What Is a Windows Server? Definition and Significance in IT Infrastructure

What Is A Windows Server

A Windows server is a family of server operating systems that run on Windows technology. Developed by Microsoft and first introduced in 1993, this OS manages, stores, and runs network applications, handles large amounts of data, and supports many different enterprise-level functions.

A Windows server is a jack of all trades in an enterprise setting. It manages networks, provides secure data access, hosts websites, and even runs more advanced applications.

In this article, we’ll discuss Windows servers in more detail. We’ll go over their structure, how they work, and what makes them different from other server operating systems, among other topics.

Even though there’s much more to learn (we’ll also discuss where to get this knowledge), this article is a great place to start. Let’s begin with the basics.

Understanding Windows Servers

To understand Windows servers, we’ll start with their core characteristics and then move on to their basic architecture. That way, you’ll better understand what exactly this server does.

Learning about its architecture will also help you understand what happens behind the scenes to make the server function as it does.

Core Characteristics

You can use Windows servers for networking, hosting, and meeting enterprise needs. However, the server will only perform these roles if it possesses certain unique characteristics at the core of its operations.

For starters, these servers have robust security features that protect sensitive data and systems. Only authorized users can access these environments.

Windows servers are highly scalable. This means that they can grow with your business and handle increasing workloads, and you won’t have to worry about a drop in performance.

They are also highly manageable. In other words, these servers have tools and features designed to simplify administrative tasks.

Basic Architecture

The basic architecture of a Windows server is made up of roles and features that define how the server works. The server runs web services, manages communication, and handles databases.

And when it comes to features, these are more like add-ons. They consist of things you can add to the server to make it perform even better. For example, network policy management spells out rules for engaging with the network.

It’s also worth noting that Windows servers are modular.

In the tech space, modular means that the technology in question — software, a feature, or anything in between — has separate parts, or what we call modules.

Each module can be independently created, replaced, or combined. In the context of a Windows server, you can add or remove different features and roles as needed to customize the server to your specific requirements.

Early Beginnings

The Windows New Technology (commonly referred to as Windows NT) was the first born in the Windows server family.

Born in 1993, Windows NT marked Microsoft’s entry into the server operating system market, a field the tech behemoth has had in a chokehold for decades.

The 1993 version was named Windows 3.1 and shared the same version number with another major release from Microsoft at the time.

Major Releases and Their Features

Over the years, Windows Server has seen several major releases, each bringing new features and improvements. Let’s examine how this server technology has evolved since the days of Windows NT.

Windows OS Release Timeline
Windows has been on a roll since the early ’90s with revolutionary remote desktop and operating system solutions.

While it has experienced many different facelifts, we’ll only focus on the major ones and their standout features.

Windows Server 2003

This release offered better security and performance. Being the sixth version of Windows Server, it targeted the enterprise market. In fact, as of July 2016, about 18% of organizations were still using servers that ran on this version of Windows.

It was also the first Windows server edition to support the IA64 and x64 architectures.

Another interesting fact is that despite being initially named Whistler Server, it adopted other names, such as Windows 2002 Server, Windows .NET Server, and Windows .NET Server 2003.

Windows Server 2008

Also known as the Longhorn Server, this edition introduced Hyper-V for virtualization and a variation of an installation known as Server Core. It was the last version of Windows Server that supported 32-bit processors.

This edition was so popular that, as of July 2019, 60% of Windows servers still used it.

It’s also important to note that Windows Server 2008 isn’t the same as Windows Server 2008 R2. The latter, named Windows Server 7, was the eighth edition of Windows Server and is the successor to Windows Server 2008.

Windows Server 2012

Dubbed Windows Server 8, this edition entered the stage when many businesses and organizations were migrating to the cloud.

That explains why it had better tools for managing large-scale data centers and supporting cloud-based applications.

By April 2017, 35% of Windows servers were running on this edition.

Windows Server 2016

Developed alongside Windows 10 for desktops and released in September 2016, Windows Server 2016 took server-based innovation to a whole new level thanks to features like Windows Containers for lightweight virtualization and Nano Server for a streamlined, headless installation.

It also supported remote desktop services, failover clustering, and HTTP/2, among other server-based technologies.

You should know: Headless installation is when you set up a server or software without a graphical user interface (GUI). Instead, the installation is done through command line tools or scripts.

Windows Server 2019

The 2019 release improved security, improved hybrid capabilities with Microsoft Azure, and included advanced features for modern data centers.

