When deploying your Windows server, you can choose either Server with Desktop Experience or Server Core. Read on to find out which one of these is right for you.

One of the best things about having your own dedicated server is the flexibility it provides, whether you need a particular operating system, or a custom software configuration. Want to know more? Our blog post What is a dedicated server? covers the pros, cons and everything in between.

And in the case of Windows Server 2019, you have two installation choices:

  • Server with Desktop Experience
  • Windows Server Core

But what are the actual differences between these installation options? And which one should you choose to suit your Windows Server applications? In this blog post we’ll break down everything you need to know about these two forms.

Windows Server 2019 vs 2016

Windows Server contains a number of new features compared to the 2016 edition:

  • Storage Migration Service makes it easier to migrate data, security, and configurations from legacy systems (such as Windows Server 2016 Core) to Windows Server 2019
  • System Insights brings local predictive analytics based on AI
  • Data deduplication for ReFS helps to maximise the use of free space
  • Cluster-wide monitoring monitors usage in real time and alerts you to incidents
  • Virtual network peering provides high-speed connectivity between two virtual networks.

There are plenty more features including a whole host of security enhancements and feature improvements. Microsoft has published a full list of the differences between both the latest Windows Desktop Experience and Windows Server 2016 (core included), if you need to refamiliarise yourself with the 2019 system.

What is Windows Server Desktop Experience?

Windows Server Desktop Experience is the classic, and arguably the most well-known, Windows Server. Did you know it has been with us since the iconic Windows NT operating system from 1993? As you can tell by the name, Desktop Experience contains a standard graphical user interface, referred to as GUI, and the full package of tools for Windows Server 2019. This makes the Desktop Experience much more user-friendly, and it’s a lot easier to manage locally or remotely.

With a Desktop installation, you get a GUI that works the same way as the desktop version of Windows, plus a full range of software components that allow your server to fulfil a large number of server roles.

Windows Server 2019 launched with the following products in its family:

  • Windows Server 2019 Standard (Server Core or Desktop Experience)
  • Windows Server 2019 Datacenter (Server Core or Desktop Experience)
  • Windows Server 2019 Essentials (Desktop Experience only)
  • Hyper-V Server 2019 — (Server Core only)

What is Windows Server Core?

Server Core is the minimal installation option that comes without a GUI, and is essentially a simplified version of Windows Server. Instead of the traditional desktop interface, a Core installation is designed to be managed remotely, or it can be managed locally via the command line using Windows PowerShell - but this is certainly not an easy task, even for the most experienced administrators out there.

While Core includes most of the standard server roles, it leaves out many support features that aren’t required for the most common applications.

Pros and cons of Server Core

Let’s talk about some of the pros and cons of Server Core.

One of the biggest advantages behind the development of Server Core is security. Core installations have a smaller footprint – with lower consumption of CPU, RAM and disk space – and fewer services running, and less code overall. This means that Server Core presents a smaller ‘attack surface’, or in other words, fewer entry points for attackers to exploit. Core generally requires less management as there are fewer services and features to maintain, so fewer things can go wrong.

Another advantage of Core is reduced storage requirements and memory usage – this offers minor performance and cost benefits on a single server, but over multiple machines it can add up dramatically.

One advantage of turning off unneeded functionality can be reduced vulnerability to malware attacks and other online threats – although it’s important to remember that vulnerabilities can still be present on Windows Server Core, which can also be a disadvantage.

Due to its smaller footprint, it’s also easier to manage, with fewer patches and updates being released. This means fewer restarts – and when you're dealing with servers, you'll want to minimise downtime.

Aesthetics are also not one of the pros when it comes to Server Core. Once the initial installation has finished, the system simply boots up and prompts you for a password in a pretty simple and non-intuitive way. It’s not the most user-friendly of systems.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, Server Core is designed to be managed remotely, and that presents its own complications.

When using Server Core, you can disable Windows Update simply by setting updates to manual via a server configuration. This means that the system won’t check for updates or download them – Windows will display a slightly passive aggressive statement of ‘System will never check for updates’, highlighting that it is now your responsibility to check for and install updates as and when you would like to.

