Uber Workstation: Windows Vista vs. Windows Server 2008

by Jon Davis 25. February 2008 12:08

I have always been adamant that as a web developer it is far better to use Windows Server 2003 rather than Windows XP as your primary workstation. This view became necessary primarily because Windows XP had a stripped-down set of IIS services, namely it was IIS 5.0 rather than IIS 6.0, and it was constrained to not allow multiple virtual hosts on the same machine. This made XP worthless; being a web developer, having the process forced down my throat of building entire web applications as "subwebs" made things infinitely more difficult to develop against. For example, you could never have a simple hyperlink that starts with a slash ("/"). You had to build everything around the ASP/ASP.NET coding model of application root ("~/"), which required you to move all of your hyperlinks to server-side code (<asp:Hyperlink>, or <img src="<%= ResolveUrl("~/") %>images/bleah.gif">).

No more. Windows Vista has multiple web server support. Microsoft perhaps got tired of basically every web developer on the planet expressing their animosity towards the Windows team for their crippling of IIS without even so much as an alternate "IIS add-on for MSDN Universal subscribers" or something. It's full-blown IIS 7, same as in Windows Server 2008.

Now that Windows Server 2008 is released, the inevitable questions should be asked (rather than the answers assumed based on prior experience with XP / 2003): does Windows Server 2008 have any new features that Windows Vista doesn't have, that a typical ASP.NET web developer would want on his workstation, and does Windows Vista have any undesirable features that are not present in Windows Server 2008 that cannot be removed from Vista?

While the answer to both of these questions were "yes" in XP/2003, for Vista/2008 I think the general answer to both of these questions, I believe, is "no".

In Windows 2008 there are a gajillion new services that the next wave of Internet technologies will need on hand for regular development. For developers of one of these next-gen technologies, Server 2008 might be essential. But for basic ASP.NET and WCF development (in other words, for most web developers), Vista can suffice.

And 2008 doesn't really filter out anything from the Vista experience except for the fact that the Vista experience is an option rather than mandatory. That's nice; but if it's going to be used for a workstation, it makes sense to just add it. Only problem is, it's not a complete Vista experience; you don't get the sidebar, for instance, and Call of Duty 4 crashes on a co-worker / friend who agreed to be a Windows Server 2008-as-a-workstation guinea pig. And to be honest, I feel a lot more uncomfortable with all the undesirable new bells and whistles of Server 2008 being available to my workstation than with them missing from a Vista environment.

The only features I saw in Server 2008 that I didn't see in Vista that might be worth something to me were: Multipath I/O, TCP port sharing, and hypervisor (native virtualization) support (which is still in beta). Actually, Vista might have the first two of the three, I don't recall. But I already have VMWare Workstation, which I continue to prefer over that awful Virtual PC platform. Meanwhile, pretty much all of the other stuff, while some of it may be valuable, it's all so server-oriented and not development-oriented that it would make more sense to move that stuff to a VM or external environment anyway.

So my tentative conclusion is that Vista Ultimate is already the ideal environment for a web developer. With it, you have all the basics that you need to build multiple IIS solutions and to test basic WCF solutions. Meanwhile you get to keep the fluff you like (and I do like some fluff on my workstation, gimme Sidebar and stuff), while you can still kill off the fluff you don't like.

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Beyond Disabling UAC: Enable Networkable Admin Access

by Jon Davis 6. February 2008 12:34

Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 both disable administrative access when accessing via a network. So all those administrative things you're used to doing, like accessing an administrative share (\\machinename\D$) have to be thrown out when you use Vista or Server 2008.

However, you can bring it back, Windows XP / 2003 style. The key is in the registry, at KHLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System. Add a DWORD value named LocalAccountTokenFilterPolicy with a value of 1. Reboot.

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Beyond Disabling UAC: Disable Virtual Store

by Jon Davis 5. February 2008 07:22

Something I like about Windows Server 2008 x64 is that it (finally) gives the user the benefit of a doubt when disabling the advanced security options in Internet Explorer. Now it automatically prompts me to install ActiveX controls, for instance, and when I download files from the Internet I no longer have to right-click the file, choose Properties, and "Unlock" before I can use them without security warnings (this being something I've been habitually doing on all file downloads since IE7 was released).

But all is not trusting. I was tinkering with the recent release of the the new OS when I noticed as I was saving stuff to my Program Files directory in a new subdirectory that the new subdirectory didn't exist. Namely, I downloaded Notepad2 and attempted to create a new directory at C:\Program Files (x86)\ called "Notepad2" where I would save the file, then open the directory up in Windows [File] Explorer to unlock and extract the .zip file. Lo and behold, my Internet Explorer "Save As..." dialogue box told me I was looking right at C:\Program Files (x86)\Notepad2, but Windows Explorer insisted that no Notepad2 directory exists in C:\Program Files (x86). Could it be a bug?

Directory virtualization, perhaps? Indeed, I've seen Microsoft do this more and more lately. I knew where to look: C:\Users\jdavis\ ... hmm that's right, Local Settings got moved to AppSettings\Local. VirtualStore? Yes! There it is! "Program Files (x86)", and in there, a "Notepad2" directory, all by itself.

I don't want this. I REALLY don't like this. Microsoft implemented this virtualization feature to work around insecure design bugs in software. Whose software, though? Theirs? Ours? Third parties?

I mean, come on, Microsoft, if you're going to virtualize the Program Files directory like this, go all the way with it and do it in Windows Explorer and the command prompt as well. Heck, do it at the kernel level so that any app running in user space sees this thing where it really is.

Or not. I don't like virtualized paths. It's an administrative nightmare. Let's disable this thing.

So, after turning off UAC from the User Accounts control panel, which I hadn't done yet to this point, I rebooted and still had this problem. Then I tried disabling Local Security Policy -> Security Settings -> Local Policies -> Security Options -> User Account Control: Virtualize file and registry write failures to per-user locations. I think this fixed it. I'll update this blog entry if I find otherwise.

I realize why Microsoft implemented this file path virtualization thing, but IMO it's a crutch and does NOT demonstrate good computing practices despite what some IT folks would proclaim. This is the kind of stuff that just makes computing all the more confusing and difficult to work with. While the intentions were valid, we don't need anymore unexpected twists and turns in our computing experiences.

UPDATE (1/17/2009): This HORRIBLE "feature" ended up in Windows 7 as well!! To fix it now you need to open "Security Configuration Management" where you'll find Local Policies -> Security Options -> "Virtualize file and registry write failures to per-user locations" and disable the thing.

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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