Released in March 2018, this edition came under scrutiny briefly when it emerged that user data was being deleted when conducting in-place upgrades.

To address this issue, Microsoft temporarily halted the distribution of Windows 10 version 1809. Redistribution resumed in November 2018.

Windows Server 2022

At the time of writing this article, Windows Server 2022 is the latest edition of the Windows NT family of operating systems.

Like previous versions, this edition focuses on modern technology trends, such as cloud integration and achieving watertight security in the cloud.

windows server 2022 start menu
If you use Windows 2022, this start menu will look familiar.

This server technology, released in August 2021, is based on the Iron codebase.

For this reason, its updates do not work with the Windows 10 OS since the Iron codebase technology wasn’t used for that particular version of the Windows server.

Community and Ecosystem

Microsoft has a massive community and network of partners from virtually every corner of the globe.

This rich ecosystem has greatly contributed to the growth and development of the Windows server. The community alone is made up of IT professionals, developers, and enthusiasts.

Likewise, the partner network includes hardware vendors, software developers, and service providers who deliver compatible solutions, ensure seamless integration, and provide comprehensive user support.

This collaborative ecosystem is one of the many reasons Windows Server is still a versatile and reliable platform for businesses of all sizes.

Key Features

Windows Server has many cool and useful features that make managing your IT projects much easier. These features allow you to manage users and devices, automate tasks, and keep things secure.

You can’t possibly learn everything overnight because this is such a broad topic. Instead, we’ll focus only on features worth knowing from the onset. As you continue to explore this platform, you’ll become more familiar with its features and capabilities.

Active Directory

Active Directory, or AD for short, is what you’ll use to keep track of users, computers, and other devices. It’s like the headquarters for your network. For example, it ensures the identity of everyone who logs in.

Diagram of how Microsoft Azure Active Directory works
Azure Active Directory, now known as Microsoft Entra ID, is a cloud-based identity and access management (IAM) solution.

It also ensures that all devices follow the same rules. If you want every computer in your company to have the same theme, AD can ensure these rules are followed.


Hyper-V is a type of server technology that runs multiple virtual machines on one physical server. It’s like having several minicomputers inside one big computer.

This means you can run different servers, such as a web server, a database server, and a file server, all on the same physical machine. The biggest benefit of this technology is that it saves you money and makes things easier to manage.

Windows Server Update Services (WSUS)

WSUS takes care of server updates and patches. Instead of each computer in your network downloading updates on its own, this feature controls the process from one platform.

That way, you can decide which updates get installed and when. This also ensures all your machines are up to date without slowing down your internet.


PowerShell is a scripting language and command line tool for automating tasks and managing configurations. It works like a supercharged command prompt.

To give you an idea of how useful this tool is, picture a situation where you want to create user accounts for a bunch of new employees. Granted, you can do it manually, but that’s time consuming.

Enter PowerShell, the supercharged command prompt. All you’ll need to do is write a script in PowerShell to handle the account creation process instead of manually doing it.

Storage Spaces Direct (S2D)

Storage Spaces Direct, or S2D, is a software-defined storage solution. Server administrators use this feature to create a storage pool from multiple hard drives. The end goal here is to make it look like one big storage space.

This feature is especially useful when you want to manage lots of data while ensuring you have backups in case something goes wrong.

Windows Admin Center

Windows Admin Center is the server administrator’s control panel.

This web-based app lets you manage servers, clusters, and even Windows 10 PCs from one place.

Here, you check server health, manage updates, and troubleshoot issues, all from your web browser. It’s what you would expect from any software with an admin dashboard.

Security Features

Windows Server has many security features to protect your data from being accessed by malicious parties. Shielded VMs, for instance, are designed to protect your virtual machines from tampering.

On the other hand, Just Enough Administration (JEA) limits what administrators can do to prevent accidental or malicious changes. Lastly, Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) detects and responds to security threats.

Common Use Cases

Earlier, we mentioned that Windows Server is super versatile, meaning you can use it in many different ways in the business world. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common use cases to give you some perspective.

Enterprise Resource Management

Businesses use Windows Server to manage and deploy their enterprise applications, like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems.

Companies use these applications to keep track of everything from inventory and orders to customer interactions and sales.

Web and Application Hosting

Windows Server hosts websites and web applications using Internet Information Services (IIS). Whether you want to run an online store or an application that requires a Windows server, this feature acts like a bridge connecting the server to your project.

