Microsoft has announced it will release the first service pack for Windows Server 2003 by the end of the year - a welcome change from the endless delays of Microsoft products of late.

The software giant claims that 2005 will be a "breakout year" for its server operating systems. It will also ship an SDK for the High Performance Computing version of Windows Server in November.

Amidst the usual bug and security fixes, a new feature in SP1 will be a Security Configuration Wizard, designed to help administrators define or redefine a specific role for a server, or a collection of servers that all do the same thing.

"This utility can allow you to go in on a policy basis and turn off protocols, services, and features at a much more granular level than you can today. The cool thing about the wizard is once you have configured a very specific role for a server, you can take that XML-based configuration and use policy or another distribution method to do it to hundreds of servers that fit that same role," said Samm DiStasio, a manager of Microsoft's Windows Server products.

The other bug and security fixes in SP1 address many of the same problems that were addressed in the mammoth Windows XP Service Pack 2, although some of the security fixes in SP1 are tailored to address "server-specific functions", DiStasio said.

In preliminary testing, DiStasio and other company officials said there have been marked performance gains including a 50 percent performance improvement in SSL workloads and a 17 percent gain in running 32-bit data base applications.

As part of the announcement Microsoft also said it remains on track to deliver Windows Update Services by the end of the first half of 2005, the first beta for which is expected in November, along with a version of Windows Server 2003 with 64-bit support. And still on track for delivery by the end of 2005 is the High Performance Computing edition of Windows Server 2003, Release 2 of the Windows Storage Server, and the first solid beta of the server version of Longhorn. So at least the delays will be met.

Taking out its marketing drum, Microsoft said that sales of Windows Server 2003 have now surpassed those of its Windows NT4 server base, and that new deployments of the server have grown by 375 percent. Company officials quoted market researcher IDC as predicting that Windows Server 2003 will overtake all other versions of Windows by the end of 2005.

Researchers at IDC acknowledged the fast uptake of Windows Server 2003, but said some of its success is tied to the company's priority for fixing and updating the product at the expense of others and some users who are locked into volume licensing deals.

"We are seeing a swifter than normal transition to Windows 2003, but this could be attributed to a number of things. Microsoft does seem to be delivering security and service patches to Windows 2003 while other products are not getting them. Some users are getting concerned about that. Another reason is some users are under contract to accept it as part of their Select Agreement," said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president in charge of system software research at IDC.