Windows Server 2003 as a Workstation: Great, But Not Unconditionally

I don’t need a server. Our FreeBSD home server runs unstoppably for years, asking nothing in return. However, my curiosity about OSes drove me on ordering the free evaluation version of Windows Server 2003 Enterprise, the latest Microsoft’s OS offering. Naturally, there is a lot of marketing hype surrounding the product, but this time, I am really happy to witness that most of the hype is for real.

Note: This is not a review of the product as a server. It is a review of how it performs after transforming it to a workstation or a desktop.

Click for a larger image Installing the product is no different than recent versions of Windows. It is an easy procedure o follow, except for two parts: I don’t like the staging installation, it serves no real purpose for the user; it should have been a normal, modern one-go installation, and it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. It took nearly 40 minutes on my MicroTel AthlonXP 1600+, 768 MB RAM and its 52x CD-ROM.

And then, it booted for the first time… Windows Server 2003 (Win2k3 for short) booted in around 15 seconds, much faster than my Windows XP Pro (~25 secs), on par to a “clean” installation of Gentoo Linux (with no extra services) and slower than BeOS 5 (around 8 seconds, but BeOS doesn’t load anything heavy on startup).

The desktop appearance is a bumped up version of the standard Windows 2000 theme and it has all the extra eye-candy stuff turned off. Smooth fonts, “show windows contents when moving windows,” etc., are all off. It only takes a few seconds to go to the settings panel and turn everything on. And even with the “eye candy overhead,” I must say, this is the (overall) fastest *modern* operating system I have ever used.

You read correctly, if Microsoft did one thing correct in this version is to optimize the OS for maximum performance and we are not talking just server performance, but all-around responsiveness of the OS. Sure, BeOS heads will tell us in the forum how responsive the BeOS UI is, but BeOS is not overall fast. It is a very bad server platform (even with the BONE networking stack installed it’s not a serious server), it doesn’t have a good throughput, its SMP scaling is below par today (despite popular belief), and compiling anything takes more time than it would take on any Unix or Windows I ever used. BeOS will still feel faster on slower machines, but it can’t offer all what Win2k3 can.

As for a users’ speed comparison to Linux, let’s just say that the exact same machine feels much faster with Win2k3 than with Red Hat Linux 9. Applications load instantly. For example, this not-so-fast machine can load Windows Media Player 9 in 1 second. IE loads instantly, 1.1b2 loads in 7 seconds (version 1.0.2 under Red Hat needs 13 seconds, even with DMA on), the Gimp for Windows loads in 6 seconds, Apple QuickTime in 2 seconds. IE scrolling is extremely smooth, UI responsiveness is great, the recently compiled applications from Microsoft (e.g. Windows Explorer) are 100% flicker free upon resize (XP’s is not fully flicker free), so what else can I say? The OS just feels fast-fast-fast, as others have said as well in their reviews.

But there are problems when using a purely server product as a workstation that was tweaked to be as secure and as fast and stable as it can be after all this bashing Microsoft is getting for years.

First and foremost, backwards compatibility is crippled. This is a known issue and bear in mind, it was a conscious decision made by Microsoft in order to secure, stabilize and speed-up the OS. They did it on purpose. Let me explain the situation:

We all know that WindowsXP and Windows 2000 were the best OS products from Microsoft so far, far more stable than the low-quality Win9x/ME line of OSes which were based on a different codeline (and are responsible for the terrible reputation they gave to the Windows name). Well, even the NT codeline is unstable on 2k and XP, and engineers have identified the problem in the legacy code, and backwards compatibility support these OSes were forced to carry in order to sell better (users wouldn’t upgrade if their older apps wouldn’t be supported). XP is for me an extremely stable OS, I’ve seen only a single crash in 1.2 years of running it, and that was just because of a defective hardware (an old and dying Yamaha CD-R). However, still, other people report instability problems with XP or 2000. And 90% of the time, the source of the problem is simple and the same for all: they use unstable drivers, or simply, drivers that were not built for the specific kernel they were using. It is like trying to load a kernel driver (module) under Debian while it was compiled specifically for Red Hat. Or, it is like trying to load a Red Hat 7 or 8 driver under Red Hat 9. Sure, they are both Linux, but 99% of the times, you really need to have distro-specific drivers, otherwise your driver is very likely to crash, because of the minor changes found in each kernel. The same goes with Windows and any other OS. The fact that they all bear the name “Windows” (for marketing purposes) doesn’t make them the same version OS, let along the same OS altogether. People should realize this very well before they go and download and install drivers for any OS, not just Windows.

Here is the rule of thumb regarding Windows Server 2003 as a Workstation: If all your hardware is supported by the OS, or if you are certain that there are drivers *tested* for the specific OS, go ahead and install Win2k3. If you can’t find specific drivers for your hardware, evaluate whether you can live without these drivers (e.g. without sound) and if not, stay with Windows XP or whatever OS you are currently running.

This is a very interesting situation. It feels sort of like Win2k3 is really an alternative OS! The fact that hardware compatibility with multimedia devices is shaky while a number of applications have hiccups because of the lack of full compatibility (e.g. WinAMP 3) or don’t run at all (e.g. MS Exchange), is giving this OS a clean fresh air. It is like a new start for Microsoft. They seem eager to try to get rid of the big success key of the past(DOS/Win3.x compatibility for Windows 95, Windows 9x compatibility for XP), which is also at the same time, their curse, a curse that brings insecurity and instability. We see on Win2k3 a frank effort from Microsoft to clean up the mess. And so far, they have succeeded in regards to the server part. If they can backport all these changes to the next Windows Longhorn or even to Windows XP SP2, Microsoft will have accomplished a big step in offering a worthy product, if not a winner indeed (don’t forget, according to JoelOnSoftware, software in general takes 10 years to mature – the NT codeline is today about 12 years old).