Virtualization and Cloud Integration

With Hyper-V, Windows Server lets businesses run multiple virtual machines on a single server. This technology makes VPS hosting possible. It divides a single server into multiple virtual machines, each assigned to a particular user.

As a result, virtualization saves on hardware costs and better uses server resources. In addition, it integrates well with Azure (Microsoft’s cloud computing platform), just in case you want to extend your on-premises setup.

Database Management

Windows Server is also a go-to for hosting databases, especially SQL Server. Businesses rely on it to store, manage, and retrieve large amounts of data quickly and securely.

This feature is particularly useful for applications that need to process transactions or analyze data.

File and Storage Solutions

Windows Server has you covered when it comes to storing and managing files. It can work as a network-attached storage (NAS), a storage area network (SAN), or a file server.

To achieve these functionalities, it centralizes your file storage, making it easier to share, manage, and back up data across your network.

Windows Server Editions and Versions

Although we touched on various editions and versions of the Windows Server family, we didn’t discuss where they fit. We’ll cover that below.

Standard vs. Data Center

The Standard and Data Center editions are the most popular. The Standard edition suits smaller businesses with lighter workloads. It has all the basic and essential features you’d expect from a Windows server.

However, it also has some limitations. For example, when you choose this alternative, you can run only a limited number of virtual machines, usually two per license.

On the other hand, the Data Center edition is designed for larger enterprises that need unlimited virtualization and advanced features.

It’s perfect for businesses with heavy IT demands. As a result, the Data Center edition has more extensive features but is pricier.

Other Editions

Aside from the Standard and Data Center editions, you’ll also find editions such as Windows Server Essentials, which are ideal for small businesses with up to 25 users and 50 devices.

Windows Server Essentials vs. Standard vs. Datacenter
With three products, Microsoft makes it easy to find a solution that fits your business’s or company’s needs.

Then there’s Hyper-V Server, which is all about virtualization, as we saw earlier. This is what VPS providers use to partition their servers. However, since Hyper-V only focuses on virtualization, it lacks the extra features of a full server OS.

The Foundation Edition is the base model. It comes pre-installed on your device, meaning you won’t need a license to use it. The downside of this edition is that it has basic features and is meant for only one device.

Comparison With Other Server Operating Systems

Windows Server is undoubtedly popular because of its user-friendly interface, robust support, and extensive features, especially for enterprises. But it’s not the only server operating system out there — in fact, it’s not even the most popular; Linux is.

That said, when comparing Windows Server to other server operating systems, you’ll find that each OS has its strengths.

Linux distributions, such as Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, and CentOS, are known for their flexibility, open-source nature, and cost-effectiveness. MacOS Server integrates smoothly with Apple products, perfect for environments heavily invested in Apple hardware.

Installation and Configuration

Installing and configuring Windows Server might seem complicated on paper, but it’s straightforward once you know how to go about it. Here’s what you need to know to get started:

System Requirements

First, as a general rule, you must ensure your hardware meets the system requirements before installing any software.

For best results, you need a 1.4 gigahertz 64-bit processor or faster, at least two gigabytes of memory (RAM), and sufficient disk space (32 gigabytes or more).

Installation Process

To begin with, you must download the installation files from Microsoft. At the time of this writing, we’ll install Windows Server 2022, the latest edition, for demonstration purposes.

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Head to the product page on Microsoft’s website and select “Download the ISO.”
Screenshot of how to download the ISO on Microsoft website
Click “Download the ISO” to get started.
  1. If prompted, enter your information and then click “Continue.”
  2. The download process will begin. This could take a couple of minutes, so be patient.
  3. In the Microsoft Server Operating System Setup window, you can change your language, time, currency format, and keyboard settings.
  4. Click “Next” when done.
  5. Select your preferred operating system and accept the license agreement.
  6. If prompted, select the custom install option and then choose where you want to install the OS. At this point, you can even create a partition if you want the OS installed on a different partition within your machine.
  7. Click “Next.”

The installation process will begin. It could take a while, so it’s important to remain patient and not interrupt it.

The server will also reboot several times. Once the installation is done, you’ll see a window asking you to customize your settings. This includes providing your username and password. When done, click “Finish.” You can now use your login credentials to log in.

Initial Configuration

Once Windows Server is installed, you’ll need to configure it. The Windows Server Manager program will start by default. On its dashboard, you’ll see different server settings.

