Whenever you read about the new features of Windows Server 2008, Server Manager is often at the beginning of the list. At first, I thought, it is only a collection of administration tools, but when I played with Server Manager today, I found out that it is more than that.
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You might have heard that server roles play a more important role in Windows 2008 than in Windows 2003. I think, we have never worked with server roles until now, but this will definitely change once we deploy Windows 2008. The advantage of working with server roles is that you only have to install the services that are really necessary for the task of a server. This improves security by reducing the attack surface and it makes server management easier, e. g. when it comes to patch management or troubleshooting.
First of all, Server Manager is the tool you use to install a new server role. The "Add Roles Wizard" guides you thru the installation of a new server role. There are server roles that come with more than one role service. For example, if you add the file server role the wizard allows you to select several additional services like file replication service or the Windows Search service.
The wizard also knows which Windows features are required for a certain role. For example, if you add the server role "Application Server", the wizard asks for your confirmation to install the .Net Framework 3.0 and the Windows Process Activation Service. You also have to use Server Manager to add Windows features. If you try to add a Windows feature thru the Programs and Features tool in the Control Panel, Windows will start the Server Manager.
The server role setup routine will automatically add all management tools to administrate this role. This also includes the corresponding event logs in the Event Viewer. Those tools can still be accessed thru the Administration Tools menu. However, I doubt, you will need this menu often in the future because you can find everything you need more easily in the Server Manager.
I think Server Manager greatly simplifies server administration. It seems as if Microsoft learned something from popular Linux distributions. SuSE's yast, for example, has similar capabilities like Server Manager. I think the main reason why Microsoft introduced Server Manager is because they plan to push modularity even more in future Windows versions. Modularity always was an advantage of Linux. Since there is more modularity in Windows now, you need a central tool that allows you to manage the dependencies of the different services and tools. I wonder if third party software vendors will also be able to integrate their management tools in Server Manager.
Be prepared that Server Manager will play an even more important role in the future. So don't click it away when it starts automatically after you are finished with the Initial Configuration Task tool. This is the place where you should start to explore Windows Server 2008.
The only thing I don't like about Server Manager is that you have to launch it on the server you want to administrate. This means you can't use Server Manager to connect to another server and there is no version you can install on Windows Vista or XP. However, Keith Comp writes that Microsoft is working on a remote version of Server Manager.
If you don't have the time to play with it now, I recommend the introduction into Server Manager at WindowsNetworking.com. Brian M. Posey discusses the most important tools of Server Manager in detail. If you prefer watching over reading, you can also check out Keith Comp's screencast. It will give you a great overview of Server Manager.