Click for a larger image I was discussing the driver incompatibility problem with someone via email the other day, and he said, “but how are people supposed to know that they should not install non-Win2k3 drivers?” Well, the answer is easy: If you don’t see mention on the third party web site of Win2k3, don’t even bother download the drivers. And if you do download and try to install them, the OS will popup an alert to tell you that these drivers are not qualified for this OS (in CAPITALS no less!!). I am speaking out of experience: Win2k3 Enterprise didn’t support any of the two sound cards I have on this machine (an onboard AC97 VIA 8233 and a PCI Yamaha YMF-754). I thought, “whatever…” and I went to Hoontech’s web site and downloaded the latest Yamaha drivers for Win2000 and XP. I decided to install the driver despite the alerts Windows was giving me. I risked it. Well, after I did that, Windows Server 2003 got unstable. I had 3 bluescreens in 24 hours, all random. I emailed the HoonTech guys and they told me that they do not plan any update to their drivers for Win2k3 as Yamaha doesn’t really sell the card anymore. I had also installed the latest Detonator drivers from nVidia and the 4-in-1 drivers from VIA (which include some additional IDE and AGP drivers). None of these drivers were Win2k3-proof, however, the Yamaha driver was the one which was cr@pping out (kmixer.sys was crashing, which is a Windows kernel driver for audio, which the normal sound drivers are wrapping onto). I could have been lucky and the Yamaha driver could have worked. But I wasn’t. And if it was not the Yamaha driver, it could have been something else. Moral of the story: If you want to keep your Windows stable as a rock (and this includes Windows XP), don’t install drivers not built for the specific kernel you are using. Know, understand and accept this simple fact before you pass any kind of judgment. Any OS would crash when installing wrong kernel drivers.

Now that we’ve got this clear, here are the rest of the changes you will have to make in order to transform Windows Server 2003 into a workstation:

1. Enable Hardware Acceleration in the Advanced tab of the Display Properties.
2. Download and install DirectX 9a. Load “dxdiag” from the command line and enable OpenGL and Direct3D. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to play 3D games.
3. Don’t forget to create a user account. Add yourself in to the administrator group if you want to use the OS more freely.
4. Disable that nerve-wrecking shutdown Tracker which doesn’t let you shutdown or reboot the machine whenever you want (for security reasons that you don’t need it on a workstation)
5. Disable Internet Explorer Hardening. God, this one sucks until you get all these options right. With the security measures Microsoft has taken in this version, not even OSNews is not allowed to load on IE. Not even You will have to modify the preferences of IE and tell it to not be so paranoid about security…
6. Go to your System Properties, Advanced and click the Performance Settings. Tell it to adjust for best appearance. On the same panel, click on the Advanced tab and tell it to adjust best performance for “Programs” instead of the default values (which mostly favor server performance).
7. Enable Audio. By default, Windows Server 2003 has sound disabled. To do so, just go to the audio control panel and check the radio button there. After you do that, go to Advanced tab and enable full acceleration for the audio.
8. Enable the Theme service and tell it to autostart at each reboot, otherwise you won’t be able to use themes or the Luna interface (I noticed a slight drop of performance (e.g. when rendering web pages with IE) after switching to the heavier Luna).

You can read how to do all that step by step in this informative article over at NeoWin.

After you do all that, and you made sure you that you have supported hardware and that all the applications you are interested in do work well with this new system, then you are all set to go and make the big move out of XP or 2000. However, there is one more problem: The mighty price.

Click for a larger image Well, the price is stupidly steep. I don’t have enough good words to say about this server OS, but the problem is that if this is to work as a workstation OS, it should also be made affordable. Through the standard retail channels, the best price you can get is $800 for the Standard Edition with 5 licenses. Then, for the other versions, the price escalates to high grounds that us geeks can’t afford. However, there is a “trick” that you might be able to pull through and get the software for $380 if you know the right people at the right places.

So, there is version of Windows Server 2003 which is called Web Edition and it doesn’t have all the goodies in it (supports up to 2 GB RAM, 2 CPUs, not all server software is there) as it was created solely for web serving with IIS. However, this version is more than enough for a workstation, and more importantly, it doesn’t have the CAL licensing limitations that the other versions of Windows Server 2003 have. The catch? It is not available via retail channels. Only OEMs and Microsoft distributors sell this cheaper version of the OS for specific purposes only. If you can get your hands on it and you have the will and money for it, go ahead and buy it. If not, well, you can always order the free evaluation CD of Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition, free to use for 180 days (you can download it for free too if you have the bandwidth, it is a single 550 MB ISO image). Update: You can get Win2k3 Enterprise via the subscription pack for only $300 USD, and it comes with a whole lot of apps and other Windows OSes too (possibly that would be your best deal, I guess, to get hold of the OS).

Windows Server 2003 as a Workstation and comparison to Windows XP Pro:
Good points: Faaaaast, stable, much more secure, easy to use.
Bad points: Incompatible with old drivers (can cause bad crashes) and some software, requires a bit of work to transform it from a server OS to a workstation OS, pricey.

Installation: 9/10 (XP Pro: 9)
Hardware Support: 8/10 (XP Pro: 9.5)
Ease of use: 9/10 (XP Pro: 9)
Features: 10/10 (XP Pro: 8.5)
Credibility: 9.5/10 (XP Pro: 8) (stability, bugs, security)
Speed: 10/10 (XP Pro: 9) (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)

Overall: 9.25 / 10 (XP Pro: 8.83)

Other OSNews reviews for workstation comparison: Mac OS X 10.3 review, SuSE 8.2 review, Red Hat Linux 9 review and preview, Mandrake 9.1 review.


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