For instance, if you want your server to act as a file server, you’ll add the file server role. You’ll also need to configure network settings, such as assigning a static IP address and setting up DNS.

You might also notice some sections highlighted in red. More than half of the time, it’s because some programs need more time to load. It could also be a sign that those specific features need additional attention.

Common Administrative Tasks

After the initial setup, the next step is to handle various administrative tasks.

These include but are not limited to, managing users and groups through Active Directory, setting group policies to enforce security and management rules across your network, and allocating resources like storage and memory to different applications and services.

Management and Monitoring

Managing and monitoring your Windows server is part of what keeps everything running smoothly. Here’s a breakdown of the tools and techniques you’ll use:

Windows Admin Center

As we discussed earlier, this is where you manage your servers, clusters, and even Windows 10 PCs. The management happens in your browser from a single dashboard.

It’s easy to use and allows you to perform tasks like checking server health, updates, and configuring roles and features.

Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT)

RSAT is a set of tools used to manage roles and features on your Windows server from a remote Windows computer. This feature comes in handy because you don’t have to be physically with the server to make changes or check settings.

You can manage things like Active Directory, DNS, and Group Policy right from your desktop.

Performance Monitoring

We’ve said countless times that monitoring your server’s performance isn’t just something to consider when having issues. Instead, it’s an essential aspect of proactive server management.

It helps you catch problems before they develop into something serious.

Windows Server has built-in tools like Performance Monitor and Resource Monitor that let you track CPU usage, memory, disk activity, and network performance, among other metrics.

For this reason, you’ll always have an idea of your server’s performance and make adjustments as needed.

Backup and Disaster Recovery

Failure to set up data backup and disaster recovery mechanisms could result in irreversible losses if something goes wrong in the server.

Windows Server has tools like Windows Server Backup, which lets you create backups of your system state, files, and applications.

For more robust solutions, you can integrate with third-party backup software or use cloud-based services like Microsoft Azure Backup.

With a disaster recovery plan, you can quickly restore your server and data in case of hardware failure or other disasters.

Security Best Practices

Keeping your Windows server secure should be a top priority, given that nearly 4,000 cyber-attacks happen daily. One point of weakness could be all it takes to bring down your entire Windows Server infrastructure.

Here are some best practices to help you secure your server.

Network Security

Start by securing your network with firewalls to control incoming and outgoing traffic.

Network security illustration

You should also consider network segmentation, which divides your network into smaller, isolated sections.

This tactic reduces the impact of a potential breach since whatever happens in one section doesn’t affect the other.

Using virtual private networks can secure remote access to your network.

This option encrypts data sent over the internet and keeps it safe from prying eyes.

Identity and Access Management

You need strong authentication and authorization mechanisms to make sure that whoever logs in to the network is actually who they claim to be.

Identity & access management (IAM) illustration

Simply giving users logins and letting them choose their passwords just doesn’t cut it anymore.

For best results, use long passwords, enable multi-factor authentication (MFA), and regularly review user permissions to ensure only authorized individuals can access sensitive information.

Again, as we’ve seen before, Active Directory can help manage these tasks by centralizing user authentication and enforcing security policies.

Data Protection

Protecting your data is vital, and encryption should be at the center of it all.

Data protection illustration

Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit to prevent unauthorized access.

Data at rest is stored somewhere in a storage device, such as a hard drive, database, or backup.

On the other hand, data in transit is exactly what it sounds like — data being transferred from one place to another, such as when sending emails.

Also, consider using secure storage solutions, such as encrypted hard drives for data at rest or secure data transfer protocols like HTTPS for data in transit.

On top of that, you should implement data loss prevention (DLP) measures to monitor and control the flow of sensitive information within your network. This is an excellent way to make sure sensitive information doesn’t leave your organization without permission.

Regular Updates and Patching

Regularly apply patches and updates to fix vulnerabilities and protect against the latest threats.

Regular updates & patching illustration

With tools like Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), you can manage and automate the update process.

This ensures your servers are always protected with the latest security improvements.

The best part is that you don’t have to set reminders or conduct the updates manually.

You can schedule automatic updates with a few clicks of a button during the Windows Server setup process we walked you through earlier.

Integration with Cloud Services

Integrating your Windows server with cloud services can improve its capabilities and provide additional flexibility and security. That’s because cloud providers invest heavily in security.

For perspective, in 2018, Google announced that it had spent about $30 billion on improving its cloud infrastructure. Security, of course, was at the forefront of the company’s budget.

