Microsoft plans to give customers a peek at the next version of its Windows Server Update Services software at the Microsoft Management Summit conference in San Diego next week.

Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) 3.0, which is expected to be released in the first half of 2007, will include a more dynamic user interface based on the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) framework and will have several features designed to make the software easier to use, according to Joseph Dadzie, a Microsoft group program manager.

WSUS is a free alternative to Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) product that gives customers a way to control the deployment of Microsoft patches and security updates. It will be shown in public for the first time at the systems management conference during an April 27 session.

The new MMC-based interface will give customers an improved view of how their patch deployments are rolling out and will allow them to roll reports from a variety of different servers into one root server, Dadzie said.

Version 3.0 will also introduce the notion of "nested target groups," which will allow customers to set patch policies for one group of computers, servers for example, and then fine tune those policies for a subset of that group like "Exchange servers," or "engineering servers."

Microsoft also plans to streamline the way WSUS detects whether the systems it manages require software updates.

WSUS 3.0 has been available in a "small focused beta," since January, and a more widespread beta 2 release of the product is scheduled for the second half of this year, Dadzie said. Also set for the last half of the year is a service pack update to WSUS 2.0, which will include support for Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system.

The WSUS software is useful to a limited group of Microsoft users who want more control of their software updates than they'd get from automatic update service that ships with Windows, and who are also unwilling to pay for Microsoft's SMS, said Peter Pawlak, a senior analyst with the Directions on Microsoft research firm.

"For any company that has a few IT people and more than 50 or 100 computers, it isn't that overwhelming to install and manage SMS," Pawlak said. "And if you're real small, you're probably just going to install automatic updates."