Managing Windows 2008 Server Core

In the interest of reducing overhead within my lab environment I decided to try and use Windows 2008 Server Core (R2/x64). If you’ve ever installed Server Core, the first thing you notice is you are only presented with a CMD shell at login, there is no full GUI. You can launch applications, installers, etc. however there is no Start Menu to assist you on your way.

I decided I’d chase this rabbit for a bit, as I am researching the use of Server Core in conjunction with vCloud Directory deployed vApp services…as a bloated UI heavy OS isn’t the most practical when it comes to “scale of cloud”, sure we have magical Transparent Page Sharing (for more info on TPS see: PDF written by Carl Warldspurger)…but just like energy efficiency, the easiest WATT to save is the one you never used. I know many of my fellow vGeeks have home labs, and very few of us have the host resources we’d like to have so we are all chasing efficiency, especially in regard to storage and host memory. In order to adapt to using Server Core you need to figure out how to manage it, so I thought I would write an article about what I have learned.

Sconfig.cmd

The first option Microsoft offers is the shell tool, Sconfig, “Server Configuration”, you can access this by running Sconfig.cmd from the CMD prompt.

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We can navigate this tool easily by inputing the number of the section we wish to view or modify. If we select #4 (Configure Remote Management) we are given the following subset of options:

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If you recall, by default almost all of the remote management tools are disabled on Windows. Likewise, the firewall is enabled and fairly restrictive. Being able to turn on these remote management options quickly so that we can move away from the console is always a benefit.

I went ahead and selected #1 Allow MMC Remote Management, remote MMC is pretty useful as it allows me to consolidate the management tasks between multiple target servers into one place. The window immediately indicated that it was configuring the firewall and enabling required services. It then gave a popup indicating the final status.

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I would personally prefer to not have the popup window that I then having to use a mouse to navigate to and select OK, my preference would have been for that status update and acknowledgement to be provided within the textual interface; I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a company that is bad at UI is even worse at shell. I will give them some credit, as Sconfig seems to have more intelligence than many of their GUI based wizards do, which often leave some tasks incomplete that must be manually finished in other wizards. Since this is my template I personally went ahead and enabled all of the remote management options to avoid having to do so later.

Core Configurator

The next tool which I found is Core Configurator, which can be downloaded from CodePlex. This tool is delivered as an ISO, one option within vCloud Director would be to upload this ISO and attach it to your Windows 2008 Server Core virtual machine as needed, this may provide some additional security however it isn’t necessarily convenient. Personally, I opted to copy the contents of the ISO to a directory within my Windows 2008 Server Core template so that it is readily available.

Microsoft states that Core Configurator supports the following tasks:

  • Product Licensing
  • Networking Features
  • DCPromo Tool
  • ISCSI Settings
  • Server Roles and Features
  • User and Group Permissions
  • Share Creation and Deletion
  • Dynamic Firewall settings
  • Display | Screensaver Settings
  • Add & Remove Drivers
  • Proxy settings
  • Windows Updates (Including WSUS)
  • Multipath I/O
  • Hyper-V including virtual machine thumbnails
  • JoinDomain and Computer rename
  • Add/remove programs
  • Services
  • WinRM
  • Complete logging of all commands executed

In order to launch Core Configurator, you simply navigate to the directory that contains it and run Start_Coreconfig.wsf (default for attached ISO this would likely be D:\Start_Coreconfig.wsf), which presents this interface:

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Selecting the small expansion arrow at the bottom reveals a few more convenient options:

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Control Panel view:

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I was able to use this tool to install all of the latest Microsoft hotfix packages, the interface could use a “select all” option…but then again, you generally want to review what you are installing and this encourages you to do so. You must select the hotfix to be installed one at a time.

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Firewall Settings

You can easily view and modify the Firewall Settings:

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Conclusion

Without the GUI we are accustomed to, even the most basic tasks become challenging. Perhaps you know how to configure interfaces, join an Active Directory domain, or even change the computer name from command line on Windows; this task was previously foreign to me. Just how much do we save by using Core instead of a full version of Windows 2008 Server? Here is a screen shot taken from vCenter on resource utilization for this particular Windows 2008 Server Core (R2 x64):

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Here is the same resource accounting for a similar (base) config for Windows 2008 R2 Standard:

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Notice the Active Guest Memory of each of the above? With only default installation + VMware Tools installed thats a 47% decrease in active memory, it is also a ~decrease of ~20% decrease in storage capacity to support the base OS. While this isn’t much in a large production environment, however I don’t have the luxury of a Cisco UCS B230 with 32-DIMM slots for my lab…when my host only has 16GB of RAM, that increases the number of base OS I can support…again, the easiest unit of X to conserve is the one you don’t use.

