Windows Server 2016 Editions & Versions Comparison

When installing Windows Server 2016 you need to know the right version to use. Microsoft licensing is very particular when it comes to what edition of Windows Server 2016 you’re using on what type of hardware. Picking the right version can be the different between saving a lot of money and losing a lot of money (when Microsoft comes knocking with a license audit request).

Now it’s not just licensing and hardware that determines the best version of Windows Server 2016 to use, it’s also how you plan to use it. I’ll explain in a bit.

Let’s compare the different editions.

Windows Server 2016 Editions Comparison

Server 2016 is available in four major editions:

  • Hyper-V
  • Essentials
  • Standard
  • Datacenter

Windows Server 2016 Hyper-V

Hyper-V Server is a free version of Server 2016 that it meant for running the Hyper-V role only. Its purpose is to be a hypervisor for your virtual environment only. It does not have a GUI. It’s essentially a stripped out version of Server Core. You’ll use sconfig.cmd to stand up the hypervisor and then manage the environment using Hyper-V Manager (as part of RSAT) from a Windows 10 workstation within your network. I highly recommend using this version for your hypervisor to keep licensing clean and simple.

Windows Server 2016 Essentials

Essentials is ideal for SMBs or Small Businesses and individuals with very basic server needs. The GUI is pretty much the same as Standard with the exception of the Essentials Wizard that runs. While you can disable this Wizard, the system is really meant to be used with it.

Virtualization Rights

You’re allowed to run one physical instance of Essentials as a Hyper-V host, hosting one virtual instance of Essentials. You’ll need to remove all roles except the Hyper-V role from the physical Essentials instance to be in compliance. Essentials is also good for one virtual instance on any other hypervisor.

Licensing Model

CPU based. No CALs are required but you’re limited to 25 users and 50 devices connecting to the server.

Hardware Limits

Essentials is limited to a max of 64GB of RAM and 2 CPUs on the machine it’s installed on.

Learn more from Microsoft and Download the licensing sheet here:

Windows Server 2016 Standard

Standard is ideal for any company or individual that that needs advanced features but will still not be virtualizing heavily.

Virtualization Rights

You’re allowed to run up to two virtual machines or Hyper-V containers or one physical instance with a Standard License.  If you only use the Hyper-V role on the physical instance you can use it as a Hyper-V host and then host two Hyper-V VMs on that host. If you want to use multiple roles on the physical instance you cannot run vm’s on top with the same license.

Licensing Model

Core based. CALs are required for every user or device that connects indirectly or directly to the server. For example, if you use the server as a file server you will need a CAL for every user account or computer that access that file server on the network.

Hardware Limits

Standard is limited a max of 24TB of RAM and 512 cores.

Learn more from Microsoft and Download the licensing sheet here:

Windows Server 2016 Datacenter

Datacenter is ideal for any company that is highly virtualized. You purchasing licensing according to how many cores your hosts have that any VM running Datacenter can live on (run or potentially run on after a vmotion). This licensing seems expensive at first but it allows you to create an unlimited amount of VMs running Server 2016 Datacenter on the hosts you’ve accounted for. If you have a low number of hosts (and subsequently cores) and high number of potential VMs then this license is a no brainer.

Virtualization Rights

Unlimited virtual machines or Hyper-V containers. As stated above, you’ll purchase licenses according to how many cores you have within your hosts. At that point you can spin up as many VMs on those hosts as your heart desires using whatever roles you want.

Licensing Model

Core Based. Make sure you don’t accidentally choose this edition on install on a physical server that won’t host virtual machines. You’ll be out several thousands of dollars should Microsoft request a license audit. CALs are required for every user or device that connects indirectly or directly to the servers in your environment.

Learn more from Microsoft and Download the licensing sheet here:

Windows Server 2016 Installation Options Comparison

Within the Standard and Datacenter editions of Server 2016 there are also different installation options you can choose. These versions affect what features are available after install such as the presence of a GUI and a multitude of services. The installation options are:

  • Desktop Experience
  • Core
  • Nano

Desktop Experience

Desktop Experience is the install option most people are familiar with. This options installs the most features and roles out of the box including the desktop GUI interface. You’ll get the Server Manager which allows you to add and remove Roles and Features. The benefit is the system may be easier to manage for people used to using a GUI. The drawback is you have more updates, reboots, and open ports to deal with.

Learn more from Microsoft here:


Server Core lacks a gui and few roles that are installed by default under the Desktop Experience option. Server Core has a smaller disk footprint, and therefore a smaller attack surface due to a smaller code base. You also have less updates, reboots, and open ports to deal with. It’s a great option for infrastructure servers such as Active Directory Domain Controllers and DNS servers.

When installing server Core there are no accessibility tools, out of box experience for setting up the server, and no audio support. It really is a no frills install. Just make sure you’re comfortable with command line based administration.

Learn more from Microsoft here:


Starting with 1803, Nano is available only as a container base OS image. It’s meant to be run as a container within a container host like Server Core mentioned above. If you rely on containerized applications meant for server OSs then this is the edition you would use to compile those apps.

Nano can be deployed with either Standard or Datacenter but you must have attached Software Assurance to the licensing of the host server.

Learn more from Microsoft here:

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Chase Smith, CCNP

Chase Smith, CCNP is a Network Engineer III who has spent the last decade elbow deep in enterprise system administration and networking. He can usually be found trying to warm up behind the storage in the datacenter.

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