The most recent Community Technology Preview, or CTP, of the newly renamed Windows Server 2008 (formerly Windows "Longhorn") was released on 26 June to very little fanfare. That could be because users are asking, "What's new in this release?"

The answer: not a lot, frankly. The Beta 3 milestone toward the end of April was really where Microsoft declared the product feature-complete, meaning any future increments and testing were to ensure that bugs were quashed and that new problems weren't introduced into the product. There has also continued to be some intense performance and reliability testing.

That said, work has continued on a couple of enhancements, which we'll take a look at here.

Serving the Web

June's big announcement was that the new Server Core feature of Windows Server 2008 would support a new role -- running Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0 as a Web server. Essentially, Server Core takes the fundamental support infrastructure and kernel of Windows Server and strips out the rest of the product, including much of the graphical user interface.

Before June, Server Core's roles had been limited to infrastructure and some user services, such as Domain Name System, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, and file and print services.

The inclusion of IIS as a Server Core role has interesting implications for organisations that would like a Web appliance but also want the management features of a machine that's joined to an Active Directory domain. The result is something that's lightweight, robust and more secure than a full operating system install with the associated vulnerabilities that might be lurking under the full operating system's surface. Yet IIS Server Core also allows for group policy and other centralised administrative tools.

Other changes

Other improvements worth mentioning in the June 2007 CTP release include the following:

Secure Sockets Tunneling Protocol. SSTP allows a virtual private network (VPN) to work in certain environments where it ordinarily wouldn't.

Take a network address translation (NAT) box or Web proxy server scenario, for example. These devices often aren't configured to allow point-to-point tunnelling protocol (PPTP) traffic -- which consists of a TCP connection and then some encapsulated data -- to pass through port 1723.

Some NAT devices can't translate that encapsulated traffic, so a connection can be established. But the meaty part of the data can't actually be passed from source to destination through a NAT. SSTP solves this by using a standard HTTP connection over Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). By using HTTP with SSL, you bypass most of the connection issues just mentioned, since HTTPS traffic is almost universally allowed to pass through any edge or network device.

SSTP is also a cheaper solution than a VPN because you don't have as many support calls as connections just work from many Internet-enabled locations, and your users can work from anywhere, making them more productive.

And minor user-interface tweaks include relabelling references within the software to the old Longhorn code name. This isn't complete, so if you have access to the CTP from the Microsoft Developer Network or another source, don't expect the Longhorn moniker to have been completely eradicated.

Assessing progress

Overall, it looks like Windows Server 2008 is well on track for an on-time finish, which has been reported before to look like this: a release to manufacturing of the gold code sometime at the end of 2007, with general channel availability soon following that. If you're interested in getting the CTP, you'll need to be an MSDN subscriber or be part of the private technical beta.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics.