For ages, UNIX systems administrators have enjoyed the ability to run “headless” servers, increasing security while minimizing the cost of managing multiple servers. Now you can fearlessly decapitate your Windows 2000 servers, too. Here’s how to run a headless Windows 2000 server.
What’s a headless server?
A headless server generally lacks a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. In some instances, a headless server also excludes the video card. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on servers that have video cards.
Sounds rather morbid, doesn’t it?
Despite the gruesome name, a headless server offers a number of advantages over a server with all of the input devices and displays attached. Most obvious is the space saved by not having a monitor, keyboard, and mouse lying around. There's also a hardware cost savings. You won’t need to purchase a monitor, keyboard, or mouse, and you also save money by not purchasing KVM cables and switches. Consider this: In a 42U rack of 1U-high servers, going headless can save you the cost and tangle of a KVM and 48 cables running through your rack. In an environment where cabling is already tight, this adds up to significant time and cost savings. Going headless can be extremely beneficial in a multiple-server hosting situation.
Running headless also enhances the physical security of the server. Without a keyboard, monitor, and mouse, an unauthorized user would be hard pressed to walk up to the server and do anything with it—or to it.
Running a headless server is not very difficult under Windows 2000 when you have a stable environment and the right components. Beyond making changes to your Windows 2000 server’s BIOS, there’s nothing fancy you have to do. Just install Windows 2000 as normal. Take the server to where you want to run it, along with a temporary mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Set the server up with the temporary devices and test it to make sure everything works. Then you can disconnect the mouse, keyboard, and monitor and walk away with them in tow.
No keyboard + no monitor <> no administration
At this point, you may be wondering how you'd administer such a machine, or even boot it! Not to worry—no keyboard plus no mouse does not equal no administration. You can set your BIOS to boot without a keyboard or monitor, and use remote administration software to manage your headless server.
These days, the typical BIOS has the option to skip checks for a keyboard and monitor. If you decide to run headless, you'll first need to figure out how to accomplish this with your particular BIOS. Unfortunately, I can’t give you precise instructions on how to do it because the routine varies from server to server. Check the documentation for your BIOS.
The next hurdle comes in the area of system administration. As you might imagine, administering your server without mouse, keyboard, or monitor requires a different approach. This is where remote administration tools such as Terminal Services, VNC, or Remote Administrator come into play. Before chopping off your server’s head, you need to prepare the server to make sure that you can fully and remotely operate it. Without this vital step, your headless server efforts will be brain dead.
Of these choices, I strongly recommend against using the Terminal Services that Microsoft included with Windows 2000 to remotely administer your headless server. If you use Terminal Services as a remote administration tool, be aware that there are certain administrative tasks that you won't be able to perform. Terminal Services provides you with a virtual console rather than simply redirecting the real console. Unfortunately, some applications don't operate well under such conditions—most notably services that are designed to interact directly with the desktop, which includes VNC. If you try to run a service that interacts directly with the desktop from within a Terminal Services session, you often won’t see important screens because they won’t display remotely.
Therefore, if you’re going to run a headless server, you should install remote control software such as VNC or Remote Administrator. Remote control software works just as well for administering remote servers as it does your remote workstations. Anything you can do standing in front of the server with a local keyboard, mouse, and monitor, you can do remotely using these tools.
Microsoft losing its head
Microsoft has started to realize that some of its customers want the option of using a headless server, and it's begun to support headless servers in new operating systems. Windows XP and the upcoming Windows .NET servers provide native support for headless server operations. In addition, new software called Emergency Management Services allows an administrator to interact with a system that might not be able to respond to network requests.
Headless servers aren’t as scary as they seem! In many situations, they may just be the answer to your multiple-server nightmares.