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Making a great workstation from Windows Server 2008

Around the geekier parts of the net there’s a lot of talk about using Windows Server 2008 as a desktop operating system. We’ve done it and we’re considerably impressed with the result – it makes a mockery of all the boasts about Windows Vista. We’ve got some advice and links on how to do it.

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Aside from the nerdy pleasure of doing it, there are some practical reasons for wanting Windows Server 2008 as a workstation.  Developers want to test their wares using a robust operating system that's similar to what their customers will use. Windows Server 2008 doesn't have the arbitrary 4GB memory limit that 32-bit Vista does (to go over 4GB with Vista you need the 64-bit version which opens up plenty of other hassles).

Power Office users may find Windows 'workstation' 2008 a compelling option, something we've covered in a separate article.

Both the anecdotal and hard performance evidence suggests that using Windows Server 2008 as a workstation is considerably faster and reliable than Windows Vista. There are suggestions that Windows 'workstation' 2008 (the very unofficial name) is 11% to 17% faster than Vista with Service Pack 1 which is surprising because both products use the same core technologies.

The basic concept is no real surprise because you could do similar things with Windows Server 2000 and 2003 but there was little point. Microsoft released "Windows 2000 Workstation" as an equivalent to Windows Server 2000. Windows XP which wasn't that bad so there was little demand for turning Windows Server 2003 into a workstation.

With Vista being so relatively slow and unstable - using Windows Server 2008 as a workstation is a compelling and viable alternative for geeks. Though Vista Service Pack 1 is an improvement over the original release, that's just damning with faint praise.

While there's plenty of argument, the basic facts are firm. Windows Server 2008 can be used as a workstation operating system that's similar to Vista with the Aero interface, audio, wireless etc but with performance and stability improvements. The Exo blog has some interesting benchmarks which are, inevitably, subject to complaints both informed and ill-informed.

How to make Windows 'workstation' 2008

Before you begin …

  • Turning Windows Server 2008 into a workstation isn't hard, but it's not for everyone. If you are at all timid about using your computer, then stick with Windows XP or Vista. This is hard core computer nerd territory.
  • Windows Server 2008 isn't cheap at around US$1,000 at least. Most of the people trying the 'workstation' conversion either have an MSDN subscription or their company has a broad Microsoft license which includes some 'stray' Windows Server 2008 licenses. There is a free 60 to 240 day trial downloadable from Microsoft.
  • Do NOT try this on your main computer.
    • Windows Server 2008 cannot be easily installed as a 'dual boot' option on a Vista or XP computer. The new operating system does not use the boot.ini text file to control which operating system is started.
    • Most people install 'Workstation 2008' on a separate computer or, more likely, as a virtual machine under MS Virtual PC , MS Virtual Server or VMware workstation.
  • Installing the 32-bit / x86 version of Windows Server 2008 is the easier option - as usual going for the 64-bit version of an operating system is possible but has some compatibility hassles.
  • Some Vista features are not directly available. Some can be hacked into a '2008 workstation', usually by copying the necessary files from Vista. Others, most notably Tablet PC support, will probably never be available.
  • Some compromises need to be made. You may need to adapt the way you work in small ways. Most software should work, but test compatibility of any crucial programs before committing yourself. Microsoft Office 2007 and Office 2003 work fine.
  • Backup, backup, backup.

Windows Server 2008 operates on an 'add what you need' basis with only the core system installed at first, then you add the elements you want via 'Roles', 'Features' or some more complex options for workstation aspirants. This compares with Vista which pretty much loads everything (and the kitchen sink) whether you want it or not.

Article posted: Monday, 17 March 2008

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