Microsoft's next server operating system doesn't appear revolutionary, but the final release will deliver a grab bag of goodies to users looking to ease management, network and security issues.
But it isn't all good news since Microsoft released in April the Beta 3 of Longhorn, now officially known as Windows Server 2008.
Gone from the planned final end of year release are highly touted virtualisation capabilities. Virtualisation was originally supposed to be baked into the server but will now ship separately within 180 days of its final release. On top of that, in May Microsoft cut three features from what is now called Windows Server Virtualisation, including a highly anticipated live migration option.
Even though users will have to wait for those capabilities, the Longhorn Beta 3 is feature complete, according to Microsoft, and comes with enough new features that IT executives will be forced to make a list of must-haves before they begin roll-outs.
Windows Server 2008 is focused on three primary areas: management, including Server Core technology; security, such as BitLocker drive encryption and Read-only Domain Controllers; and performance, including a redesigned TCP/IP stack.
It also represents the gateway into the world of 64-bit-only server operating systems from Microsoft. The R2 version of Windows Server 2008 scheduled to ship in 2009 won't include a 32-bit version. In addition, the server is the other half of Vista features such as Network Access Protection (NAP) and new Terminal Services features.
For IT architects at Quixtar, an online retailer of health and beauty products, year-end is too long to wait and the company, part of Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP), is running Windows Server 2008 in production.
In the coming weeks, Quixtar plans to double its Windows Server 2008 deployment from four to eight servers that are running Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0. Quixtar handles 99 percent of its traffic through its web servers and needs each one to be configured identically.
"IIS 7.0 allows us to define a configuration using an XML schema architecture so we know how each server is configured without a doubt," says Steve Cole, lead system support specialist for the company.
IIS 6.0 required that each server be configured independently, which meant Quixtar had to create customised checks and balances around its ISS 6.0 deployment.
"With IIS 7, there will not be human error," Cole says.
Cole also says IIS 7.0's Failed Request Tracking helps pinpoint errors in IIS and applications, and allows diagnosis while the software is still running. He says it has streamlined troubleshooting and dramatically reduced support calls to Microsoft.
In addition to IIS, Quixtar is focusing on Active Directory improvements around replication that help cut the time it takes the company to bring up a new directory server from eight days to less than four hours. Quixtar has nearly 3.5 million objects in its directory.
"This is our web directory and all our authentications and authorisations and all our apps that need a log-in go through Active Directory," says Matt Behrens, supervisor for IT infrastructure at Quixtar.
Like Quixtar, analysts say Longhorn's list of features will force other users to focus on the handful of capabilities most relevant to them.
"There are a lot of little things, it's a grab bag," says John Enck, an analyst with Gartner. "There are some good incremental improvements, but I still think Longhorn will trickle out into companies. I don't think there will be people lining up to get the software when it is released." Enck also cautions users that Microsoft could still pull features before final release as it has routinely done in the past with other products.
But what seems solid is a core of features starting with a modular deployment architecture, called Server Core, designed to make life easier for IT right out of the gate.
Server Core is made up of the Windows kernel and a set of infrastructure "roles" that install only the components needed for any of eight specific functions: Active Directory, Active Directory Lightweight Directory Services, DHCP, DNS, File, Print, Windows Media Services and Windows Server Virtualisation (when it ships).
The idea is to make deployment less complex and more secure by eliminating unneeded services and installing only the parts of the operating system needed for a specific workload.
Server Core is coupled with Server Manager, a management tool that provides a pre-built Microsoft Management Console that includes reference to each installed role and feature, and links to tools for diagnostics, configuration and storage.
Windows Server 2008 introduces Read-Only Domain Controllers (RODC), which are designed for branch offices to speed log-ons and reduce the exposure of the directory infrastructure to hackers or from physical theft of servers.
Experts say the combination of RODCs, Server Core, the new Encrypting File System (EFS) and BitLocker combine to offer dramatic security improvements for branch office deployments.
Windows Server 2008 also features Server Message Block (SMB) 2.0, a file sharing protocol that takes advantage of the new Transactional File System feature in the server and supports over-the-wire encryption of files.
The server also aligns with Vista including NAP, which checks the health of computers before letting them on the network, and Terminal Services enhancements including RemoteApp, which makes remote applications appear as though they are running locally.
Microsoft also has improved the scheduling and memory management capabilities to address the demands of multi-core processing.
"We have shifted to 64-bit in our core thinking and development," says Bill Laing, general manager of the Windows server division.
Vista and Longhorn also both support Microsoft's new remote access Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) that creates a VPN tunnel that travels over HTTPS.
Microsoft hopes SSTP will help reduce help desk support calls associated with IPSec VPNs when those connections get blocked by firewalls or routers. SSTP eliminates issues associated with VPN connections based on the Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol or Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol that can be blocked by some Web proxies, firewalls and network-address translation routers that sit between clients and servers.
Overall, Microsoft says the server should appeal to users on many levels.
"We think the uptake will be similar to Windows Server 2003; it rolled out pretty consistently across enterprises," Laing says. "We don't think there are any big barriers that are going to be holding people back."
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