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Windows Server as Desktop Environment

Notes published the
8 - 10 minutes to read, 1925 words
Categories: security windows
Keywords: administrator hardening security windows

Lately, I’ve set up a virtual machine with Windows Server 2022 Core.

The interesting part is that it is nearly missing a graphical environment. For example, explorer.exe is not available on the machine.

Nevertheless, it is possible to start some graphical applications; for example, all installers I’ve executed had a GUI.

After the setup, since I normally access the machine only via SSH (and SFTP), once I’ve installed the programs I was interested in, using Windows Server Core provided multiple benefits; in particular, a more lightweight environment, which means faster startup times, less space wasted on my drive, fewer updates to download and install, and fewer programs to configure.

Since Windows Server 2022 can be installed also with the Desktop Environment (like all previous Windows Server versions), I’ve asked myself if it made sense to use it instead of Windows 10.

According to Microsoft, the answer is no, the disadvantages are that there is

  • no Microsoft Store

  • no OneDrive integration

  • no Xbox applications

and so on.

Why would I want to?

The components I’ve listed all those I’m not interested in, run in the background and I try hard to disable.

So maybe Windows Server could provide a lightweight Windows 10 experience out-of-the-box?

Relevant differences between Windows 10 and Windows Server 2022

Ok, Windows Server comes with some programs that might not make much sense on a desktop environment, and enables support for over 2TB of RAM, but are there any significant differences?

As already mentioned, some programs I am not interested in.

According to some sources, WSL2 is also missing, except that it seems available in the latest update (I did not test it, as I’m not interested in it)

It seems that newer features are also not introduced on Windows Server 2022 as fast as on Windows 10.

Last but not least, Windows Server requires a different license. Chances are that you have a Windows 10 license (normally sold with the computer), but you might not have a Windows Server License (normally to be bought separately).

At least there is a trial period.

Windows installation

The setup works more or less like all other Windows setups, accept the license, and click on "Next".

Just pay attention to where you need to decide which version to install, you need to select the version with "Desktop Experience", otherwise you’ll get a much more minimal environment.

Other than that, the setup is much shorter, there are fewer customization options; you cannot, for example, choose a username. The default username is "Administrator"; it is possible to change it afterward, although I see little reason to. IMHO a better approach is to create a second account without administrator privileges to use for the daily routines (surfing, writing documents, …​) and use "Administrator" when one is forced to.

Setup the desktop environment

After the installation, everything looks normal.

You might notice the absence of often undesired applications from the start menu.

The first thing to do was install the VirtualBox Guest Additions, set my default editor, and install the programs I wanted to use.

After that, I looked at what I normally do on a brand-new Windows machine.

With great pleasure, I noticed that most of the programs I normally remove are simply not there.

Get-WindowsCapability -Online | where { $_.Name -match "Hello.Face|InternetExplorer|Language.Handwriting|Language.OCR|Language.Speech|Language.TextToSpeech|MathRecognizer|Media.WindowsMediaPlayer|XPS" -and $_.State -eq "Installed"}

Get-AppxProvisionedPackage -Online | where { $_.PackageName -match "bing|getstarted|3DViewer|OfficeHub|Solitaire|MixedReality|People|Print3D|SkypeApp|Xbox|Zune" }

Get-AppxPackage | where {$_.name -Match "officehub|skype|getstarted|zune|solitaire|twitter|candy|farmville|airborne|advertising|bing|people|phone|xbox|sway|pandora|adobe|eclipse|duolingo|speed|power|messaging|remote"}

Get-AppxPackage | where {$_.name -Match "3dbuilder|windowsalarms|windowscommunication|windowscamera|onenote|soundrecorder|store|viewer|paint|help"}

All those commands give me an empty (or nearly empty) output.

I’ve also noticed that Windows Server 2022 comes with the "normal" calculator application, not the UWP one. The UWP version, even if it has more features, has startup performance issues.

For me, the main disadvantage is that the "classic" calculator will not respect the dark theme, I’ve currently never used any of the additional features that the UWP version has.

If you want to use the UWP version, it seems possible to install it independently, but it is not as simple as downloading an executable.

Audio output

After some time, I noticed that the audio was not working.

It can be enabled and disabled like on most all other Windows versions: by enabling (or disabling) the corresponding service.

Enable audio service
Get-Service audiosrv | Set-Service -StartupType Automatic -PassThru | Start-Service

Disable Ctrl+Alt+Canc requirement

For security reasons, the user has to press Ctrl+Alt+Canc before logging in.

The key combination is annoying in VirtualBox, where it cannot be pressed directly, but through the Virtualbox menu.

Fortunately, this security policy can be disabled, as it is on most Desktop environments by default:

Disable Ctrl+Alt+Canc
Set-ItemProperty -Path "HKLM:\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System" -name 'DisableCAD' -Value "1"

Disable server manager at logon

I thought this would be easier, as the program has an option for disabling it at startup.

Unfortunately, it did not seem to work.

