Mark Minasi's Windows Networking Tech Page
Issue #100 August 2012

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    • Finding Your Way Around Server 2012's User Interface, Part 1:  There Might Be a Happy Ending, After All
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News

Hi all —

As I write this in early August 2012, Microsoft is just about to release the final copy of Windows Server 2012 to the world.  So... is it good news or bad news?  In my opinion, it's mostly great news.  Server 2012's cheaper in nearly every case and, even better, brings all of those enterprise-y features that we poor plebian Standard Server folks could previously only stare at through the window, press our noses to the glass and wish for.  Anyway, I mean, man am I glad I'm not the guy who's got to put together Windows Server 2012's successor.

But it's not all good news.  Unfortunately, there's one thing that's making Windows Server veterans downright apoplectic.  Even more unfortunately, it's the first thing that every 2012 admin meets:  the GUI.  That's our topic for today.

Finding Your Way Around Server 2012's User Interface, Part 1:  There Might Be a Happy Ending, After All

In this article, I want to take a little time to examine, explain and explore what I've seen as the one thing about 2012 that seems to be chafing just about every admin I've talked to.  It is not some new annoying licensing of which I speak, my friends — the Windows Client guys took the point on that this time, with the Windows Store.  Nor is it some new overgrown, ill-thought-out security-related annoyance (and yes, I am talking about you, UAC).  Nope, I refer instead to that bÍte noire of every new major Windows release:

The graphical user interface.

Like a scab they can't help picking, Microsoft seems incapable of Just Leaving Things Alone when it comes to GUIs, and 2012 is no exception.  Before I go any further, however, let me hasten to say that (a) I'm not blaming the Server folks for this, and (b) in this case, the scab did need picking, a little.  Windows 8 Desktop's prime directive is to crush the iPad, and it needed a drastic change in its GUI to accomplish that.  Windows Desktop — which I guess we should start calling Tablet or something like that —  got that new UI, and thus stands a decent chance of deflating their Cupertino competitors a bit.  As Desktop and Server are essentially identical twins under the hood, however, that made it pretty much a foregone conclusion that Server would get the new great-on-a-tablet-but-perhaps-not-so-much-on-the-server UI as well.

Unfortunately, however, with Windows 8, Microsoft sort of shot at iPad users, UI-wise, but ended up hitting Windows Server administrators with the ricochet.  Win 8's so touch-friendly that — at least to me — it seems a bit mouse-hostile.  Win 8 requires mouse users on touch-deprived systems to periodically have to carefully dowse for small regions of pixels in the screen corners to get some important things done, a requirement which Server 2012 inevitably inherited, and while that's a pain for people sitting at a physical system, it's about two dozen times harder for people running Win 8 or 2012 sessions in virtual machines or Remote Desktop windows, which are of course two very common ways of administering servers, which is why so many veteran server admins loathe 2012's new UI at first glance.  I sure know I did.

That isn't, however, the end of the story, at least for me.  In the past few weeks, I've been tossed into the deep end of the poll, spending long hours with Server 2012's Hyper-V, AD and IIS modules and, of necessity, 2012's GUI.  To make a long story short, some of that mouse work on a 2012 server is literally painful, particularly for a guy who's been trying to avoid (no joke) carpal tunnel for the past couple of decades.  I am, however, liking jockeying 2012 boxes at this point, and I can summarize why in a few words:  learn and use the Window key combinations, understand a few paradigm-shifters in the 2012 UI, and pick up just a handful of PowerShell commands.  When you do, you'll find running a 2012 box or two won't be bad at all, and may be quicker than running an R2 box.  (Not a PowerShell maven yet?   Leave the PowerShell window open, and I guarantee that typing "stop-computer" and tapping Enter will be faster than looking for the icons to turn off the computer with the GUI.)

