Running Windows Server on desktop hardware: Why do it?

Ever think about running Windows Server on a regular old computer? Consider these hang-ups before you go installing it on desktop hardware.

The conventional wisdom about the server and desktop SKUs of Windows is that they're meant to be used on different...

kinds of hardware. That said, there's nothing stopping you from installing a server edition of Windows on desktop hardware.

As long as the computer in question meets the minimum hardware requirements for Windows Server, it will install and run. The question is: Why would you want to do this, and will it run well?

Benefits of Windows Server on a desktop

So why install Windows Server on desktop hardware? Even in this age of virtual machines (VMs), there are a number of reasons that come to mind. The most common is the simple availability of the hardware. Desktop machines are cheap and plentiful, and repurposing yesterday's desktop as today's server (albeit a low-traffic one) is one way to keep such a machine out of a landfill. Plus, it's sometimes more convenient to have a server, especially an experimental one, running on its own hardware rather than in a VM.

Given all this, what kind of desktop system would be suitable for running Windows Server? Microsoft lists the system requirements for Windows Server 2012 as follows:

  • A 1.4 GHz 64-bit processor
  • 512 MB of RAM
  • 32 GB of disk space
  • Optical drive
  • Keyboard, mouse, and 800x600 or better display hardware
  • Internet connectivity

None of this is out of the gamut even for desktops that are a few years old. Windows Server doesn't require multiple cores, for instance, so even a single-core processor can be used.

Don't expect the same performance

Even if the baseline requirements for Windows Server are still quite low, a number of other issues come up that are specific to server environments:

Desktop systems generally don't support multi-socket configurations. If you're doing anything that requires multiple sockets (as opposed to multiple cores), don't expect desktop hardware to do the job. Multiple sockets did show up in the earlier days of high-end workstations, but they have since been eclipsed by single-socket/multi-core configurations.

More desktop tricks

Running embedded OSes with hardware emulation

Want to run VirtualBox VMs as headless servers?

Don't expect single-core systems to perform well as servers. If you're repurposing a low-end desktop (low-end by today's standards, that is) that has a single-core processor, don't expect anything like true server performance. Almost every server application needs multiple cores to run well.

NUMA isn't supported in desktops either. Non-uniform memory access (NUMA) or hot-pluggable memory isn't something you see in a desktop setting, either. If you're doing anything that requires NUMA or is designed to test it, odds are you won't be able to run Windows Server on a computer properly.

Desktop storage is definitely not server storage. Desktop 7200 RPM drives are no competition for 10K RPM drives, let alone multidrive arrays. The exception to this rule is if you're using desktop-grade flash storage: While it doesn't provide a lot of space, it does provide suitably snappy I/O.

Networking on desktops is not designed for server loads. It's tempting to think a NIC is a NIC is a NIC, but there are real differences between the NICs designed for servers and those for desktops. If you use an add-in NIC that was designed for server use, that will help a bit, but keep in mind that there may be plenty of other bottlenecks in the system that slow things down.

Microsoft virtualization technology may not work. Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor, integrated into Windows Server, has specific hardware requirements. Some desktop-level CPUs may not have the processor extensions that Hyper-V needs. What's more, a desktop-class machine may not be able to support the sheer amount of memory needed to run Hyper-V well. If you're running more than one VM in Hyper-V, it helps to have more than 4 GB of RAM to throw at the problem. The older the desktop-class system, the lower the physical limit for memory that can be added to the machine.

The key thing to keep in mind if you want to repurpose desktop hardware for server use is what the application will be. A desktop system can work fine as a file-and-print server, a low-volume database server or perhaps as a Web server for in-house programs such as SharePoint. Don't expect to use such a machine for anything that will satisfy the kind of demand you would put on a "real" server.

