alerts, and Features, in this example -- the information that you see applies to all related servers. You can select one server, or you can select multiple servers, much as you'd select multiple files in Windows Explorer, by pressing Ctrl and clicking the items.

Where things get a bit hairy in this UI is when you want to act on a particular server or group of servers. Each tile below the main server list has a hidden Tasks drop-down menu that appears when you hover over the area above the top right of the tile. What you see in that drop-down menu varies depending on the tile and, in some cases, the servers that you've selected. The really odd bit, however, is this: You need to select servers in the top pane and then select the actions to use on those servers in these hidden Tasks lists.

Confused? Think of it this way. In the file system, when you select a group of files, you can right-click that group and then select from a list of actions that appears in the context menu. This approach makes sense because you are typically performing an action "on" the group (or item) that you've selected. In Server Manager, the selection and action occur separately, in different parts of the UI.

Here's an example: In the Events tile in the Active Directory Domain Services node, one of the actions that you can take via the Tasks menu is Configure Event Data. You can take this action for a single server or for any number of selected servers. First, you must select one or more servers in the pane that lists all the managed servers in your environment. Then, you must hover over the area above the Events tile, which contains the hidden Tasks menu. This menu appears as your mouse moves over it; click the menu when it appears and then click Configure Event Data. The Configure Event Data window appears, and you can make whatever configuration changes you like. These configuration changes get interesting when you select two or more servers, of course.

Aside from the disconnected nature of the tiles and their associated actions, Server Manager does offer one way to select and then directly act on multiple servers, as Figure 7 shows. In any pane that lists servers, you can select multiple servers and then right-click. You'll see a context menu, similar to the one that's used in the file system, with common tasks such as Add Roles and Features, Restart Server, Computer Management, and so on.

Figure 7: Acting directly on multiple servers
Figure 7: Acting directly on multiple servers 

These capabilities become more powerful when you're managing many servers, as you can suddenly and simultaneously apply common configurations or fix common problems across multiple machines.

Looking Ahead

This mile-high view of Server Manager in Server 8 provides just a peek at the capabilities of this exciting new UI. But that's by design. Like the OS on which it runs, Server Manager is a work in progress and will no doubt improve over time. I'm interested to see whether admins find the disconnected server/action model that I've described confusing enough that Microsoft makes a change; hiding the Tasks list until you mouse over it is hardly discoverable or optimal. But even in this rough state, Server Manager is proof that the single-server admin model of the past has run its course. Microsoft is onto something with Server Manager in Server 8, and I can't wait to see how it evolves.