In this article, then, I want to

  • Show you what you'll see when you log onto your first 2012 server;
  • Give you a cook's tour of 2012's desktop and the all-new Server Manager application;
  • Cover why there's no Start button or Start Programs menu, but instead a completely separate desktop-like screen called the "Start screen" or the "Metro desktop;" and
  • Pass along out how to navigate the Server 2012 interface most quickly

Starting Up Server 2012

Fire up a copy of Windows Server 2012 and you'll see this opening screen:

Give that screen a gander, folks.  Snazzy font, varying-sized text arranged in an unusual way.  (And before you ask, no, they couldn't find a larger font for the time.)  Press ctrl-alt-del and the Win-8-ish login screen appears:

Here, I've typed in my password and gotten the little round dots, as usual, but look over to the right in that password field and you'll see a little dot with a small arc over it.  Click and hold that symbol and you'll see what you typed, a feature that I like quite a bit in Server 2012 — quite nice if you've got to type some complex 12-character password.

Meet the New Server Manager

Log in, and your first view will be something like this:

This is Windows Server 2012's all-new Server Manager.  As in previous versions of Windows Server, it starts up automatically upon login until you tell it not to.  My intent here isn't to spend a lot of time on the 2012 administrative tools — that's a topic for many more newsletters and the like — but instead to give you the short version of what's in SM and what the less-intuitive stuff means.

Red means "pay attention!," green means "all is well:" first, notice all of the red — the titles of the "File and Storage Services" and "Local Server" and the boxes with a big "1" are trying to get your attention because they think there's something wrong.  In this case, it's barking at you because it "cannot get BPA [Best Practices Analyzer] results," which is a sort of passive-aggressive way of complaining at you that you've not yet run the Best Practice Analyzer.  (If it were all that gosh-darned important for the BPA to run, why didn't they build the system so the BPA runs automatically, or at least give you a few days before it started glaring red-ly at you?) 

[Later edit 14 August:  now that we've got RTM, apparently Microsoft has tweaked the defaults and now there are no more red boxes right on first run of a default install.  Whew.]

If you make the server happy, however, then the boxes all go green, as this screen snippet from a more-configured server shows:

Fortunately you'll find that when you click around a bit that you can usually tell Server Manager to stop annoying you about particular things, or you can respond to whatever got its dander up.  In this case, I just scrolled down a bit to a box labeled Best Practices Analyzer, clicked on a drop-down on that box labeled "TASKS" — Windows 8 and Server 2012  are really big on all caps — and chose "Start BPA Scan."  It ran quickly and then the Best Practices Analyzer complained that the "File Server Service is not running," leaving all that red still on the boxes.  But I could right-click the "File Server Service is not running" line, choose "Exclude this result," and everything goes green.  The idea here is that as you and SM work together for a while, you'll figure out what things you don't care about and so tell SM to stop worrying about, making the Server Manager screen a useful "dashboard" that you can quickly glance at in search of what will hopefully be the rare red box pointing you at some urgent matter.  (Or the red boxes will just turn out to be a constant and irritating litany of false alarms.  Time will tell.)

Is this hard to read, or is it just me?  Because Windows 8 is built around a set of design concepts called "Metro," Server 2012 includes a windowed user interface that's sort of "flat" and sporting a low-contrast color scheme.  Look at the scroll bars and you won't see the sort of three-D-ish, shadowed look that we've seen in Windows since Windows 2.0.  (It actually reminds me a trifle of Windows 1.0, if you recall that, but without the Othello game.)  You'll sometimes find it difficult to distinguish what's clickable or fill-able without actually clicking on it, particularly as fill-able text fields are the same color white as the window background.  Without the shadow you'd normally see in the text field, it's hard to look at the field and know that you can fill it.