Thus I’ve disabled it manually

Disable server manager Task
Get-ScheduledTask -TaskName ServerManager | Disable-ScheduledTask

Change keyboard layout

Normally I always set the language of the environment I work in in English (even if it is not my native language and I do not live in an English-speaking country), and set the input method (or keyboard layout) to a non-English one.

Somehow, Windows set the keyboard layout to English, and I found no way to change it, as only the English language seemed to be available.

From the command line, I had to add another language, only at that point, I could choose between different input methods.

For example, for adding a German language, use

Set-WinUserLanguageList -LanguageList DE-DE

Disk usage in Task Manager

I’ve noticed that the Task Manager does not report the disk usage.

This can be enabled with

diskperf -Y

Disable shutdown event tracker

When you want to reboot or shut down a Windows Server, you need to write why you are turning off the machine.

This feature is also annoying, but can also be turned off

New-Item -Path         'HKLM:\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows NT' -Name Reliability -Force
Set-ItemProperty -Path 'HKLM:\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows NT\Reliability' -Name ShutdownReasonOn -Value 0

Is it worth it?

Compatibility

I tested the environment only briefly; all that I am using seems to work, and honestly, it is hard to find differences between the desktop and server editions of Windows.

Nevertheless, some programs might not be happy running on the server version of Windows, I can imagine that some drivers that are not normally required on a server might be problematic, or some version checks for compatibility might not take the Server versions into account.

I am also not interested in those components that are missing.

Thus from a compatibility point of view, it depends on your requirements. If you are not interested in an online account, it seems that Windows Server 2022 can be a good replacement.

Resource usage

I did not take exact measurements, but …​

The used disk space is more or less the same; the difference (if there was any) is not big enough to be relevant.

For RAM and CPU usage, Windows Server 2022 consumes generally fewer resources than Windows 10 because it is running fewer things in the background.

Resource usage comparison
Figure 1. Resource usage comparison
Resource usage comparison with internet connection
Figure 2. Resource usage comparison with internet connection

As on my Windows 10 instance I’ve already disabled the store, background services I’m not interested in and so on, the images show a very similar graphic for both environments.

What I’ve noticed is that when I’m connected to the internet, the CPU usage graph of Windows 10 has more "hiccups" compared to Windows Server 2022. There might be more communication with the Microsoft Servers.

Either way, the CPU and RAM usage is comparable once enough background applications and services have been disabled on Windows 10 too. I do not have a comparison with a "vanilla" Windows 10 environment.

Security updates

Another advantage of the Server edition is security updates.

For Windows Server 2022 the "Mainstream End Date" is in October 2026 (and the "Extended End Date" in October 2031), while for Windows 10, the "Retirement Date" is in October 2025.

Since you can use programs (and operating systems) that do not get security updates, and since you might be able to install the Windows Server 2022 security updates on Windows 10 (I mean, people were still installing Windows Embedded POSReady updates on Windows XP in 2019…​, although officially updates of Windows Server are not compatible with Windows 10) or use non-official patches, depending on your use-cases, this might not be relevant.

Conclusion

For the average Windows 10 user, using the server edition is not worth it.

Windows Server 2022 gave me a better experience out of the box, but what if something does not work?

If you have "slimmed" down Windows 10, by disabling services and applications, you can revert those changes (worst case scenario with a system backup).

But if Windows Server is missing something you might want (like the Microsoft Store), as the user pool is much smaller, you are on your own. There is no (official) way to add the missing features, and the chances that someone else had a similar issue are much smaller.

For example, if you want to install the Microsoft Terminal, it seems you need to install manually some missing libraries.

The most annoying "feature" of Windows 10 is re-enabling components that have been disabled after doing some updates.

I disabled, for example, OneDrive multiple times.

With Windows Server, as OneDrive is not available, this would have never happened, at least until now.

My conclusion, together with the fact that using Windows Server has normally an additional cost, would be that using Windows Server as a Desktop Environment is an unattractive choice for most people, as it will not provide many advantages.

What about Windows 11 and Windows Server 2025?

Since Windows 11, the end user is forced to make an online account.

As far as I know, it is still possible to bypass this requirement, but who knows if it will be always possible?

On the other hand, Windows Server 2025 (still in preview) does not require an online account, and similarly to Windows Server 2022, is missing all the components (Windows Store, Xbox, Onedrive, …​) that take advantage of it.

Assuming that this requirement does not change, the Server Edition of Windows 11 has another advantage compared to the Desktop Edition.

And if Microsoft continues to add new restrictions to the Desktop version of the operating system (for example requiring an online account) and undesired features that cannot be disabled easily (integrated copilot, Windows Recall, …​), and you do not want to use an unsupported version, then the Server Edition will become more and more interesting.

For what is worth, what I wrote about Windows Server 2022 can be applied one-to-one to the current preview of Windows Server 2025. There are some minor differences; for example, Audio works out-of-the-box (the service is already enabled), and task manager already reports disk usage (diskperf is already enabled).


Do you want to share your opinion? Or is there an error, some parts that are not clear enough?

You can contact me anytime.