Managing fleets of servers and desktops can be hard, especially if you're using Windows' built-in graphical tooling. That's because it's designed for managing single systems, not for working with large networks or a mixed portfolio of PCs and servers, many of which might not be part of your on-premise Active Directory.
Microsoft has long offered a set of tools for working with servers from PCs — the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT). Using RSAT you get access to familiar server admin UIs on your PC, logging into each server and managing them directly. While that avoids having to use remote desktop sessions to log into servers, it's still not the all-in-one management interface that most admins are looking for.
Behind the scenes, however, Microsoft has been quietly plotting a revolution. As its PowerShell scripting environment has evolved, it's become a powerful systems management tool, embodying the philosophy its designer Jeffrey Snover calls "just enough admin". As part of a modern management environment, PowerShell is used to expose and manage features of not only the OS, but also tools like Hyper-V and the Windows Storage System. With the ability to write scripts that can work across entire fleets of servers, it's an important tool, albeit one that has a steep learning curve.
That's where the new Windows Admin Center (WAC) comes into play, offering a control panel where you can work with PowerShell-powered systems management tooling across not only servers, but also desktop PCs. It's a way of taking the pain out of PowerShell, one that brings concepts from the Azure hyperscale cloud into your data centre, no matter how small it is.
Installing Windows Admin Center is easy enough. You'll first need to ensure that the systems you're managing are running PowerShell 4.5 or better, and that they're also running an up-to-date version of the .NET Framework. There's support for server releases back to 2008R2, as well as the Hyper-V Server VM host. Some older systems will need remote management enabled, although this is a single line of PowerShell once you've got a supported version installed. Once you've got the prerequisites in place, download the Windows Admin Center tools on a PC, run the installer and you'll be ready to go.
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There are two installation options: WAC can run in desktop mode on a Windows 10 PC, or it can run on a server in gateway mode. This second option allows you to connect from any client web browser, using your choice of network ports. You don't only need to install on a server with a desktop, as you can also install it from the command line on a Server Core system.
You may be asked to accept a certificate the first time you launch WAC. This can be installed on your PC if necessary. It'll launch in its preferred browser — in most cases this will be Edge, but Chrome is also supported. WAC takes advantage of modern web standards, so Internet Explorer isn't recommended.
Once you're logged into WAC it's easy to see its heritage in Microsoft's management tools, like Server Manager. The UI is simple, with a list of tools in a pane on the left-hand side of the WAC window. You'll start with an overview of the machine you're managing, showing its specs and its current performance. Real-time graphs show CPU and memory use, as well as networking and disk usage.
Click on any tool to drill down into the machine you're managing. While access to devices is useful, you're probably going to want to spend much of your time looking at event logs and managing services. Quick access to log files and to filtered data can help track down problems and find solutions. While Windows' Event Viewer is likely to remain the go-to for problem solution, WAC's approach to this is easy to use and can help find problems that you can then explore in detail either by logging onto the server in question or using RSAT.
WAC is extensible, with extensions available from Microsoft and partners. Some are currently only available in preview releases, but add support for additional Windows management tools, as well as a development environment to help you create your own extensions. New extensions are delivered by a Microsoft feed, but if you want to control the available extensions and lock down your WAC system, you can use a file share or a custom NuGet feed to host your own extensions. Only one feed is supported at a time, so once changed from the default you'll only have access to your chosen source.
With PowerShell under the hood, it's not surprising that you've got access to a PowerShell remote shell inside WAC. If you're unable to do something via one of its various options, open a remote shell on the machine you're managing and go to work. You can use it to run simple cmdlets or more complex scripts. There's even the option of opening a web-hosted remote desktop for more complex administration tasks, when you need to see a graphical user interface.
Beyond the server
You're not limited to managing on-premises systems with WAC. There's support for Azure-hosted VMs as well as the option of registering a WAC gateway with Azure Active Directory. Once registered you'll be able to protect WAC installs with multi-factor authentication, as well as using Azure Site Recovery to add an additional layer of protection to your virtual machines.
WAC also includes tools for working with virtual servers. One option allows you to manage hyper-converged infrastructures running on Windows. You can use it to manage compute, storage, and networking across a cluster of servers hosting Hyper-V and using Storage Spaces. There's also the option of managing failover clusters, helping build and run high-availability Windows systems.
With the transition from the preview 'Project Honolulu' to the production Windows Admin Center, Microsoft's new administration tooling has come a long way. At this point it's an ideal tool for managing small data centers, mixing support for desktop PCs, for physical servers, and for virtual machines. By adding more support for virtual infrastructures, and with integration with more application monitoring services, it could well become the single pane of glass for the ops side of DevOps. Microsoft's Windows team has laid the foundations. Now it's up to the rest of Microsoft and third-party vendors to start building.
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Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state 30KW HF radio transmitter, writing electromagnetic modelling software for railguns, and testing the first ADSL equipment in the UK. He also built one the UK's first national ISPs, before spending several years developing architectures for large online services for many major brands. For the last decade he's been a freelance writer, specialising in enterprise technologies and development. He works with his wife and writing partner Mary Branscombe from a small house in south west London, or from anywhere there's a WiFi signal and a place for a laptop.