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RealTime IT News

Microsoft: May We Serve You?

Microsoft is putting the pedal to the metal to get client and server software development in synch.

But even better, the Redmond-based software vendor is finally sharing its server development roadmap with the rest of the world.

Unifying the server and client code and development will benefit customers, according to Rob Enderle, analyst and founder of research firm Enderle Group. Even though most enterprises don't change out their servers and desktops at the same time, due to labor constraints, customers like knowing the products are on the shelf waiting for them.

"It's probably best they keep these things linked because it provides the greatest amount of latitude," he said. "It's your choice, and they're not gating your deployment."

Microsoft told analysts in a conference call Friday that it will move to a two-year release cycle, with major releases and updates alternating. In other words, any major release, such as Longhorn, will be followed in two years by an update release, which in turn will be followed in two years by the next major release.

"This schedule will really help both Microsoft and customers to maintain things," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm. "You'll be able to have a single Service Pack that applies both to client and server, something they lost when they split XP from 2003."

The Windows Server release roadmap calls for several releases in 2004: Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1, Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit Extended Systems and additional Feature Packs.

Service Pack 1 will contain significant security enhancements, offer a 10 percent performance improvement for some functions, and provide a basis for the 64-bit extended systems release to come. The 64-bit release will run most existing 32-bit applications, the company said, with better performance.

According to Samm DiStasio, a group product manager in the Windows Server division, industry-standard 64-bit chips from partners Intel and AMD combined with the availability of 64-bit Windows Server 2003 will make it cheaper and easier for customers to move to 64-bit computing.

Expect a Windows Server 2003 Update in 2005, Service Pack 2 in 2006 and Windows Server Longhorn in 2007, with an Update and Service Pack in 2008.

The update, code-named R2, will build on SP2 with secure information access, identity federation, security for wired and wireless networks and virtual private networks, and Windows Rights Management Services for e-mail and document protection. Software Assurance customers will get R2 free under the program.

The newfound clarity doesn't extend to licensing, unfortunately, Helm said. Microsoft told the analysts today that installing R2 doesn't restart the support clock; therefore, Software Assurance customers who are updating from Windows Server 2003 will only have three more years of full support. And, while R2 is free to SA customers, Microsoft hasn't divulged whether it will charge for client access licenses to go along with it.

"Normally when you upgrade the server, you have to upgrade CALs as well," Helm said. "Does R2 count as a version or not?"

In addition to the two Feature Packs already shipped this year, Microsoft will release Server Performance Advisor and Virtual Server 2005. After this year's Feature Pack releases, Microsoft will eliminate these confusing special feature packages in favor of regular Updates that will have all the extended functions and flavors in one package.

"From Microsoft's perspective, it's a good idea," Helm said. "It might help make all of these great new features a lot more visible to people." He said many customers aren't even aware of all the specialized Feature Packs, or don't understand the value. The Updates will come with features switched off; administrators can use an interface to decide which ones to turn on.

At least the new clarity on the release schedule gives some solidity to customers' upgrade concerns. They now at least know the questions to ask. Such as, "Should I continue to trudge along with Windows 2000 until Longhorn ships in 2007?"

There's one big problem with that idea, Enderle said: buffer overruns. "Some of the biggest viruses we've had to date have exploited that, and it will only get worse." And the only way to prevent these attacks for sure are by moving to hardware that supports NX, the hardware-enforced data execute protection that Microsoft is developing with Intel and AMD.

Enderle said the ideal plan for enterprises would be to upgrade to hardware that supports XP in the second half of this year, then update the software to Longhorn when they're good and ready.

"You shouldn't have to replace the hardware again," he said. "You move to Longhorn in 2007 or 2008, when they give you a compelling reason. By that time, we're talking about Longhorn 2."

But IT departments may not have the money for that scenario, according to Enderle. "Because no body knew this was coming, nobody set the budgets," he said.

The question for Microsoft becomes, can it keep to its schedule? Analysts point out that Windows 2003 Server was way off schedule, pushed out by development hassles with XP.

"Right now, the situation is that Service Pack 2 might show up this summer, and Windows Server Service Pack could be significantly later, even though they're basically doing the same things," said Helm. "Essentially, they felt they had to get XP out, and they just couldn't get all the server bits put together in time."

Helm said that might be the case with Win FS, the Longhorn database-like file system that will help users keep track of multiple media and file types. While Longhorn Server will support Avalon, the graphics system, at least for terminals, Microsoft is not sure about Win FS. Although it might not be accurate to say that Win FS has been scaled back in Longhorn Server, Helm said, according to Microsoft, "It's possible that Win FS won't have caught up to NTFS in time for Longhorn Server." For example, Longhorn users might not be able to access files over a network or reciprocate files from server to client.

Despite all the press speculation about the Longhorn schedule, DiStasio said, "Customers have stated a much higher interest in knowing about Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 and Windows Server 2003 codename R2, both of which help them in the near term."