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Home Lab Build – Overview

I realize I’m not alone in this process, it seems many of my fellow VMware enthusiasts are putting together home labs. This will be the first of a few blog posts regarding my home lab, I am working on planning out the requirements and my overall goals. Primary requirements are to be able to operate the majority of the VMware products in order to advance my understanding and satisfy curiosity of the growing portfolio, and hopefully to help me obtain more advanced certifications.

I have always had a lab of sorts on my laptop, though the new corporate issued laptop isn’t quite as beefy as the one from my previous employer. I previously had a MacBook Pro 17” with the i7 processor, the new laptop is a 15” with the i5. In order to make the most out of the laptop hardware both have 8GB of RAM and a dual drive configuration, including SSD. I will go into specifics of my MBP configuration in a separate entry. However I needed something more powerful, 8GB of RAM just doesn’t go very far to supporting multiple ESX hosts, vCenter, database servers and the other infrastructure requirements for hosting a vCloud environment. I had contemplated going for a larger virtual host environment, perhaps a Mac Pro 12-core with 32GB of RAM…until I did the math and compared the results to my “budget”. I decided to go for a lower cost route.

Hosts – So far I have determined the following requirements:

  • Minimum of 2 hosts capable of operating ESXi 4.1
  • Each host must provide at least 2 Gigabits of connectivity
  • Ideally is listed on VMware compatibility list

Network – I have set the following network hardware requirements

  • 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports
  • Switch must support 802.1Q VLAN tagging
  • Should support LACP
  • No proprietary software to manage
  • Support for jumbo frames

Storage – As we all know, shared storage is essential. Yes, we can operate without shared storage but every advanced feature requires shared storage. Since this is a home lab my performance requirements are minimal.

  • Provide iSCSI and NFS storage
  • Provide RAID capabilities to increase performance and resiliency
  • Performance scalability
  • Flexibility

With a little bit of time and creativity I believe I found solutions for each of the requirements. I will detail the hardware selected for each area above.

Hosts:
I have selected to use Dell T110 servers, these servers feature the entry quad core Xeon processors (X3400). I settled on these after looking at several options, including those from HP and home built from bare components. The T110 won out in large part on price, the base price with the Xeon X3430 was $379 but I opted for the upgrade to the X3440 with Hyper-Threading for $90. I couldn’t find any VMware specific benchmarks on either of these processors, however the PassMark score for the X3440 was 5303 vs the X3430 with 3638 which represents a 45% improvement. This is in part due to the Hyper-Threading, which is a debate in of itself regarding hypervisor benefits.

EDITED Feb-16-2010 – NOTE: after purchasing my first 2 hosts Dell decreased the pricing to $329 + $90 for $419 per host, Dell does not provide price guarantee but AMEX does…

The server is listed on the VMware CL and the Xeon 34xx processor includes Fault Tolerance support. Additionally, this server and motherboard support both ECC and non-ECC memory which allows for selecting lower priced non-ECC memory. Due to this I was able to max out the RAM on each host to 16GB for a reasonable price.

The servers are scheduled to arrive early next week.

Network:
I considered Netgear, D-Link, HP, Linksys and Cisco switches in trying to pick which was the best value. I would have loved to have a Catalyst switch due the proven track record, however that price alone would have exceeded what I now spent on my 2 ESX hosts. I settled on the Cisco SLM2008, it offers LACP (for when VMware gets around to it), static link aggregation (802.3ad – 2 group limit), jumbo frames and VLANs. Additionally it has a built in management web interface that works from any browser, not requiring any software to be installed is a bonus in my book. If you have a PoE switch to connect it to (or a power injector) it can run from PoE on port 1, otherwise a power brick is included. While I don’t see any value in jumbo frames for IP storage, being able to support MTU sizes larger than 1500 is critical in using Layer2 tunneling options, such as private vCloud Network Isolation features.

The switch arrived today.

EDITED Feb-16-2010
Storage:
As a storage guy I would have loved to have a NetApp FAS3210 with Flash Cache (a.k.a. PAM, or Performance Acceleration Module) but this would neither fit into my budget nor my wife’s noise tolerance. I have selected to go with a software based solution which I haven’t found many using it judging by the blog posts I’ve read. I have decided to use Nexenta Community Edition for my storage build out, I have advised former customers about this as an option for labs but haven’t actually worked with it myself. In a lab environment it can be self contained, in an enterprise solution it should be combined with an enterprise FC SAN.