Getting to the server tools:  while Server Manager looks like a sort of open-design dashboard, it's the gateway to a lot of server tools.  Just click the word "Tools" in gray in the upper right-hand corner, next to the pennant, between "Manage" and "View" and you'll see all of the things you can get to, as in this picture:

This is nice one-stop-shopping for some old and new snap-ins and tools.  (For example, see "Defragment and Optimize Drives?"  It's smart enough to know which of your drives are solid state drives and thus to trim them rather than defragment them.)  Not everything seems to get on there, however — I installed SQL Server 2012 Express but was surprised to see that SQL Server Management Studio didn't add itself to the list.  By the way, notice the font — see the skinny strokes on the letters?  That's part of the new UI design, also — again, I'll cover that in more detail in a the next newsletter.

The rest of the menu:  while I'm pointing out some of Server Manager's salient features, notice the gray circle with the counter-rotating arrows inside of it.  That's the "refresh" button for Server Manager, and be sure to use it — not every part of SM is good about updating its information frequently, so if you're still getting those red boxes and it sure seems like SM ought to be happy, try clicking the "refresh" icon.

Click "Manage" and you'll see several options:

Yup, SM still sees Windows capabilities as either "Roles" or "Features."  "Add Servers" showcases a new and nice feature of Server Manager that allows you to create groups of servers that SM can then manage en masse.  "Server Manager Properties" lets you tell SM how often to refresh itself automatically (it's every 10 minutes by default) and whether or not to automatically start SM whenever you log on — it automatically starts by default.

And what about that pennant?  It turns different colors to call your attention to information, warning or error messages, including things like that while Windows has successfully installed Hyper-V that you need to reboot the computer to complete the installation, or that inasmuch as you just installed the Active Directory Domain Services role, isn't it just about time to promote your server to a domain controller?

In 2012, the Corners Are Important

If what you've seen so far seems like just a minor set of changes, get ready for the big ones.  First, take a closer look at where the Start button used to live— this is a cropped, enlarged shot of the lower-left-hand corner of the screen.

It's not there any more.  That icon you see is just the Server Manager icon, and if you click it then SM minimizes.  Click it again, it restores itself.  Yes, there's that tall skinny blue rectangle, but it doesn't do anything if you click it. 

Hover the mouse pointer a few pixels inside the part of that skinny blue rectangle around the extreme lower left-hand corner, however, and a rectange labeled "Start" appears, as in this picture:

Hang on a minute, don't click the Start tile (that's what it's called) just yet, let me show you the other two "magic corners" on the Desktop.  Hover the mouse near the extreme upper right-hand corner or the extreme lower right-hand corner, and three icons appear above the desktop on the right hand side:

Those icons are called "charms" because they sort of look like they could be things hanging on a charm bracelet.  The magnifying glass lets you search for files, applications, "settings" (Control Panel), or the Web, via Internet Explorer, and if you don't feel like mousing around to get to it, press Windows key+Q, as in "query."  More specifically, Winkey+Q searches applications, Winkey+W searches within the Control Panel, and Winkey+F searches your files.  Don't do a query yet, though, as the screen changes altogether and — trust me, in a couple of paragraphs we'll get to the screen change stuff.  The charm in the middle, the one that looks like a trapezoid with a cross in its middle, is the "Start screen" charm, but don't bother with it -- we'll have a faster way to get to the Start screen you'll see soon.

(Important note:  if you're RDP-ing into a 2012 box from a Windows 7, R2 or other earlier system, this won't work by default, because when you press the Windows key on your local system, Windows thinks you want to transmit that "Windows key" keystroke to your local physical system, not the distant system to which you are RDP-ing.  The fix on that is, however, easy.  Before RDP-ing from your 7 or R2 system, look at your RDP options.  One tab on the Remote Desktop Connection tool will be labeled "Local Resources."  Click that tab and, under "Keyboard," choose "Apply Windows key combinations on the remote computer."  Now connect to your 2012 box, and all will be well -- when the RDP client has the focus, the Windows key combos go to the remote system, and otherwise they go to the local system.)

