Way back in early 2005, I wrote up a first preview of what would become Windows Server 2008. At this time, Windows Server 2003 R2 was still in beta, and Windows Vista, well, let's not go there. What's most interesting about Windows Server 2008, to me at least, is that even though this Server release has followed the lengthy trajectory of its ill-fated client counterpart, it has never been haunted by the same bad press. This is astonishing for a number of reasons.
First, if anything, Windows Server 2008 is even later to market than is Vista. Originally expected 6 to 9 months after Vista (or "in early 2007" as I cheerfully wrote in that first preview), Windows Server 2008 will now ship in February 2008, plus or minus a few weeks, or almost a year and a half after Vista. Credit the stunning ambivalence about this slip to the market which Windows Server 2008 serves: Businesses and enterprises are in no rush to upgrade anyway, and while the many improvements in this release are obvious and desirable, there are no "midnight madness" events for Server releases.
Too, though many seem to forget this, Server has shed as many features over the years as has Vista. Online pundits trip over each to kick Vista down for dropping or delaying supposedly key features like WinFS, the original Sidebar, and drag and drop slipstreaming, but the Server team has largely gotten a pass for delaying major features like Network Access Protection (NAP), which was originally expected in Windows 2003 R2, and Hyper-V (formerly Windows Server Virtualization), which will now ship sometime later in 2008. No one seems to care. The rationale here, I suppose, is pragmatic: While new functionality is desirable in business settings, each new feature also comes with an associated cost. I suspect that Microsoft's enterprise customers already have their hands full enough, such that the loss or delay of one major new feature--even if it takes a few years to implement--just kind of gets lost in the struggle. In the enterprise, you go to war with the OS you have.
The final piece of the puzzle, however, and the one that I think really frames this discussion, is that the team responsible for Windows Server is just far steadier and more focused than those previously responsible for Windows Vista and earlier client releases. This is a reflection of the product itself, of course: Server guys aren't prone to beating their chests and making lofty promises. Their work is successful only in the long view, when the systems they build stay up and running over long periods of time. There's no need or desire for a splashy launch. (The "Heroes Happen Here" event notwithstanding.) Their accolades, such as they are, are far less visible and demonstrative.
Now, with 2007 dwindling down to its final days, Microsoft has shipped the final major pre-release version of Windows Server 2008. This version, RC1 (release candidate 1), follows a stunningly spread-out series of milestones that date back to mid-2005, when the company shipped what was then called Longhorn Server Beta 1. Beta 2 followed almost a year later, in May 2006. Beta 3? Almost a year later, in April 2007. Since then, the Server team has been on a tear, shipping a number of CTP releases and, now, two release candidates.
Folks, this one is in the can. And there really isn't that much to say about it anymore, barring a lengthy upcoming review of the final shipping version. Since RC0 in late September, when Microsoft provided customers with the first public versions of Hyper-V and the Web Server role in Server Core, there really haven't been many changes. In fact, there's just one in RC1: Microsoft has integrated PolicyMaker Standard Edition and Policy Share Manager into the Group Policy (GP) management tools in Windows Server 2008 as Group Policy Preferences. (Client-side extensions for GP Preferences Versions will ship separately for Windows XP SP2/3, Vista RTM/SP1, and Windows Server 2003 SP1+ when Server 2008 launches.)
Disappointed? Don't be. Windows Server 2008 has been a mature platform for quite some time now, and I can't imagine we're going to see any other functional additions between now and the final release. See you at RTM.