Microsoft Windows Nano Server, the future of Windows Server?

DISCLAIMER: Starting with a 1709 update, Microsoft has shifted Nano Server from being a compact server option to an optimized container image and will continue to improve it in this direction only. Please refer to release notes for more details.

Windows Server 2016 is right around the corner. Right now, it is already at Technical Preview 4 (TP4).

Today with Windows Server 2012 R2, you deploy either the full Windows Server version or the core version. There is also the minimal server version, which still has some management tools and is more of an in-between version.

Nano Server is a new, headless, 64-bit only, deployment option for Windows Server 2016 that’s been specifically created with some key scenarios in mind:

  • Cloud fabric and infrastructure
  • Born-in-the-cloud applications

Microsoft Nano Server will allow you to deploy core infrastructure components such as Hyper-V hosts, scale-out file servers, DNS servers, web servers and container hosts to serve as your fabric. This is just a partial list of what is already available today in TP4. I assume that more core functionalities will become available in further releases up to when Microsoft Windows Server 2016 hits GA.

Nano Server will also be a specific platform for applications specifically written as Windows Server apps. If your developers aren’t looking at Nano Server right now, be sure to tell them about these new options.

Nano Server is built from the ground up and it solves quite a few past and present challenges and management problems. Because it is headless, very small and has almost no components inside except the ones you want, you’ll suffer less from reboots (less components means less patches), you’ll have better security (again less security patches but also less processes, services and ports that are open) and you’ll use less resources (less processes, less memory in use and a very small footprint). In addition, the deployment of this type of server is fast compared to the other versions, which makes it very flexible for deploying when needed or removing it when it is not needed anymore (scale-out and scale-down).

You definitely should start using Nano Server, but keep in mind that it will require some changes in the way you are now working. Because it is headless, it doesn’t have any GUI (Graphical Interface) or RDP support. Everything you do is done remotely except a few actions that you can perform in an emergency console). Plus, deploying Nano Server is different from usual installations.

Because of the remote management, many IT professionals seem to be a bit reluctant to start using Nano Server. I can only say there is no reason to be reluctant.

Many of the consoles you use today are and will be usable with Nano Server and they will simply be run remotely, either from your workstation or a management server. PowerShell will play a big part in this management story, but this should not – again – be a big concern and certainly not stop you from using Nano server.

I strongly recommend that you begin learning how to use Nano Server today, so you will be ready when Windows Server 2016 is generally available.

You can’t install Nano Server they way you used too. Deployment of Nano Server is done using PowerShell and using a VHD, VHDX or WIM image that you must prepare upfront before deploying it. In TP4, a PowerShell module is included that delivers you cmdlets with lots of parameters to prepare the image.


New-NanoServerImage -TargetPath .\NanoServerVMS\TP4Nano-06\TP4Nano-06.vhdx -BasePath .\Base -Clustering -Compute -ComputerName TP4Nano-06 -DomainName MD.Local -EnableRemoteManagementPort -GuestDrivers -InterfaceNameOrIndex ethernet -Ipv4Address -Ipv4Gateway -Ipv4SubnetMask -MaxSize 107374182400 -MergePath E:\Scripts

Don’t be concerned about all of these parameters. At the end of this post, you will see a link to my paper that discusses all of these parameters in depth.

No, you can’t use RDP anymore, and no, there is no local console available on Nano Server, but there are still lots of different methods to manage and configure Nano Server.

There is:

  • The Nano Server Recovery Console (a text-based console where you can change some IP settings, firewall rules and routing tables to restore remote connectivity in a worst-case scenario)
  • PowerShell remoting and PowerShell Direct
  • Remote GUI consoles (server manager, Hyper-V manager, failover clustering and more)
  • Remote Server Management Tools in Azure (it is assumed that the first public beta will be out soon)
  • Windows Remote Management and Windows PowerShell CIM sessions over Windows Remote Management
Windows Server 2016 PowerShell
Windows Server 2016 PowerShell

More in-depth information can be found in the white paper.

The biggest feedback I get from IT professionals when discussing Nano Server is that they are afraid to troubleshoot remotely when something goes wrong and when they are under time pressure. They should not be afraid. Nano Server offers so many possibilities, including support for the new Windows Server 2016 Setup & Boot Eventing role. But there is even more, such as kernel debugging, emergency management services, and of course, the well-known event viewer and logs.

Nano Server will require a different mindset and some changes in the way you deploy, manage and troubleshoot server systems. However, the advantages of this deployment type are great and should certainly be explored. Don’t wait until Windows Server 2016 is GA. Instead, start playing with the solution and studying it today. Make sure you have enough time to prepare before the first deployment hits your infrastructure.

How can you start today?

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