If you’re a regular computer user, you may have only come across the consumer-facing editions of Windows. But did you know that Microsoft also publishes an entire Windows Server line of its operating system?
Let’s take a look at the differences between Windows Server and normal Windows. We’ll see what Windows Server includes, what it leaves out, and why it’s so different.
What Is Windows Server?
In case you’ve never heard of Windows Server, we’ll first explain what it is. Essentially, Windows Server is a line of operating systems that Microsoft specifically creates for use on a server. This means in almost all cases, Windows Server is used in business settings.
Microsoft has published Windows Server under that name since Windows Server 2003 launched in April 2003. However, even before this, server versions of Windows were available. For instance, Windows NT 4.0 was available in both workstation (for general use) and server flavors.
In almost all cases, normal users don’t need to worry about Windows Server. You won’t find it on the shelf in stores or accidentally download it from Microsoft when you mean to get the standard version. But it’s still interesting to learn about.
Windows Server vs. Regular Windows: The Basics
With just a quick glance, you might have trouble telling the difference between Windows Server and normal versions of Windows. The desktop looks the same, including the Taskbar, desktop icons, and Start button.
As it turns out, every Windows Server release corresponds to a consumer version of Windows. Windows Server 2003, for instance, is the server version of Windows XP. Current versions include Windows Server 2016, which is based on the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, and Windows Server 2019.
Because Windows Server and Windows share a code base, you can perform many of the same functions on both. You can download and install programs like browsers and photo editors on Windows Server, and many Windows basics like Notepad are included in Windows Server.
However, the two versions have more differences than similarities. Let’s review some of them.
Windows Server Has Enterprise Management Software
Because Windows Server is intended for businesses, it includes plenty of enterprise software. Below are a few roles that a server can perform thanks to these tools:
- Active Directory: Active Directory is a user management service that allows a server to act as a domain controller. Instead of logging into a local computer, the domain controller handles all user account authentication. See our explanation of Windows domains for more on this.
- DHCP: DHCP, or Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, is a protocol that lets a server automatically assign IP address to all devices on the network. At home, your router probably handles this. But in a business setting, IT staff can take advantage of the greater DHCP functionality in Windows Server.
- File and Storage: Having a file server for your company is another common use. This allows you to keep important data in a central location and set permissions to control who can access what.
- Print Services: If a business has dozens of printers across the building, it’s a waste of time for IT staff to configure them individually for each new workstation. Setting up a print server allows you to easily map printers to computers and reduce redundant work.
- Windows Update Services: Often, businesses don’t want all Windows Updates to come through right away. By setting up a server as a Windows Update controller, you can route all workstation updates through that server and configure specific rules for how they should work.
These are only a few of the server roles Windows Server can handle. Often, a company will have more than one server and split the above roles across multiple devices.
Standard copies of Windows don’t include these capabilities out of the box. You can install some third-party tools to replicate some of this functionality, but it won’t be as robust.
Windows Server Has Fewer Hardware Limitations
Most people don’t worry about the maximum amount of RAM they can put in their computer. Windows 10 Pro allows you to install up to a huge 2TB of RAM. However, the majority of users don’t have more than 32GB of RAM in their systems, so even installing 1TB of RAM would be insane.
Knowing this, can you believe that Windows Server supports up to 24TB of RAM? It also allows you to use up to 64 CPU sockets, which is much greater than the two sockets that Windows 10 Pro supports.
This might sound ridiculous, but there are good reasons for these high hardware caps. A server can power important functionality for hundreds of people in a business, so it often needs to be extremely powerful. For instance, a server running dozens of virtual machines needs loads of RAM in order to keep them all running smoothly at the same time.
Windows Server Doesn’t Include Extraneous Features
As you’d expect, Windows Server retains power user features like the Command Prompt and other administrative tools. However, Server editions of Windows strip out a lot of the quality-of-life features that Windows 10 includes.
For example, in Windows Server 2016 and 2019, you won’t see Microsoft Edge, the Microsoft Store, Cortana, and other handy Windows 10 features. It doesn’t bundle in apps like Your Phone, and you can’t activate the Linux terminal on Windows server, either. Server OSes also don’t let you log in with a Microsoft account. Because they’re designed for enterprise use, you don’t need these consumer-facing tools on a server OS.
Additionally, some apps check to see if you’re using Windows Server before you install them. In some cases, the app won’t work on a server version of Windows.
Windows Server is also much more locked down by default. It uses Internet Explorer as the default browser, but the security settings are much more restrictive than usual. This makes sense, as having a server compromised would be catastrophic compared to just a workstation.
Windows Server Has Different Pricing
As you may expect from a business-oriented product, Windows Server doesn’t come cheap. It’s much more expensive than a consumer version of Windows, and comes in various flavors depending on your needs.
Microsoft’s Windows Server 2019 pricing page gives an idea of what you might pay for the software. Depending on how many people will access the server, you also need to pay for CALs (Client Access Licenses) to use the services legally.
Businesses historically installed Windows Server on a physical onsite server, which has much greater hardware capabilities than a workstation, as discussed above. However, you also have the option of running Windows Server in a cloud service like Azure.
This allows you to offload the burden of maintaining a physical server to a cloud provider like Microsoft. In addition, this enables companies to spread the cost of upgrading out over a subscription instead of paying all at once for a new physical server. What works best depends on the specific organization’s needs.
Now You Understand Windows Server
In the end, though Windows Server and regular Windows share common code and look similar, they’re for totally different uses.
Consumer editions of Windows 10 are designed for maximum usability and don’t include software made for enterprise use. Meanwhile, Windows Server isn’t concerned with looking pretty. Its purpose is to run many services reliably that company users need.
Interested in learning more? Have a look at the various editions of Windows 10 that are available.