Starting your Windows server without a GUI

You?re familiar with the GUI of Windows NT and Windows 2000. But would you like to get rid of the overhead it causes? Read this Daily Feature to bring back the nostalgia of DOS.

One of the main reasons Windows NT and Windows 2000 have become so popular is because the Windows GUI makes them easy to administer and use. There are instances, however, when you want to run your server without a GUI. What do you do? In this Daily Feature, I’ll show you how to configure your Windows NT or Windows 2000 server to start to a standard command prompt.

Danger! Danger! Danger!
This Daily Feature explains ways for you to make changes to your server's registry. Make sure you have complete backups of your server before performing any technique in this article. If you make a mistake when making changes to your server's registry, you may cause your server to be unbootable, requiring a reinstallation of Windows. Proceed with extreme caution.
Also be aware that this Daily Feature only references how to make your Windows server boot from a hard disk to a command prompt. We’re not discussing how to create a set of boot disks to boot your Windows server to a command prompt if you’re having problems with your server.

Why would I want to do such a thing?
Normally, disabling the GUI is not a good idea. The Windows GUI makes it much easier to get around inside of Windows. You’ll be much more productive making changes to your system by simply using the point-and-click administration utilities and using the GUI to start them.

There may be instances, however, where you want to have your server start to a command line rather than to the Windows GUI. The main reason would be if you have services or programs that you can run on your server and you want to wring the last drop of performance out of your system. The Windows Explorer that serves as the GUI for Windows does have some system overhead that you don’t always need to burden your system with.

Another reason would be for security. Nowadays, many users and even some system administrators can’t find their way around a command line. If you’re server boots to a command line rather than a GUI, it might prevent users from doing things they shouldn’t.

Booting to a command prompt
First, you should know that you can’t completely do away with the Windows GUI. It will still be there in background consuming some of your server’s resources. By their very nature, Windows NT and Window 2000 are built around a GUI. However, that doesn’t mean that you’re forced to use Explorer as the window manager to govern the GUI. Instead, you can force Windows NT and Windows 2000 to drop directly to a command prompt. You can even load a third party shell instead of a command line or Explorer, although that’s beyond the scope of this Daily Feature article.

To force your server to boot to a command prompt, log on to your server as Administrator or as a user with administrator rights. Start the Registry Editor by selecting Run from the Start menu, typing regedt32 in the Open text box, and clicking OK.

When the Registry Editor window opens, navigate the left pane until you get to the KEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon hive. In the right pane, look for the Shell value. Highlight it and press [Enter] or double-click it.

You'll then see the String Editor screen. In the String field, enter CMD.EXE and click OK. After you've changed the keys, you're finished. Log off your server, press [Ctrl][Alt][Del], shut down, and then restart your server.

There are a few things to be aware of when you do this. First, as previously stated, Windows still starts with a GUI logon. When your server restarts, you’ll see the same graphical start up screens you normally see, including a graphical logon. All of the services and applications that normally run at start up when you have a GUI selected will also start automatically.

After you log on, you’ll see the command line appear. Don’t be surprised if CMD runs in a window instead of appearing full screen. To make CMD start full screen every time, click the icon in the upper left-hand corner of the CMD window and select Properties. Click the Options tab and select Full Screen in the Display Options dialog box. When you click OK, the Apply Properties window appears. Select Save Properties For Future Windows With The Same Title, and click OK. From then on, when you start your server and log in, CMD will instantly switch to full screen mode.

Be careful not to type exit and press [Enter] while in the CMD window. If you do, the CMD window will close and you’ll be in a blank Windows screen. You won’t be able to do anything practical except press [Ctrl][Alt][Del] and use the Task Manager to shutdown and restart your server or view processes running on your server.

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