Microsoft officials last year highlighted three new sub-systems as the key pillars for the next major release of Windows -- WinFS for data storage, Avalon for 3-D graphics and Indigo for building advanced Web services. The company disclosed in August that WinFS won't be part of the next release, which is code-named Longhorn (see story).

But Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's Windows Server division, said this month that role-based configuration tools "were always the most important feature set that I thought was going into" the server version of Longhorn, which is due in 2007.

Q: How do you respond to people who say you've gutted the heart and soul of Longhorn by removing WinFS?
A: For me, the heart and soul of Longhorn in the server was always about how we really refocus on role-based configuration and provide that level of flexibility to our customers. WinFS will be a great feature in the operating system when we deliver it. This is a new thing nobody's ever done before, and when you build technology like that, being certain about the exact date you can deliver it is hard to do. So I feel great about WinFS. [But] I feel great about Longhorn without WinFS.

What will users be able to do in Longhorn that they can't already do in Windows Server 2003 with respect to role-based configuration?
A: Let me give you an example. An enterprise can use the role-based configuration tools to build [system] images that have just the roles on it that they want, and then they can deploy those images to the appropriate servers. That's a key feature that our [corporate customers] have been asking for: being able to really build customised images that target a given server. With role-based configuration, you could build a server that was just a networking server that only had DHCP and DNS on it as well as the core operating system. And you can't do that today.

The other thing we're doing is all sorts of enhancements around the roles in terms of improving task management and managing overall, which is really appropriate to all segments of the marketplace.

Q: So a customer could configure an application server, a rights management server or an Active Directory federation server?
A: Right.

Q: Will you develop different versions of Longhorn geared toward different roles, or will users just gain the ability to customize the software?
A: This is an enterprise discussion, just to be clear. This is not a medium business and certainly not a small business discussion. But in the enterprise space, customers want the flexibility to buy one version of the operating system and acquire the number of licences they need for it. And then they want the flexibility to deploy that with just the services on it that they need, and they'll configure those images. And those large customers are very, very comfortable with image-based deployment.

The other trend to note is the increase of blades. Blades are the fastest-growing segment of the server marketplace, and this level of flexibility around role-based configuration is quite consistent with that trend.

Q: Will you still offer Standard and Enterprise editions?
A: Yes. We haven't finalised our packaging yet, but we still will have a couple of editions, and you'll be able to do some new roles. For example, you'll be able to build a clustered image on an Enterprise [server] that you can't do with Standard [ones].

Q: Beyond WinFS, have any other features been dropped from Longhorn?
A: The truth of the matter is that I'm sure there's lots that I don't know of. There's so much functionality that we'll be coming out with. It's a little early for us to talk about all the specifics that are there or aren't there. We'll figure out some of these specifics over time.