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Windows Admin Center lures IT pros with Azure integration

If System Center is overkill for your needs and the older tools aren't up to task, then the Windows Admin Center just might be the tool to manage your data center.

The Windows Admin Center offers a number of on-premises management perks, but it's the added bonus of Azure integration that some organizations might find even more appealing.

Traditionally, Windows IT administrators use native Windows integrated tools, such as Server Manager and Microsoft Management Console, to manage their on-premises workloads unless they require additional features from the System Center Configuration Manager or a third-party alternative. Microsoft recently developed Windows Admin Center, a free, browser-based, on-premises management tool that bundles a number of administrative tools in a clean interface that offers a more streamlined way to handle everyday tasks.

Although it is not dependent on Azure, Windows Admin Center connects to Microsoft's cloud platform to use different services such as Azure Active Directory and IaaS virtual machines. Administrators can install Windows Admin Center on either Windows 10 or Windows Server 2016 or 2019 machines.

The difference between Windows Admin Center and System Center is the ease of Azure integration and how lightweight Windows Admin Center is. System Center is a monster of an application with many different components, but it does feature a lot of great tooling and automation capabilities. Windows Admin Center seems to be better for specific troubleshooting and one-off tasks.

Windows Admin Center installation and requirements

Installing Windows Admin Center from Microsoft's download page is a very simple process, but it's even easier using the Chocolatey package manager. The command below installs the software locally with the default port and a self-signed certificate:

choco install windows-admin-center -y

Remote management with Windows Admin Center

One downside to Windows Admin Center is it only manages servers running Windows Server 2012 R2 and above. Microsoft recently released limited Server 2008 support, but IT pros cannot completely manage Windows 7 and Server 2008 servers with this tool. However, these OSes will be out of support in early 2020, making this point moot.

Azure integration brings the cloud closer

It is somewhat surprising to see the scope of Windows Admin Center's functionality. The ability to manage both on-premises and Azure servers from one place is a very distinct feature not found in many free utilities. Administrators might also find some use for the Azure service integrations, such as the ability to back up on-premises servers to Azure and centrally manage Windows updates with Azure Update Management.

In addition to its built-in features, Microsoft provided a way to expand the functionality of Windows Admin Center with a software development kit.

Another great Azure integration option is authentication to the Windows Admin Center from Azure Active Directory. When using this feature, a user who authenticates must be a member of the local users group on the gateway server and in Azure Active Directory. Because Azure allows for multifactor authentication, admins can use it to tighten security around Windows Admin Center and the systems it manages.

Windows Admin Center tuned for on-premises management

While there is some Azure integration, I suspect the majority of users want Windows Admin Center to manage on-premises resources, and a good portion of its features are geared toward data center administration.

Microsoft did a great job building an application that provides a unified view of certificates, firewall configurations, networking, processes, registry and resource monitoring. Windows Admin Center uses PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) for its extensive management capabilities on remote systems. Windows Admin Center even connects to the remote file system to download and upload files.

remote Windows machine
In this screenshot, Windows Admin Center connects to a remote Windows machine and opens that system's registry.

Extensibility augments management reach

In addition to its built-in features, Microsoft provided a way to expand the functionality of Windows Admin Center with a software development kit. Developers can build mock-ups and create tools and gateway plugins using different tools and technologies, including HTML5, CSS, Angular, TypeScript, jQuery, PowerShell and WMI.

Windows Admin Center extensibility
Vendors and developers who wish to use the Windows Admin Center management framework can produce their own extensions using a software development kit Microsoft provides.

New features arrive with version 1809

Microsoft released version 1809 of Windows Admin Center in September and added a slew of new features. With this release, users can see the PowerShell scripts built into Windows Admin Center that are associated with a particular action.

In the example below, the Windows Admin Center displays a list of scripts used to manage local users. Administrators can copy and modify these scripts for their own projects.

PowerShell scripts
Version 1809 of the Windows Admin Center shows the underlying PowerShell scripts used to perform certain actions.

Other new features in version 1809 include functionality for scheduled tasks, file shares, Hyper-V multi-VM bulk actions and limited functionality for Windows Server 2008 R2.

The platform-specific features for Windows Server 2019 include migrating servers with the Storage Migration Service and System Insights, which is a predictive analytics feature for Windows Admin Center.

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