A First Look at Project Honolulu, the new Windows Server Management Experience

Note: an edited version of this story ran on Computerworld.com on November 2, 2017.

I’ve been on the PowerShell train for years now—so much so that I wrote a book on how to learn PowerShell, because to my mind PowerShell knowledge is required if you work in Windows administration in any reasonable capacity in this day and age. But PowerShell is not always the best tool for the job, and options are always good. Microsoft’s graphical user interface (GUI) tools have become somewhat long in the tooth especially over the last three to four years as the company invested a lot of time and energy into expanding the universe of things PowerShell commands could accomplish.

Traditional administrators saw all of this happening and thought to themselves, what of Windows itself? After all, if you want command line, you can go with Linux—Windows was supposed to be point and click all along. To this group, Microsoft says, fear not: we now have something superior to the in-the-box GUI tools you know well. Enter the new Server Management Experience, codenamed Project Honolulu. It can manage Windows Server 2012, 2012 R2, and 2016 and future versions all through a web browser (currently Edge and Google Chrome). It can even handle the free Microsoft Hyper-V Server, making this a no brainer way to get a free hypervisor deployed in environments that don’t really need a full fledged copy of Windows Server without trying to manage through Hyper-V Server’s cryptic command line interface.

Let’s take a look at how Honolulu works, how it’s built, what it can do, and perhaps most important, what is isn’t.

Project Honolulu

There are a lot of different tools you need to use to manage servers with the in the box utilities you get today, and Project Honolulu’s main mission is to get all of these pulled together in one place. All of the tools’ functionality are integrated on the left side of the screen—Hyper-V tools, disk management, file server management, and more. An intuitive, HTML5 based touch screen compatible interface lets you browse around and carry out just about any task that the previous tools would let you complete, just all from a “single pane of glass,” to use the preferred industry term.

The great news is that this is a really lightweight install. If you want to run it on a server, it does not need to be a dedicated machine, and you can also deploy it onto a management workstation or laptop. You run a single MSI installer of about 30 megabytes, with no dependencies, and you can run it on any Windows 10 or Windows Server 2016 machine. It’s literally a few Next, Next, Next clicks in an installation wizard and then in about 30 seconds, the operation is complete. Then just type in a server name, Honolulu will find it, and bang, you are managing your machine remotely.

Some notes on behavior:

  • If you install Honolulu on a Windows 10 machine, you essentially get a browser-based single app that you can use to manage any number of remote servers. Honolulu will listen on port 6515 by default, although you can elect to change this.
  • If you install Honolulu on a Windows Server machine, it configures itself as a multi-user web app and any user can connect to it and customize their own configuration. You must specify the port that the service will use to answer requests, and you will need to either allow Honolulu to generate a self signed certificate or install an appropriate certificate on the server before installation and point the Honolulu installer to that certificate’s thumbprint.

Once your installation is complete, the next step is to add a machine to manage. On the main screen, under All Connections, click the Add link.

From there, you can add a single server, a cluster of servers, or a hyperconverged cluster of servers. (For what it’s worth, to manage a hyperconverged set of clusters, you must be running the new Windows Server Semi Annual Channel release, which counts out a lot of organizations at this point.) For our purposes, let’s just add a single server: we’ll select that, and type the server’s name, and then we are connected.

You can also have a list of servers in a text file, one per line, and then direct Honolulu to import those. Just click the Import Servers link and point Honolulu to that text file.

Perhaps the biggest point in favor of Project Honolulu is that it no longer requires you to use the awful Server Manager app that was introduced in Windows Server 2012. At first blush, I think we were all optimistic that that app would work better at managing multiple servers and making common administrative tasks easier, but most of us have discovered that the “new” Server Manager is simply a confusing mess. Now that a suitable replacement is around, we can banish Server Manager.

What else does Honolulu replace? The list as it currently stands:

  • Displaying resources like CPU, memory, and disk and their related utilization
  • Managing certificates, including installing new ones and managing expired and expiring certificates
  • Viewing events from event logs
  • Managing, uploading, and downloading files through File Viewer
  • Turning the Windows Firewall on and off and opening and closing ports
  • Configuring Local Users and Groups, including adding and deleting both
  • Network Settings, including IPv6 and IPv4 settings, network names, domain memberships, and more
  • Managing processes, including killing them and creating Process Dumps
  • Viewing and editing the Registry
  • Managing Windows Services, including viewing their current statuses, starting, and stopping them
  • Installing and removing Roles & Features a la Server Manager
  • Managing Hyper-V virtual machines and virtual switches
  • Managing disks and volumes, including creating, initializing, and setting drive letters
  • Managing Windows Update

You can easily imagine a scenario where you have ten, 15, 20 different servers all under your purview. You might even want to bring up a new system, in which case you lay down a copy of Windows Server on it, get it connected to the network, and then add it to the Honolulu interface. At that point, you can use Honolulu to configure IP addressing or change the system name, add disks or initialize disks you have plugged in, kill roles or add new roles like file server services or container services. Once that new system is up and you have 21 servers to manage, you can then see them all in one place. Is there, say, an errant task pegging a CPU higher? Just click into it from the screen, look at a process view, and end the troublesome task. Need to check if an update is installed? Click into Windows Update view, or to prevent a patch from installing by entering a new Registry key, just click the Registry node.