The cog/gear icon — the "Settings" charm —  takes you to a page that slides out from offstage right with links to different kinds of settings:

This panel combines a subset of Control Panel tools, Windows Help (no, it's not on the Start Programs list any more, because there isn't a Start Programs list any more), a couple of items that might have gone into the System Tray in earlier versions of Windows, and the on/off switch.  Yes, you read that right... for years, we've been told that to stop our PCs, we've got to click the Start button, but not any more.  Honestly much of this panel is an odd fit for a server, as it really makes sense in the context of mobile devices — the network icon's big job is to offer "airline mode" and to choose which wireless network you'd like to use, "Notifications" lets you block so-called "push" notifications from a some mobile app (think NPR sending you some late-breaking news) for one, three, or eight hours, and the brightness icon ("unavailable" here) lets you adjust your screen's brightness.  Those are all things that I don't care much about on my server but that I want to adjust on my iPad all the time.  This Settings panel also changes its behavior depending on when you brought up the Settings charm, so for instance if the Server Manager app were a "Windows 8-style application" (also known as a "Metro application, something I'll cover in a moment), then you'd change its settings by just bringing SM into the foreground, raising the charms and clicking on the Settings charm.

Tip:  if your wrist is getting sore waving the mouse in one of those corners, press Windows Key+C, as in "Control Panel, almost" to bring up the charms, or press Winkey+I to go directly to the Settings charm.

Meet the Second Desktop And the Start Programs Menu, AKA "the Start Screen"

So far, you've seen Server Manager, which is easy to find and does a lot; Control Panel; and the on/off switch.  You've also seen that the Start Programs menu is MIA, as is the familiar old round Windows "orb," "jewel," "start button" or whatever we call it.  Where are the rest of the programs, and how do I start them?  With a whole new concept:  the "Start screen." 

You can get to the Start screen by bringing up that Start tile we saw before... hover your mouse around the extreme southwestern corner until the tile pops up.  Now, you'd think at this point that you could just click anywhere in that big ole' sucker, but you can't — move out of the tiny extreme-southwestern-corner space that brings up the tile, and it disappears.  Chase it around a few times, however — go ahead, try it once just so you can understand why this whole thing is so danged frustrating ... and avoid ever doing it again by simply pressing the Windows key, saving yourself the cost of all that carpal tunnel surgery.  Press the Windows key all by itself and you'll see something interesting:  your Windows desktop will disappear and a new desktop will appear that probably looks something like this:

Don't worry, whatever you were doing on the Windows desktop (or just "Desktop" or "the Desktop" in Win 8-speak) is still there — just press the Windows key again and the Desktop will usually return.  (If not, pressing Winkey+D always brings you back to the Desktop.)  In Server 2012, you can use the Winkey to toggle between the two screens.  Again, the screen you're looking at is officially called the Start screen, but you'll also hear people call it the "Metro desktop," so use either phrase and folks should know what you're talking about.

This new Start screen has two main jobs.  First, it replaces the Start Programs menu.  Rather than the progressively-opening folders and icons that appear in the Start Programs menu that you currently know — which is a good paradigm if you want to pack a lot of icons into a small amount of screen space — Windows 8 and 2012 have a completely different approach, wherein they spread icon-like things called tiles across an as-large-as-you'd-like scrollable desktop, and you just find the app that you want to run, click it and it runs.  Second, the Start screen acts as a second desktop for a whole new class of Windows applications that can't run on the Windows Desktop, nor on pre-Windows 8/2012 systems, applications that are almost as foreign to pre-8/2012 Windows boxes as Macintosh apps would be.  You'll hear those new types of apps called things like "Metro apps," "Windows 8 apps," or "Win RT apps..." when last I checked, Microsoft didn't have an official name for them yet. 

"What's this Metro Thing You Keep Talking About?"

