Over the last few parts of our guide to Windows Server 2016 Essentials, we have completed a large majority of the work involved in getting our server configured and deployed so that our users can get back to using their computers. For the most part, anything else that you do as the owner and/or IT manager of your home, SOHO, or small business network will mostly be transparent to the user base.
We have completed the basics of server deployment. It is time to sit down, peruse the administration Dashboard and make decisions on how best to manage your server. We need to make it as effective and efficient as possible, so you can get yourself busy doing other more important tasks beyond server management. Such as running your business!
From this point on, there is really minimal need to manage the server sitting at its keyboard/mouse/monitor. Most of the work you need to do can be accomplished through the Dashboard on your own (client) computer. If you do need to access the server desktop, this can be done through a Remote Desktop Connection (RDC), which will be discussed in a later chapter. That means you can locate your server out of the way – in a (ventilated) cabinet, back room or closet, out of sight of your employees, customers or clients.
We will cover specific detail on each section of the Dashboard in subsequent chapters. Right now, I want to briefly run through where to find various features offered in Windows Server Essentials and discuss why you need them.
Navigating the Dashboard
Before we dive into those features, let’s talk about the layout of the Dashboard. Opening up in a window, the Windows Server Essentials is topped by a dark gray branded strip (officially called Information & Settings, that includes a few important areas to check out. On the right, an alert icon provides an “at-a-glance” view of any status messages or warnings that should be investigated as soon as possible. It sits next to a link to advanced server Settings and online Help files.
Below, five large tabs in a navigation bar allow you to navigate to each of the major sections of the Dashboard – Home, Users, Devices, Storage and Applications. Third-party add-ins may create additional tabs at this level, but that’s your line-up at the outset.
The layout of specific Dashboard pages can vary, but there are consistent elements to look out for. Below the main navigation tabs, you may see additional subsection tabs available for navigating lower level areas of each Dashboard page. In the example above, you can see two tabs are available in the Users section – the selected tab has a black background.
Below the subsection tabs, a new search bar allows you to easily located specific entries (users, devices and so on) located in the list pane which sits below. The list view displays objects that you can manage, including basic information about each.
At the bottom of the window you’ll find the details pane. This may start off blank, but will display additional information about an object selected in the list pane. Below that, at the very bottom of the window, a status bar displays the number of objects that appear in the list view. Add-ins may also display status information here
Finally, to the right, you’ll find the Tasks pane. This includes information about the objects displayed in the list pane as well as links to relevant tasks. The Tasks pane is divided into two sections:
- Object tasks – links to tools and information that help you manage the properties for an object that you select in the list view (such as a user account or a computer).
- Global tasks – links to tools and information that help you manage global tasks for a feature area. Examples of global tasks include adding new users, setting policies, and so on.
The Home Tab
Once you have performed the initial server configuration, when you now open the Dashboard, you are greeted with a Quick Status overview of the server under the Home tab. You may have noticed that the Setup area, which previously headed up the Get Started subsection, has now dropped to the bottom of the page.
In the Get Started > Quick Status area, you get a quick glance at your server setup. As your organization grows, you may see the number of user accounts and connected devices growing with you. As you further structure the information required to run your business, you may find the number of Server Folders also grows.
But the main thing to look at in the Home tab is the status of three items – Server Backup, Anywhere Access and Health Report settings. They’ll be listed with a big ON status (assuming you set them up earlier). If they are turned OFF for some reason, this is a quick indicator that an investigation is required.
For the most part, however, once you have set up your Essentials server, you will not have much of a need for the Home section. While we have worked through the Setup tab (listed at the bottom of the screen above) previously, there are a few additional tabs in the Home section that you may need to access to extend the capabilities of your server or to obtain help if you run into a problem.
The Help Section
In the Get Started subsection, you may have previously noticed a Help area. It’s just above Setup in the screenshot above.
If you need additional information on a specific subject, the Dashboard Help section is your guide with resources to answer your questions. You’ll find a handy search bar linked to Microsoft’s online guides, as well as links to the same technical resources, Microsoft’s Connect bug reporting website (which has now been deprecated), user forums, add-in resources (more on those later) and information on upgrading from Windows Server 2016 Essentials to the Standard edition of the software.
The Services Section
Microsoft continues to develop extended cloud service options for the Windows platform, which are designed to extend the core feature set and get you spending more on recurring subscription fees! The suite of services includes two integrated email services (Office 365 and integration with an on-premise Exchange Server), single sign-on integration with the rest of the Office 365 suite, support for Microsoft Intune computer and device management, offsite data protection with support for Azure Recovery, and Cloud-based identity management with Azure Active Directory. A new service, Azure Virtual Network, has been added to the Windows Server 2016 Essentials Dashboard. It provides a way to extend your private network in the cloud via VPN tunnels.
