The upcoming “Longhorn” version of Windows Server is now available for public testing.

The release is the final beta and first publicly available, feature-complete Longhorn. It's the last time the product will be available for testing and feedback, before the final release later this year.

Microsoft has posted Longhorn beta 3 code to its website. It's the first time anyone who's interested can get their hands on the product, which has been in private beta release only until now.

It is also the first time users can get a look at a new scripting and command-line technology, Microsoft PowerShell, at work from within Longhorn server. The technology, which allows administrators to more easily automate tasks across Windows servers on a network, was available as a separate add-on, but will now be built directly into Longhorn.

Customers also can get a first look at two new Longhorn features - a new always-on firewall in Server Manager and an installation option called Server Core, said Ward Ralston, senior technical product manager for the software.

Server Manager in Longhorn is designed to keep the server firewall up 100 percent of the time, which means server administrators will have to unlock the firewall using the Server Manager console when they want to install components, he said.

This allows administrators to install components needed for certain server roles, leaving anything extraneous out of the system, Ralston said. The server also will know what dependencies and restraints the roles will have once installed, and will configure the server automatically to run most effectively in those scenarios, he added.

Server Core is a minimal installation option for Windows Server that only installs components for eight server roles - out of a possible 18 - on the server and automatically configures them for the most reliable performance. This limits the amount of code that needs to run on the server, and also will decrease the number of - and time allotted for - updates because the server will only need to be rebooted for updates related to those roles, Ralston said.

Longhorn is due for final release sometime in the second half of the year, a time frame that, in typical Microsoft fashion, has been revised several times.

In fact, Ralston said the Longhorn team is "proud" to have gotten beta 3 out on time; its release was scheduled for the first half of 2007, which means it was due by the end of June and according to Microsoft's current schedule is actually out the door early. The company is well known not only for pushing back software release deadlines, but also for meeting them at the last minute.