One of the cooler bits is how you can essentially replace the staid Hyper-V Manager tool with Honolulu.

It is a very convenient tool with a very easy, intuitive interface. Click around and you will find that it largely just makes sense.

Is This Azure Server Management Tools?

What happened to Azure Server Management Tools? The idea behind the Azure SMT product, which was discontinued in June 2017, was access and management from anywhere on any platform, with the fact that it was hosted in Azure meaning it could be updated and improved continuously. However, according to Microsoft, the top customer feedback from the toolkit was that users had environments that were not connected to the raw Internet (how can you then manage those types of deployments over the Internet?), and additionally some customers needed fully deployed tools in their local environments. Partners didn’t like SMT because it only was tied to Azure and not other public clouds, and sometimes a dependency on any cloud, Azure or otherwise, was not a natural fit. Additionally, the top user feedback request was basically to make SMT available on premises without an Internet connection. That is exactly what Project Honolulu is: you can manage from anywhere, including integrating in the future with Azure, from any platform since it is a browser based solution, that starts with core tools and ships independently (not in the OS image but as a separate download) which makes revisions possible on a much faster cadence.

Project Honolulu’s Architecture

Honolulu as its core is a lightweight web server and gateway. The web server does not depend on IIS; rather it uses a self-hosted stack that leverages HTTPS. The gateway is the piece that lets you fan out to manage remote servers using PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation over WinRM, the remote management protocol. Crucially this means that there is no agent infrastructure for Honolulu so nothing additional is required on the servers you want to manage; all of this instrumentation technology is already built into the operating system and is mostly standards based at that. (For Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2, you will need to upgrade the version of the Windows Management Framework to 5.0 or higher; the current version, 5.1, is available here [https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=54616].)

What Project Honolulu is Not

Honolulu is great and off to a promising start, but it is important to understand its limitations.

First, Honolulu does not replace any functionality covered in the following in the box tools (list courtesy of Microsoft):

  • AD Administrative Center
  • AD Domains and Trusts
  • AD Module for Windows PowerShell
  • AD Site and Services
  • AD Users and Computers
  • ADSI Edit
  • Cluster Aware Updating
  • Component Services
  • DFS Management
  • DHCP
  • DNS
  • Failover Cluster Manager
  • File Server Resource Manager
  • Group Policy Management
  • iSCSI initiator
  • Network Load Balancing Manager
  • Performance Monitor
  • Print Management
  • Remote Access management
  • Routing and Remote Access
  • Shielding Data File Wizard
  • Task Scheduler
  • Volume Activation Tools
  • Windows Server Update Services

That list could very well change as development on the project continues, although some of these tools lend themselves more to remote management than others.

Second, Honolulu is not a finished product. It is in technical preview, which means anything and everything could change—though it probably won’t. The code is in pretty good shape for a preview product and is suitable for use in production, although Microsoft will not admit that nor support you if you do. But at any time features may be removed, added, changed, moved around, and so on. A final release is expected in the not-too-distant future, and frequent updates are expected since the utility can be delivered “out of band.”

Third, Project Honolulu is not a replacement for a third party systems management suite. It is designed for relatively lightweight server management and monitoring. It does not support older Windows releases, nor does it handle client management or software distribution. It also does a cursory job of monitoring but does not orchestrate an alerting workflow or any type of automated response, both of which are necessary to have in enterprise environments. Project Honolulu is available at no additional charge with a Windows license, which is really nice, but it does not purport to solve all of the issues that you would need a product like System Center Configuration Manager and Operations Manager for. It is a convenient add-on.

The Last Word

The GUI is not dead! There is no denying that however useful PowerShell is in a variety of applications, there remain scenarios where a visual approach is the right way to go. It’s very refreshing to see Microsoft embracing both types of tools and really investing in a useful, intuitive, and best of all free (with a license) way to manage more recent versions of Windows Server. As the tool grows to integrate resources in Azure as well as extensions from third parties, this is sure to be a useful set of bits to have around. Recommended.

Download Project Honolulu here: https://aka.ms/HonoluluDownload

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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