While an Iomega, Synology, Drobo, or other storage appliance may be simpler to setup I am certain the option I am going with will smoke the competition at a lower price…we’ll see if I can stay on “budget”. For “budget” comparison sake I am going to work with Amazon pricing for devices that I may have considered:

  • Iomega IX4-200d 4TB (4x1TB)        $593.98
  • Thecus 4-bay N4200                         $779.21 + disk 4 x $64.99 = $1039.17
  • Synology DS411+                                 $639.99 + disk 4 x $64.99 = $899.95
  • Drobo FS (5-bay)                                $695.00 + disk 5 x $64.99 = $1019.95

I already had a server purchased that I am adding this role onto, but I also ended up adding a 3rd host to my configuration as the physical server hosting my storage system is clearly taken out of the ability to be “flexible” on maintenance and configuration changes…so I will show both totals. I already had a few parts that I am going to use, however I will try to add a price for those in to keep a fair tally.

The hardware that is added to the ESX host specific to storage is:

  • SAS Controller: Intel SASUC8I PCIe (OEM’d LSI SAS3801 for a big savings) + breakout cable: $154.99 + $19.99
  • 4-bay external SAS/SATA enclosure and cables        $179.00 + $29.50 + $27.50
  • SATA HDDs: 4 x Seagate 1TB 32MB Cache, 2 x Hitachi 1TB – 4 x $64.99 + 2 x $60
  • SSD for cache: OCZ 90GB SandForce controller drive $129.00
  • Dual-port Intel Gigabit ET NIC        $162.99
  • Dell T110 + 16GB RAM                $419.00 + $129.00

So the rough total here is ~$1630 including my ESX host and ~$1082 without the host, which gives me a full 6 disk storage system that I can expand pretty easily with dual GigE and it serves as my management host for the rest of my environment. Now I realize this is over the price of the other systems, but I believe this will provide more flexibility and far better performance than what those other systems are capable of.

EDITED Feb-23-2010

Update:
I’ve had a few questions about the pricing break down, so I thought I would try to make this a more reasonable comparison. In reality the storage I ended up with is far greater than any of the NAS appliances, I have more drive bays (8) and can actually increase to 16-bays for the price of the disk, enclosure and SAS/SATA controller.

In order to keep this an actual comparison to the appliance based options I thought I should show the pricing that is added to my first host.

  • SAS Controller + Breakout cable                        $154.99 + $19.99
  • 4 x Seagate 1TB 7200.12 Drives                        $259.96
  • 1 x 3.5” to 5.25” drive bay adapter (for ESX DASD) ~$5
  • TOTAL =                                                        $439.94

Those are truly the only additional hardware pieces needed, this would give you a 4-disk storage appliance that shares your first host. You can allocate as much or little vCPU and RAM as you wish, realizing that most of those hardware appliance options only have a low end desktop processor and 512MB of RAM.

Edit: You can find more info in the continuation of my lab build here:
Home Lab – Storage Performance Test (Part 1)

Another satisfied UCS customer

I spent much of this week deploying hardware to support a customer’s Cisco Unified Communications (UC).  In this case the customer is deploying a new telecommunications solution to add new capabilities to support the growing business, as well as move away from a legacy system that is becoming costly to maintain.

In order to support their overall strategy of maintaining efficiency in the data center through consolidation and virtualization, the design criteria included using Cisco UCS to facilitate consolidating the servers that support the UC environment.  Previously this deployment would have started with at least 3 physical systems, through virtualization we were able to reduce this down to 2 servers.  While this is only a 3:2 reduction, as this project moves from a proof of concept (POC) to a final production rollout the number of servers would have increased if using traditional hosting methods, however though the use of virtualization the customer can add availability and services without requiring additional hardware.

The overall solution included leveraging their existing NetApp storage system, however we needed to add fiber channel protocol support in order to meet Cisco specifications.  The solution included adding a Cisco UCS blade system comprised of a UCS6120 and a UCS 5108, as well as a Nexus 5000.  We are currently running with 2 B200 blades, each with dual 2.53Ghz 4-core CPUs and 32GB of RAM.  Additional blades will be added to this environment in the near future to support the virtualization of the remaining physical application servers in the data center.

As is typical with the Cisco UCS and NetApp deployments the project has gone pretty smoothly, more complexity is generated by the physical environment which we install these systems than are generally present within the product themselves.  In the end it makes for another happy Cisco UCS, VMware vSphere, and NetApp storage customer.  Hopefully their Cisco UC rollout goes just as smooth, thankfully that is in someone else’s hands.