Hybrid Cloud Solutions

Switching to the cloud is a good idea, but getting the best of both worlds is even better. That’s where the hybrid cloud option comes in.

You can connect your on-premises infrastructure with Azure (Microsoft’s cloud computing platform) and take advantage of its cloud services for scalability, security, backup, and disaster recovery.

Azure Active Directory

Azure Active Directory, commonly known as Azure AD, extends your on-premises Active Directory to the cloud.

This integration provides your users with seamless single sign-on (SSO), granting them access to both on-premises and cloud-based applications with a single set of credentials.

This identity and access management system also boosts security by offering advanced features like conditional access and identity protection.

Azure Site Recovery

To maintain business continuity, you should use Azure Site Recovery. This Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) solution replicates your on-premises servers to Azure.

In case of a disaster, you can quickly switch over to Azure. This failover keeps your applications and services running with minimal downtime.

The Future of Windows Servers

Windows servers have been around for decades and have grown to adapt to industry trends and varying consumer needs. That’s one of the many reasons this server technology isn’t going anywhere soon.

Its future looks promising, mainly because it has a huge community of users and partners. Besides being a product of Microsoft, the world’s biggest tech company, Windows Servers have all the support needed to maintain exponential growth.

Upcoming Features and Road Map

Microsoft has exciting plans for future Windows Server versions. At the time of writing, the tech giant is already working on the next version of Windows Server.

Named Windows Server 2025, this edition will focus on the following features:

  • Hotpatching for Windows Server Data Center (Azure Edition)
  • Next-generation Active Directory and SMB
  • Hyper-V and artificial intelligence
  • Mission-critical data and storage

The official release date hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s likely to be unveiled during the Microsoft Ignite 2024 show slated for November.

Trends in Server Technology

Today, most trends in server technology revolve around cloud integration, artificial intelligence (AI), and enhanced security measures. It’s not difficult to see why many businesses and organizations are moving in this direction.

One study by Zippia found that 94% of enterprises already use cloud services in some way. Furthermore, about 67% of enterprise infrastructure today is cloud-based.

Cloud Computing Market Size Graph 2022-2030
Since COVID-19, the cloud computing market size has skyrocketed with a CAGR of 17.43%.

Of course, not every business or organization is cloud-based. But, according to the study, the intention to migrate to the cloud is quite strong, and not only in the IT industry.

The report added that about 92% of businesses today have a multicloud strategy either in place or underway.

Microsoft’s Vision

Microsoft’s strategic direction for Windows Server emphasizes a seamless blend of on-premises and cloud environments.

For this reason, future editions of this product are expected to offer hybrid cloud solutions, integrate more AI-driven features, and provide top-notch security.

This vision ensures that Windows Server remains an important component of modern IT infrastructure.

Market dominance aside, it makes sense that Microsoft would want to maintain its support for businesses in their digital transformation journey. After all, these businesses make up a more significant percentage of their target customers.

Learning and Certification

You have several options if you want to learn more about Windows Server (or pursue a career in server administration and management).

Per Zippia, server administrators earn an average of $37.94 hourly in the United States. That’s about $78,919 yearly, which is quite decent for an entry-level role. Here’s how to get there and beyond.

Getting Started

Getting up to speed with Windows Server can open up many windows of opportunities in IT and beyond.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll find plenty of resources like the official Microsoft documentation for the Windows server, free tutorials on YouTube, and forums where you can get help and learn the basics.

Advanced Learning

As you get more comfortable, you can steer deep into advanced learning with online courses, books, and workshops that cover more advanced topics and real-world applications.

You’ll find plenty of online courses at Microsoft, LinkedIn, Coursera, and Udemy, among others.

Certification Paths

Also, if you’re serious about your career, consider pursuing Microsoft Certified: Windows Server certifications.

These certifications validate your skills and knowledge, making you a more attractive candidate for IT jobs and often leading to better job prospects and higher salaries.

Wrapping Up Our Windows Server Journey

To sum up, Windows Server is — and will continue to be — an important part of modern IT environments.

We’re saying this because we’ve seen time and time again how businesses are shifting their focus to the cloud and how newer technologies are heading in that direction, too.

Microsoft’s involvement in this technology means that it has the financial backing to influence change and keep up with trends. So, whether you’re just starting or looking to advance your career in IT, you’ll benefit from understanding and mastering Windows Server.

This training can provide you with the skills needed to cement your spot in the ever-changing IT field and participate in the change.