If there’s one thing that Microsoft excels in it’s doing things over and over trying to get it right. Managing servers is a good example of this. Starting back with Windows Server 2003, Microsoft tried creating a tool administrators could use to manage all of their Windows servers from a single place. The result was Server Manager (SrvMgr.exe) a GUI tool that could manage servers running Windows NT 3.51 up to Windows Server 2003:
Believe it or not, you can still download SrvMgr.exe from Microsoft.
Windows Server 2008 added something extra to the GUI that made it easier to set up a new server by performing tasks for initial configuration:
Then managing Windows servers using in-box tools stayed pretty much the same until a new revamped Server Manager arrived in Windows Server 2012:
It’s here!!! Maybe not
At this point, everything probably thought, "Hooray! Now Microsoft is going to provide us with a GUI tool that will really act like a single pane of glass for managing all our servers! All that’s needed is to integrate the functionality of various MMC snap-ins into the new framework so we don’t have to open additional tools to get things gone.
So we waited. And waited. And waited. Just like the narrator said at the beginning of the movie “Casablanca.”
Unfortunately, Windows Server 2016 saw no further gains in integrating server management functionality into Server Manager, so it looked at that point like administrators would continue to have to use a mixed bag of tools for managing their servers unless they chose to utilize a third-party solution.
But something new has now appeared on the horizon. Windows Admin Center is a lightweight, browser-based GUI for managing Windows servers. You can use it to manage servers running Windows Server 2012 and later, plus some limited management capability for Windows Server 2008 R2. You can also use it for managing computers running Windows 10. And while you can perform a lot of different kinds of management tasks using Windows Admin Center, there are still some limitations that make it less than that much sought after “single pane of glass” Microsoft keeps promising but has so far failed to deliver. Still, the new Windows Admin Center GUI is an improvement over the previous iterations of server management tools shown above.
A quick tour of Windows Admin Center
Let’s take a quick look to see what you can do at present with Windows Admin Center, remembering that it’s a tool under development and is still basically in preview. I recently set up version 1809.5 of this tool in my lab to play around with it and see what it can and can’t do at this point in its development. You can download it here. For the purposes of this article my virtual lab is running on a Hyper-V host cluster and I’ve installed Windows Admin Center on a workstation running Windows 10 v.1809 Enterprise, but I’m actually managing my Windows servers from an iPad using the Microsoft RD Client app for iOS as you can see clearly from one of the later screenshots below.
This first screenshot shows all of the available server and client system connections along with the solutions currently installed in Windows Admin Center:
Before we look at what tasks are available for managing individual servers, let’s first look at some of the settings for configuring Admin Center. On the Settings page below you can see that Windows Admin Center can be integrated to some degree with Microsoft Azure services like Azure Active Directory, Azure Backup, and Azure Site Recovery:
To use these Azure services you need to deploy Windows Admin Center in gateway mode on a server running Windows Server 2016 or later. Integration with Azure is a big selling point for Admin Center since Microsoft is generally pushing customers to migrate as much of their on-premises infrastructure as possible into the cloud.
Admin Center has been designed to allow Microsoft and third-party software vendors to create extensions that can extend the capabilities of the tool. The Extensions page of Settings shows what extensions are currently available for installation:
For example, the Windows Server Storage Migration Services extension helps you migrate servers and file shares to Azure or Windows Server 2019 by using Storage Migration Services. Another extension currently available is Windows Defender (Preview) which allows administrators to use Windows Admin Center to view the security status and threat history reported by Windows Defender on client computers running Windows 10. Most but not all of the currently offered extensions are designed for use with Windows Admin Center in gateway mode, and new extensions will be (hopefully) continually in development.
Admin Center was also built from the ground up on a foundation of Windows PowerShell scripts and commands. By clicking the PowerShell prompt icon on the toolbar you can view all the PowerShell scripts available under the hood:
What this actually means though is that if you want to go beyond the simple GUI server management capabilities provided by Windows Admin Center you need to learn how to use PowerShell effectively. All Windows Admin Center helps in this regard is to give you access to the scripts it is built with so you can copy them and customize them.
Now let’s connect to one of the available servers (a domain controller) and see what we can do with it from Admin Center:
On the face of things, it looks like you can view a lot of useful system information on your server and configure some of its features and settings. For example, instead of using the Certificates MMC snap-in to view and import certificates into the certificate stores on your machine, you can use Admin Center to do this:
That’s nice as it means one more MMC snap-in you need to play around with.
Another welcome integration feature of Windows Admin Center is Event Viewer. I’ve always found it a pain to manually scroll through Event Viewer when I want to look for certain events when troubleshooting; Windows Admin Center now lets you do this using its web-based interface:
I’m still not sure however whether this is a step forward or backward as far as trolling event logs is concerned.
Another thing you can do with Windows Admin Center is work directly with PowerShell instead of having to open a separate command prompt window:
Even on an iPad.
While this is an improvement, it’s only incremental. In fact, it might even be a regression for those of us who like to have multiple PowerShell windows and IDEs open simultaneously when managing our environments.
The Registry Editor also seems to have been integrated into Windows Admin Center:
While some administrators might find this useful, I personally find it slower and more difficult to navigate registry subtrees this way compared to using regedit.exe.
Windows Admin Center also includes other management capabilities for features and services ranging from Remote Desktop to Windows Firewall. However, if I want to manage my on-premises domain controllers I still have to use the separate Active Directory Administration Center (ADAC) or the old MMC tools like Active Directory Users and Computers.
Where you can learn more
Will Microsoft continue to invest in enhancing Windows Admin Center by merging additional Windows Server management tool capabilities into its single-pane-of-glass GUI? Or will they leave it half-finished like the earlier incarnations of Server Manager? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my eye on this new management tool and will write a follow-up article on it when enough new functionality has been added to warrant us looking at.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Windows Admin Center and the rationale behind Microsoft creating it, read this TechGenix article where I interview Symon Perriman, president and chief architect for FanWide and an adviser to 5nine Software. You can also find the documentation for Windows Admin Center here in the Microsoft IT Pro Center. And if you’d like to make a suggestion on how Microsoft can improve Windows Admin Center you can use this channel on UserVoice to do so.
Featured image: Pixabay