Microsoft has announced the road map for its core server products, Windows Server 2003 (Win2k3) and the mooted Longhorn Server, due out in 2007.

The road map is there to provide customers with a rhythm for product release to allow them to improve their upgrade planning processes, the company said. Yet while the map stretches as far out as 2008, product details get hazier the further out you go.

Despite its poor record at meeting its own product release schedules, Microsoft has laid down a strict template. Midway between each major product release, which will occur every three to four years, will be a feature pack release, adding new functionality. These will be products with a price tag, although customers of Microsoft's Software Assurance programme get feature packs as part of the deal. In between, feature packs will be service packs on a requirement basis, focusing on bug-fixes and security enhancements. These will be free.

Server product manager Samm DiStasio detailed some of the features Microsoft will release in its server product line. This year will see the launch of both Win2k3 for 64-bit extended systems and Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Win2k3. Windows Server 2003's 64-bit version will support Intel and AMD processors and provide a performance increase for 32-bit applications, said DiStasio.

SP1 will include reliability enhancements, and security updates to include configuration wizards, boot-time protection for clean installs - a firewall to protect the system during the install process - and VPN client inspection. The idea is that incoming client connections will be checked to see if they have appropriate system and security updates installed. If not, they will be offered an update service and could be refused a connection if they don't meet certain criteria. Microsoft is also claiming that SP1 will provide a 10 percent performance hike in areas such as TPC and SSL.

SP1's feature set will form the basis for the 64-bit release and Small Business Server, which will trail the main server product's schedule by a few months, will get an SP1 this year too.

Next year, Microsoft will release a beta of Longhorn, the next major server OS product, and a Win2k3 server feature pack, codenamed R2.

In 2005, expect the feature pack (R2) for Win2k, said DiStasio. It will offer "streamlined secure info access" including application level remote access. This will be like the current Web-based access to Exchange over https. "We'll do the same for files over SMB, internal services and Web. We'll have an application to application connection, and clients will be able to see shares and files, servers and terminal services, all over https," said DiStasio.

Also included according to DiStasio is authentication acceleration which, like Microsoft's Trustbridge that allows organisations to share user identity information, "will allow Active Directories to talk to each other to develop trust relationships between different enterprises. It means you don't have to open lots of ports, just port 80." What Microsoft calls branch office optimisation will also be part of Win2k3 R2, said DiStasio. This will allow branch offices to cache system information so that, even if the connection between the office and HQ is cut, they can still manage the system as if it were connected.

Details of Longhorn Server remain hazy - even its future existence has been unclear - but it will eventually integrate 'Indigo', Microsoft's communications infrastructure built around Web services. Manageability enhancements will include "new scripting capabilities, well past what you can do with Unix", according to DiStasio. Better group policies will make them easier to manage while continuation of the enhancement of IPV6, new hardware standard support for developments such as multi-core chips and diskless blades are as you would expect.

DiStasio was unwilling to talk about the future of WinFS, Longhorn's futuristic file system.