Ultimately, Server Core is a “more with less” kind of system – there are fewer resources consumed by the operating system, and more resources available for the user. Of course, there is a downside to that. Server Core doesn’t display the traditional “desktop experience”, which is due to the lack of GUI to manage the server locally. However, Server Core can be “upgraded” to have a GUI-based tool, which does allow it to be managed locally in a way that’s more user-friendly. But that still doesn’t mean that it won’t make for tricky work.

Limitations of Server Core

Without going into the details too much, Windows Server with Desktop Experience can perform the same functionalities as Server Core, but the latter is considered to be the better performer. But – and this is a big but – the same doesn’t ring true the other way around. Server Core doesn’t have the same level of compatibility as Windows Server when it comes to certain applications and features. The main reason for this is that those require a GUI to function properly.

The applications listed below are those that are incompatible with Server Core:

  • Microsoft Server Virtual Machine Manager 2019 (SCVMM)
  • System Centre Data Protection Manager 2019
  • Sharepoint Server 2019
  • Project Server 2019

Microsoft have also stated that the following capabilities – amongst others – are not supported by Server Core:

  • Windows Tiff IFilter
  • Internet Printing Client
  • RAS Connection Manager Kit
  • Simple TCP/IP Services
  • TFTP Client
  • Windows Search Service
  • XPS Viewer

Windows Server 2019 Server Core and Desktop Experience applications compatibility


Server Core

Desktop Experience

Azure DevOps Server 2019 Yes* Yes
Azure DevOps Server 2020 Yes* Yes
Configuration Manager (ver. 1806) Yes** Yes**
Exchange Server 2019 Yes Yes
Host Integration Server 2016, CU3 Yes Yes
Office Online Server No Yes
Project Server 2016 No Yes
Project Server 2019 No Yes
Project Server Subscription Edition Yes Yes
SharePoint Server 2016 No Yes
SharePoint Server 2019 No Yes
SharePoint Server Subscription Edition Yes Yes
Skype for Business 2019 No Yes
SQL Server 2014 Yes* Yes
SQL Server 2016 Yes* Yes
SQL Server 2017 Yes* Yes
SQL Server 2019 Yes* Yes
System Center Data Protection Manager 2019 No Yes
System Center Operations Manager 2019 Yes* Yes
System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2019 Yes* Yes

What is Features on Demand?

Windows Server 2019 Features on Demand (FOD) is only available for Server Core. Think of FOD as a pack of features or tools which is available from Microsoft as an extension – this means they are installed separate from the Windows installation. Fancy downloading Windows Server 2019 Features on Demand? You can do so for free with an ISO file here (link is a direct download.)

So, should I choose Windows Desktop Experience or Server Core?

If you’re flipping back and forth between Desktop Experience and Server Core, then you need to make up your mind before installation. Once your chosen product is installed, you can’t then make the switch from one to the other.

A Windows Server 2019 Desktop installation is only really required if you need the full desktop GUI, or the associated management tools.

It can make perfect sense to go with Desktop, however. If you simply prefer a traditional desktop GUI and out-of-the-box setup process, or if you need accessibility tools and audio support, a Desktop installation is definitely the way forward. It comes with more capabilities and features that are pre installed by default. This means that there’s more available to you straight away, rather than needing to take multiple steps to install, but this can make Desktop Experience a much heavier option. It can consume more resources and can operate slower, both of which make it more vulnerable to cyber attacks. You’ll also find it needs more patches and restarts.

For most users, Server Core is recommended. If you’re confident using Windows PowerShell, a GUI isn’t required for the majority of server roles. It also tends to be better suited to remotely managing a server. It’s also worth noting that most of the applications that are technically unavailable on Core can still be run remotely from a client Windows machine. If you’re willing to put the effort in then you stand to reap the benefits from Server Core. As we’ve mentioned above, it’s certainly not “pretty” or user-friendly, and it isn’t meant to be managed locally. On the other hand, Server Core is less vulnerable, it consumes fewer resources and requires fewer restarts and updates. So if you’re willing to put that hard work in, you’ll see more return in resource availability.

Whether you opt for full-fat Desktop or no-frills Core, at Fasthosts we offer a choice of operating systems across our dedicated server range – including Windows Server 2019. Contact our experts to discuss how we can provide your ideal server today.