This was last published in September 2013

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Would you ever run Windows Server on desktop hardware?
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as a test to show students the reasons to not use a desktop in the business environment, perhaps – for a business – not. For all the reasons Server Boards were designed. Running Windows Server on a Desktop is like having a waiter in the Kitchen (cooking) :-\ … NO!
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Yes, in an office with under 10 workstations
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Would be a cheaper option to build my own lab at home.
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I am running a small domain controller on repurposed hardware in a satelite office and I have run server on a desktop for training sessions.
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I am running for as couple of my clients a SERVER 2008 R2 as terminal Server for over a year and both running perfectly well and no one complains about performance. SPECS: INTEL i7, 32 Gb DDR3 1333 RAM, 2 (RAID1) SSD 250 Gb HDD, in a slim Desktop case. It servers 7-10 users running Quickbooks and FishBowl. Perfect.
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File / Print Development Virtualisation Low Usage Web Services Branch Domain Controller (probably read-only)
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If it was all that was available
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Lab testing
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Low user SQL Server applications 5-10 Users)
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A good 8 core desktop could be s good testing server.
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Learning Ubuntu Server running under VMware with more than 8GB of ram. Then copy this to a VMware machine.
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If anything, testing.
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Not for production or daily use but for becoming familiar with the OS and attending seminars or classes that require the OS. With bootable VHD’s, now you can boot them off the metal and it makes it easier to interchange them.
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I always use server software for research and as a test bed environment.
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no, there is a reason why we have servers vs desktops (personal use)
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As long the hardware requirements are ok, why not? I have Windows 2003 running on a midi tower with a duo core processor and enough memory and it’s working well.
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Yes, for use as a file server.
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I use a Dell desktop PC to run our standalone source control server. We have up to 80 developers checking in and out various source files and libaries. No performance problems.
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I already do it
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No. Apart from the bottlenecks in desktop motherboard design, desktop PSU and cooling fans are not designed for 24×7 operation.
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yes, for testing and training
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I do in a home office with shared photoshop files on a Gigabit Ethernet .
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yes, purely for testing
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yes, for testing only
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we’ve tried it and the number of users on the LAN required a second NIC teamed. Dual NICs are not common on most desktop machines. The inability to use ECC ram was also a major problem with the intensive software. There was also the integrated components such as RAID was not as feature rich, and caused crashes. All in all the desktop sucked.
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Only in a very limited deployment, extremely small offices (1-5).
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test bed
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sandbox or net admin
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Training and home network with backend applications
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I am a small CPA firm. I do some bookkeeping and outsource some of it to independent bookkeepers. So far, I've been using Widows 7 Pro and Remote Desktop for access to the QuickBooks program and files. But, that means one person has to wait for another person to get off. And sometimes the first person forgets to log off. So, I guess, trying to do it on the cheap, I thought I might install Windows 2012 on my 2 year old Dell Optiplex 990.
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referred to as the server maybe more convenient to have a server, especially an experimental one, running on its own hardware rather than in a VM.be. A desktop system can work fine as a file and print server, a low volume database server or as a Web server for in house programs such as SharePoint
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Testing
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1 cost savings (equipment on hand). But, only for simple File Sharing!
I am actually running Server 2012 Standard on an AMD Athlon 64 (single core) & 3GB RAM (PC3200) and it runs rather well!
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As a learning environment
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VM testing and evaluation
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W2003 legacy stuff - no issues at all
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For Hyper-V capabilities
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Why not?
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Does not make sense to me. Horses for courses, I say.
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Yes I have but on a laptop so that I can take the system we me where ever I am especially if traveling instead of stationary office.
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i already run a couple of Dell Optiplex 755\760's as ESXi hosts that run Server 2008 and Windows 7 x64
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Installing Windows Server on desktop hardware for testing or as a low usage server.
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Desktop PCs work fine with Server OS for testing and demo environment.
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Remote Desktop and Application Server. Works fine
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Server OS is more stable than Desktop OS.
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run it on my laptop for mobility
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Running WS on my own desktop hardware is important for many reasons, for example for testing a virtual machines (sharepoint farms) with a total controls.
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for testing out the basic server software.
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Training
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For testing or a home learning environment.
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for putting a testing lab together
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Development, testing, emergency standby machine.
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I won´t because of the support that I would receive from the vendor
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For testing purposes
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Had a spare desktop machine and needed a dedicated video transcoder for the office...works perfectly fine and we've had no problems so far (knock on wood).
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I have and do run server on desktop hardware. performance is ok good HD and extra memory help a lot with VM's
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They are great for training and development!
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Testing, development and training
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Test configuration, home server.
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The only reason I would is for testing or experimentation. However, there is enough older server hardware available (I also have a local reseller nearby) even if I had nothing onsite. In addition our company is comprised of mostly laptops anyway. The desktop would have to support raid1 and I never trust the power supplies average desktops. I would be more likely if we were talking about a Dell precision workstation though or something similar.
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Testing and prototyping
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This could be cost-effective for small business
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If desktops were meant to be used as servers they would not design and make servers in the first place
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Server hardware is designed to run 24x7 and is designed to support multi-user access. Horses for courses. Some entry level servers are now cheaper than a high end desktop computer so why bother.
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testing, training, temporary resource overload relief
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It is a convenient tool in my lab
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i use it in my production environnement on a brand new i7 with 32 gig of ram and works like a charm
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Definitively each software por each hardware.
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1) Short term when a server crashes and a backup is not available
2) testing
3) non-critical applications
4) not for critical database work
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BUT it's one we specifically built ourselves.
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For testing only. A desktop, even a newer desktop, does not have the MTBF rating of a server class machine. Servers do their job well because they are ultra-reliable.
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Only and only to learn the installation steps of an OS or an application and avoid troubleshooting of more complicated hardware problems that may arise on server storage and networking.
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cheap cluster for dev/test
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sometimes it is financially prohibitive to buy another server as opposed to using what you already have or can afford to buy
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so i can explore the server features & still do work on the same machine
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for print server
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broke server needed a replacement while hardware was coming in. Training and certification
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I have used a Dual-Core desktop PC to run temporarily as PDC of a network, while I was reconfiguring the real "Servers" with hypervisors to serve as hosts for VMs. It worked OK, not great, but OK ...
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Development, database dev, home server
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For training on the Server to find out what it is made of. And to practice on to setting up and trying some of the features.
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Stability
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Test or sandbox
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Desktops running Server 2012 are fine in very small environments, but it's best to max out the RAM and ensure you have enough storage.
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I think that server needs to have it's hardware to be real server.
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IT would serve well for testing patches prior to implementing them in a production environment.
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Testing of Applications, Learning.
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Web servers, Virtualization with VMWare or Citrix. Also other than RAM I don't see any issues in desktops.
We can get SAN for faster HDD's, AMD's 8 Cores are good enough for Virtualization and an Intel i7 is good for a heavy processing system.
The price difference for a similarly configured server is very high.
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Save money..
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Just for testing
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For using SharePoint and creating Intranet in the small Enterprise we have
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As test servers, desktop hardware is great. They for sure has performance issues, but for testing most of the performance is not an issue. It may be better to use the identical environment for testing, but this also means the hardware cost at least will double and budget is always an issue...
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Testing application installations.
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For testing purpose only
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Servers generally run more powerful operating systems that can handle networking, email, internet/intranet hosting, file sharing, databases, and more. Windows Server and Windows Small Business Server are  popular in small and mid-size businesses. Mac offers OS X Server if you want to run your entire network on Macs.
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