Long story, but it's a bunch of visual/artistic design guidelines that really shaped the Win 8/Server 2012 UI.  I've got an article I'll post on it very soon, but for now it (grossly oversimplified) means lower-contrast color combinations, heavy use of a skinny Arial-like font, and lots of square or oblong rectangular blocks.  Think "25th century subway signs meet a somewhat chilled-out Wired."  Newsletter on it coming soon.  "Metro" also refers in a general way to all of the things that support those new run-only-on-the-Start-screen apps that I mentioned.  Meanwhile, Microsoft people can't call them "Metro apps" because some trademark trolls have threatened to sue them if they do.  Most of us without an @microsoft.com email address, however, call them Metro apps anyway, and probably won't change soon.  (Quick now, how many of you still say "FSMO" rather than "operations master?"  I thought so.)  Don't worry about Metro apps in any case, however, as Server 2012 disables support for them by default and to my knowledge no one's got a Windows' server admin tool built atop Metro, so we're not missing anything.

Let's get back to the Start screen.  Despite its different looks, the Start screen actually functions a lot like the menus you've known for years.  Let's take it through its paces to see what it can do.

It's All Shortcuts Under the Hood, They're Just Presented Differently

Clearly there are more applications than the eight icons on the Start screen, so how would I get to them — who among us could live long without Notepad?  From the Start screen,  press Winkey+Z, or just right-click on an empty spot on the background and the screen will change to look like this:

That strip of color across the bottom of the screen that you raised with the right-click or Winkey+z is called the "app bar."  It's got one icon on it labeled "All apps," and if you press Enter or click the icon, you'll see a lot more icons on the Start screen, like this:

You can't see it on the above screen shot but you'll see a horizontal scroll bar where the App Bar used to be if you try this out.  The scroll bar lets you to move around your Start screen, as the Start screen's tiles are relatively large — about nine times larger than older Windows icons — and very few systems have so few apps that all of the tiles would fit on the displayed part of the screen.  This screen is essentially the "raw menu," a collection of all the program icons for every application installed on this system. 

This looks new, but under the hood, every one of those tiles is built from a shortcut, and a shortcut stored in the same place we've been storing them for years.  Apps with setup/installation programs on 2000, XP, 2003, Vista, 2008,2008 R2 and Windows 7 all tuck a shortcut to the application into a folder with a name like C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\something, and Explorer in those older Windows just served up the icons associated with the shortcuts in that folder and its subfolders as a program menu and sub-menus.

But don't believe me — try it out for yourself.  Let's see where it got the icon for Computer Management.  I scroll over and right-click the Computer Management icon, and the App Bar returns, but this time with more options, as you see in this cropped closeup of my Start screen:

If I click "Open file location," then things start looking more familiar:

Basically, if there's a shortcut anywhere in \ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs or any of its subfolders, then Windows 8 or 2012's Start screen shows its icon in its "All Apps" mode.  For Win 7/R2 and earlier, those same shortcuts end up in layers of folders in the Start Programs menu.  Same stuff under the hood, different presentation... but let's be clear, you're going to want to tweak it.

Changing an App's Caption

Now that you've seen that the bases of this newfangled Start screen's icons — oops, I mean tiles — are familiar old short cuts, you can see how to change the names on their tiles:  just change the shortcut's name.  That became helpful for me when I needed both SQL Express 2008R2 Design Studio and SQL 2012 Express's Design Studio on the same system and discovered that both tiles had the same name... eek.  The answer was easy:  open the folders the shortcuts were in and change the shortcut's names.  I'm finding that especially helpful given the relatively large text size used in Start screen's tile names — they make "Active Directory Module for PowerShell" into "Active Directory Module for...," and renaming the shortcut "AD PowerShell Module" makes for a better name.

Getting Your Apps on the Start Screen

If you're like me, then at this point you're still puzzled.  So this system has a few dozen apps, but only eight icons — and heck, one of them's not a real icon, it's just something that takes me to the Desktop —  on the Start screen?  Am I supposed to do the whole Winkey+z/Enter thing every time I want to find something that's not "natively" on the Start screen?  No, thankfully — all you need do to get an icon onto the Start screen is to right-click it, then choose "Pin to Start."  To see this in action, try putting Notepad in the Start screen like so:

  1. Go to the Start screen (charms and the window icon, Windows key, whatever works best for you).

  2. Show all apps.  (Winkey+z, Enter)

  3. Find the Notepad icon, right-click it.

  4. The App Bar will appear at the bottom of the screen.  The leftmost icon on it should be "Pin to Start."  Click it.

  5. Tap the Windows key to hide the "every menu item in the system" display and return to the Start screen.  Notepad will be there, the ninth tile.