Let’s quickly run through what each service provides.
Azure Active Directory
We discussed Active Directory earlier in the guide – it’s the identity and access management “directory” that controls user and device access to the server domain. You have a local Active Directory service running on your server right now.
You may also have heard of Microsoft Azure – it’s the brand name Microsoft use for many of their Cloud services. So, put the two together and you won’t be surprised to hear that Azure Active Directory is a service that provides identity and access management capabilities in the cloud. If you’re a moderate or heavy user of Microsoft’s cloud services, Azure Active Directory enables you to synchronize your local version of Active Directory with the cloud, allowing your users single-sign on (i.e. using the same user names and passwords) for both local and cloud-based services.
Azure Active Directory offers your users an easier experience if you’re going to be utilizing supported cloud services in the organization – but as we’ll see, some of the major Microsoft cloud and subscription services already offer single sign-on as an integrated feature, so you should check whether you really need Azure Active Directory in your organization. If you’re keeping things simple, then you may be able to do without it.
There’s a trend for software providers to move away from single licensing fees to a recurring subscription model and Microsoft along with Adobe are blazing a trail with their Office productivity suite. Office 365 allows you to ensure you and your users are always running the latest version of the software in your organization, alongside a swathe of other benefits including cloud storage, online/browser-based versions of the software and more. All you need to do is to pay a monthly fee.
When it comes to integrating Office 365 with Windows Server 2016 Essentials, you’ll find a number of enhancements are available to you when you run the two together. They include:
- Online user account management
- Distribution group management (for Exchange Online distribution groups)
- SharePoint Online Library and Exchange ActiveSync management
Online service subscription plan & license management – you can easily bring new employees on board, configure a network user account for them and then assign it to an Office 365 license – all from the Dashboard.
Microsoft Intune is another cloud-based service, this time focusing on helping you manage computers and devices – devices including Windows, Windows Phone, Apple iOS, and Android kit. With Intune you can upload and publish software packages, configure and deploy management and security policies, and poll hardware and software inventories across your organization. Certainly handy for larger organizations with a fair amount of hardware and software infrastructure to keep a check on.
With Windows Server 2016 integration, you can manage users, security groups and licenses for Intune services directly from the Dashboard.
Azure Virtual Network
A virtual network is a representation of your private network, hosted in the cloud. It’s a secure, off-site location for virtual machines and applications, but one where you can use your private IP addresses and define subnets, access control policies, and more. You own private datacenter in the cloud. Of course, there are a variety of virtual network providers out there, but Microsoft runs its own, called Azure Virtual Network.
Should you decide to create a virtual network, Windows Server 2016 Essentials integration allows you to monitor its status and control the network topology from the Dashboard.
Backing up the system files, settings and data stored on your clients to the server makes a lot of sense. Backing up the server makes sense too. But what happens if disaster strikes and your premises are destroyed through fire or flood? Or if your hardware is stolen during a break-in? Cloud-backup is most definitely one option and it’s no surprise that Microsoft has a solution ready and waiting to launch in the Dashboard.
Azure Recovery integration allows you to more easily configure and manage the cloud-based service from your Dashboard. Critical server data can then be backed up to and recovered from a remote datacenter and, as Microsoft knows a little about storage, they perform a couple of tricks to make the service as efficient and secure as possible. To reduce storage and bandwidth requirements, Azure Recovery performs block-level incremental backup. This means that data is backed up in chunks of data (rather than individual files that you and I would recognize) and reassembled when needed at either end. Incremental backup means that the servers understand what data has been backed up previously, and does not transmit and store data it already holds – only the new data that has been added to the server since the last backup. Neat! To increase security, your data is also compressed and encrypted before leaving the server.
Do you need all of these services? Well, that’s going to depend on you and your organization. For a first server, we always recommend you start out with the KISS (Keep It Simple Sucker) principle. You can opt for web-based email accounts, or you can try out Microsoft’s Office 365 option. Not only does this give you integrated email, this service also provides the full suite of Office applications, albeit as a subscription-based service. You can try out Windows Azure backup and Intune – all of the services offer a free trial. But make sure you focus on getting your “on-premise” server capabilities configured correctly and you can them make a clear call on the value a trip to the cloud will deliver.
So, that’s the Get Started tab in Home sorted out. You’ll have noticed two additional subsection tabs in Home, however, called Health Monitoring and Health Report. I mentioned them earlier in the book and we’ll spend more time on them later, but for now, let’s remind ourselves what they do.