Weird, wild, wonderful Windows "Workstation" 2008

For the self-reliant, a third Windows desktop option emerges: Build your own "Frankenvista" on Windows Server 2008

Sometimes, deciding which IT course to follow can feel like a U.S. presidential election cycle: You never have more than two options, and neither one seems quite right. You find yourself wishing there was a viable third-party candidate, if only to keep the two front-runners on their toes.

Fortunately, in the case of Windows XP versus Vista, a third way has indeed emerged. Thanks to the musings of a (hopefully still employed) Microsoft engineer, some disaffected Vista users have discovered that Windows Server 2008, properly configured and tweaked to be more Vista-like, makes a killer workstation OS. In fact, recent benchmark testing shows that Server 2008 runs circles around Vista (up to 17 percent faster) at a variety of business productivity and client/server computing tasks.

As I noted in my Enterprise Desktop blog, I made the switch myself about two weeks ago. What I found was an OS that boots quicker and feels more responsive than Windows Vista. All of my applications load faster under Server 2008, while certain classes of application – specifically, managed code – are finally tolerable. For example, Event Viewer no longer runs like a slug in a molasses bath.

Some technical observations:

1. My "Workstation" 2008 (x64 edition) installation has a lower initial memory footprint after booting. This is true even after I manually hacked the Registry to get SuperFetch working. I also set the Windows Search/Indexing service to start automatically so that my Outlook e-mail is searchable.

2. Disk I/O, in particular, seems smoother. Heavy paging operations, when they do occur, have less of an impact on foreground applications. And, of course, the UI just feels snappier.

3. Some things are moved around a bit. For example, there's no System Restore mechanism. You have to manually enable Shadow Copies for each disk volume.

One benefit of running Server 2008 is that you get to use the wonderful new Server Manager utility. Server Manager is like a central control panel for all the important features and roles that the OS supports. Having all these options in one place saves time and lets you avoid all those extra clicks that the "improved" Vista interface introduced.

Another advantage to running Server 2008 is that you can install virtually any Microsoft server application or infrastructure service (Active Directory, Exchange Server) locally. As a developer, having these services and resources local is a real time-saver. There's nothing more annoying than logging into a remote server or booting into a VM to test an application, only to discover that some minor source code typo is sending you right back to the drawing board. Running Windows Server 2008 as my workstation OS lets me avoid all that and test my code directly from the IDE.

Of course, not everything is perfect in the land of "Workstation" 2008. For starters, there's no Media Center. Media Player is installed, but there are few codecs, and of course you can't play a DVD until you scrounge up an MPEG2 decoder. Windows Sidebar, Fax and Scan, the Games folder – all are MIA under Server 2008. Ditto Vista's infamous Experience Index, which is perhaps a good move – no point in making Vista look even worse by plastering Server 2008's superior score on the System Properties dialog.

I also encountered a few minor compatibility issues. For example, the Windows Live Services installer refused to run on Server 2008. To get Windows Live Writer installed, I had to hunt down its separate MSI package. Also, the current (3.6) version of Skype crashes on Server 2008. I had to downgrade to Skype 3.2 in order to get a stable VoIP solution. is a real lifesaver.

One component I won't miss: Windows File Backup. Server 2008 uses a much more powerful (albeit somewhat slower) image-based system similar to Vista's Complete PC Backup option. And though you can't restore from the Previous Versions tab, as in Vista, at least you can be confident that Server 2008's backup didn't skip anything. It grabs the entire disk structure and stores it as a searchable VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) file.

Overall, my move to Windows "Workstation" 2008 has been a positive experience. I'm getting better performance, I have access to a wider range of enterprise services and applications, and I've finally kicked my Solitaire addiction, which has been a monkey on my back for 20 years now.

I'd strongly recommend that power users and other hard-core IT types take a hard look at Windows Server 2008 as a possible solution to their workstation OS needs. The easiest way is through one of the el-cheapo MSDN subscription options, assuming your organization doesn't already have a site license to Microsoft's server offerings. But no matter how you (legally) obtain your "Workstation" 2008 installation, once you experience the performance and versatility, you'll never go back to Vista or XP again.