Microsoft has unveiled more about what we can expect in the next version of Windows Server, aka Longhorn at its Professional Developers Conference 2005 yesterday.

At the same time, the company made available two new preview releases of forthcoming technology, including the latest build of the next version, which Microsoft called a Community Technology Preview (CTP) - in other words, it's aimed at developers.

New software
The two features pre-released were the first developer release of Internet Information Services (IIS) 7, which gives administrators and developers more control over applications on the server. Jeff Price, senior director for Windows Server, said Microsoft was eliminating a feature called metabase of IIS 7, which was "a big customer pain" because it was Microsoft's "proprietary way of controlling the settings" of IIS. Now, IT administrators and developers have more access of the way applications are deployed on IIS through a file called Web.config that they can control, he said. "They can control the Web server as well as from one location."

The second was the first beta of Windows Compute Cluster Solution, a version of the OS aimed at scientific and financial customers who need compute-intensive systems consisting of large server clusters. This is part of Microsoft's push into high-performance computing environments, areas where it's not been particularly successful, and where Unix rules. "The problem is a compute cluster solution has not been delivered by Microsoft [in the past]," said Microsoft senior VP Bob Muglia. "Our goal is to build a complete platform here. Compute Cluster allows people to build applications that scale across a large number of machines."

Strategic overview
Meanwhile, Muglia also outlined the strategic direction for Windows Server, and said that Microsoft was focusing on five other key areas.

The first is to split up the server product range so that each is a more targeted or solutions-oriented product. Second, to underpin applications with what he called an application platform via technology such as Web services, transactions and message queuing. Muglia described this as an end-to-end connected systems platform.

Third on the list was improving Windows' storage management, while fourth, Muglia said that the product should provide secure, policy-based access to information based on roles, regardless of location. This means people in branch offices or remote locations get the same level of access as those in HQ.

The final issue that Windows servers would address is the cost of management, such as providing automatic regulatory compliance - although details of how this might be accomplished were invisible.

Filling in the detail
Muglia filled in the detail of what this strategy means in terms of features in the forthcoming product.

First on that list is security, starting at install time. "When an IT administrator installs a new server role, the system will dynamically check for security updates for that particular role and make sure that the latest vulnerabilities are patched during installation", he said. The system will include a self-healing file system and transactional capabilities that will "allow system functions, applications and IT professionals to perform registry and file system operations in a transactional manner." In other words, changes can be rolled back in the event of errors.

In addition, Microsoft wants to improve the integration of the product's security features, such as Active Directory, Rights Management Services (RMS), Certificate Services, and the Identity Integration Feature Pack. He also said the company will add a new service to Active Directory, called a Security Token Service (STS). This will integrate authentication and authorisation so as to simplify access management, including allowing admins to provide more granular access control.

In the area of an connected system platform, a key technology is centralised application deployment and management so, when users connect to an application, they get the latest version of that application delivered to their desktop.

There will also be a new server management tool to provide administrators with a management portal for the server they are managing, so they can more easily select items to control, including server images which can be maintained and updated directly.

Longhorn Server will help protect the network edge by performing a health check on each machine that connects to ensure that it's up to date with patches, virus definitions and so on - third party tools currently perform this role on many enterprise networks.

Microsoft is also allowing administrators to give users access to remote desktop applications that look and act as if they are running locally without requiring a full VPN connection, using Terminal Services. The benefits include greater security.