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5 min read

Server Core and Server with Desktop: Which one is best for you

On March 20, 2018 we announced the availability of Windows Server 2019 preview, the next Long-Term Servicing Channel (LTSC) release in the Windows Insider program. Seven weeks later, we released Windows Server, version 1803, the latest release in the Semi-Annual Channel. The Semi-Annual Channel primarily focuses on rapid application development. New cloud-born applications or migrated (“lift-and-shift”) traditional applications benefit significantly from the isolation, predictability, and orchestration offered by containers. Of course, container orchestrators are also cloud-based, which means that there is very little need to run an interactive desktop on the host operating system in these scenarios, so we’ve only included the Server Core installation option in the Semi-Annual Channel. Now that we’re about to release on both channels, and that we’re including the Server with Desktop Experience on only one of the channels, it’s a good time to talk about Server Core versus Server with Desktop Experience.

Server Core – fast, secure, modern

For most server scenarios, the Server Core installation option is the best (and recommended) choice. A Server Core installation is almost entirely headless, light weight, and ideally suited for large datacenters and clouds, both physical and virtual. Server Core’s smaller footprint comes with a smaller attack surface, making it less vulnerable than the Server with Desktop Experience option. That same smaller footprint means Server Core requires less disk space and consumes less of your network bandwidth (when you migrate VMs or roll out a large environment). With the new Windows Admin Center management capabilities, Server Core is easier than ever to manage, whether you like PowerShell scripts or a modern, graphical portal.

When it comes to apps, in the past you may have had problems running apps that require local GUI interaction on Server Core. Either your apps fail to install or, worse, they fail later or just don’t run right. We heard you – we’re adding a new Server Core-based application compatibility feature to address these problems. You can install it or uninstall it on demand. For Windows Server Insiders, get the Server Core App Compatibility feature-on-demand (FOD) now if some of the apps you’ve been using don’t run (or don’t run well) on server core. You’ll see that most of them run well with the App Compatibility FOD. New server management apps should be designed to work remotely, ideally as extensions to Windows Admin Center, so that you can overtime use Server Core everywhere without the App Compatibility FOD at all!

Server with Desktop Experience – meeting the needs of today’s apps

Some of you prefer the Server with Desktop Experience option, even on your servers. In some cases it’s because you find managing servers from the desktop more familiar, and sometimes it’s because of application requirements. We want to help you modernize how you manage servers because it’ll make you more productive. You can manage servers remotely with Windows Admin Center or other remote tools most of the time, and you can do it from Windows 10 with all the bells and whistles. (You can connect to Windows Admin Center from a Mac too, if that’s what works for you.) For those apps that must run locally, for setup or otherwise, and only run with a desktop, we’d like you to do two things:

  1. Ask your OEM, IHV, or ISV for an app update that works in a modern, remotely-managed server environment.
  2. Try out the App Compatibility FOD for Server Core that we mentioned above.

The Server with Desktop Experience option is based on the Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC and excludes some of the more consumer-focused apps and features, like Cortana and the Microsoft Store. In Windows Server 2019 we’re going even further, removing and disabling more client apps that you don’t need or want in your enterprise server (like Xbox and Xbox Live services). We don’t believe servers need or should have the personalized experiences that Windows 10 provides so well. Please note that while the features are gone, because of the overlap between some client and OS functions, you may see some elements of features, like Cortana binaries, that are still in the image. You don’t have Cortana, but you do get search capability on Server.

When it comes to managing a server running the Server with Desktop Experience, use Windows Admin Center instead of the in-box management tools. Windows Admin Center combines most of the server management tools you’re familiar with into a modern web interface. In other words, it makes managing Windows Server easy.

Something to remember about the desktop – you can’t remove the desktop on demand. Once you choose the Server with Desktop Experience, there’s no easy switch back to Server Core.

Finally, some Windows Server users have been using the Server with Desktop Experience in unexpected, ways like gaming. Because of changes in Windows Server 2019, that could become either difficult or, in some cases, impossible. For you, we offer the following alternatives:

What you want  A better alternative Why?
A developer workstation Windows 10
  • Server with Desktop Experience is only included in the LTSC release – that means it’s several releases behind the Windows 10 SDK, and who wants to use old stuff?
  • Windows Server doesn’t support the Microsoft Store, Cortana, and some other functionality – Windows 10 does.
A gaming rig Windows 10
  • Same LTSC argument as above.
  • Windows Server’s support for GPU drivers is much more limited than Windows 10.
  • You can’t run Microsoft Store games because there’s no Microsoft Store on Server.
  • No game bar, and the Xbox services are either gone or disabled.
A place to run dev-ops troubleshooting tools (like Wireshark, sysinternals) Server Core (optionally with App Compatibility FOD)
  • Really, Server Core runs these tools! You might need the App Compatibility FOD, but since it can be added on demand, you can use it only when you want it.
  • Having the full Server with Desktop Experience on all those servers just in case you have to troubleshoot? Not cheap from an operational cost – think of the partition/VM sizes, network transfer times, the hit to your bandwidth, and the increase in attack surface.

To summarize:

  1. Server Core is the best installation option for production use and is more manageable than ever with Windows Admin Center.
  2. For some workloads, and some troubleshooting scenarios, if Server Core doesn’t meet all your compatibility requirements, you can add an optional package to get past these hurdles. Try the Server Core App Compatibility Feature on Demand (FOD).
  3. Windows Server with Desktop Experience is still an option and still meets the quality bar of previous releases. Remember that it’s also significantly larger on disk and over networks than Server Core. Also, be aware that certain experiences (like running services/tasks) may be more in line with your expectations of Windows 10 devices than Windows Servers past.
  4. In addition to everything else Windows 10 does, it’s also the best choice for enterprise app development, even if your app is intended to run on Server Core. And, of course, Windows 10 is the best choice for gaming!