Running an App That's Not on the Start Screen

Now we've seen how to add a favorite, oft-used app on that quick-to-access Start screen.  But you won't want every single icon on Start, so how to get to the occasionally-used apps?  Here's a feature of the 2012 Start screen that I've liked since the first time I tried it... just start typing the name of the app you want to run, right on the screen.  Thus, if I wanted to run Calculator and didn't want to have to bring up "all applications" and scroll around the Start screen, I'd just type "ca" — I needn't even click on the background or anything beforehand — and the screen looks like this:

As the search has turned up just one app, I need only tap Enter to start Calculator.  If there were more than one possible apps starting with  "ca," it'd show them all to me and I could click or arrow to them, or of course I could just keep typing letters until there was just one option.

Program Groups 2012 Style:  Organizing the Start Screen

The notion of "program groups" has been around since Windows 3.0 at least (or maybe earlier, I don't recall) and it'd still be nice to "clump" groups of tiles somehow.  2012 continues that tradition by letting you assemble one or more tiles into groups.  Basically the idea is that you create a new tile group by grabbomg a tile and dragging it over to the extreme right of the screen, at which point the tile has made perfectly clear that it doesn't want to hang with those tiles, and so Start screen puts some space between it and the them.  Other icons can then be dragged over to join the new group.

Let's say that I've added Notepad, Calculator, Paint and Command Prompt to the Start screen and want to put Calc, Notepad and Command Prompt into a new group called "Essentials."  Here's how.  First, I grab Notepad's icon and drag it over to the far right, and what you see below happens:

Windows sees that I want to separate Notepad, and so puts up that tall skinny grayish oblong.  (You can't see my mouse pointer in that image, but that's me dragging Notepad.)  Once I release it, Notepad's on its own:

I can then drag Calc and then Command Prompt over below Notepad, and they join the group:

The group needs a name.  To give it one, you've got to "zoom out" in the Start screen.  To do that, hold down the Ctrl key and scroll to see this from-a-distance view of the default group and the new one:

There, I've right-clicked the Notepad/Calc/Command Prompt group.  The leftmost icon on the App Bar says "Name group."  If I right-click that, I can give the group a name, as you see in this cropped and enlarged image:

Once I click Name, I ctrl-scroll back to normal zoom and the Start screen looks like this now:

If the original group is now looking kind of naked without a name, ctrl-scroll back out, right-click it and you can name that as well.

Running an Application with Elevated Privilege

Unless you haven't upgraded since XP and 2003, you will know that to make some admin apps work, you don't just click their icon, you right-click it and choose "Run as administrator."  To do that in 2012, just right-click the tile and you'll see an icon on the App Bar named "Run as administrator."  Click that, and it starts and requests elevated privileges.

How Do I Automate This?

So once you've got your Start screen to your liking, how to back that up?  How to deploy your optimal tessellation of tiles to the world in general?  I wish I knew but I don't. It's clearly saved somewhere but I've not been able to find out how to automate this.  If that changes I'll let you all know, I promise.

There's more to talk about in the new UI -- more detail on what this Metro thing is, whether to employ one of the "bring back the Start Programs menu" apps, and a bunch more of those essential Windows key combinations -- and I'll get to that in the next newsletter.  See you then, and meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this piece and about how you're loving or hating to the 2012 UI. 

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All contents copyright 2012 Mark Minasi.  I encourage you to quote this material, SO LONG as you include this entire document; thanks!  Thanks very much for reading, and see you next time.