Eighteen months after I first heard that Microsoft would ship an "R2" (release 2) version of Windows Server 2003, that product is finally ready for primetime. Scaled back significantly from Microsoft's original plan, Windows Server 2003 R2 enters the world this fall in somewhat less impressive standing, stripped of the features that would have made it a true blockbuster. But fear not, Windows Server fans. R2 continues Microsoft's strong tradition of solid Server releases and is the first product release to embody the company's oft-stated goals of predictability for its customers.
Those goals, incidentally, arose out of enterprise customer complaints. When the original Windows Server 2003 release took longer than expected (and, in an unrelated note, went through several identity changes), enterprise customers revolted. Well, maybe that's too strong a word, as these companies are, after all, among the most measured and careful institutions on earth. Let's just say they weren't happy. While many individuals--especially the computing enthusiasts with whom I feel most closely aligned--may revel in the up and down nature of operating system development, corporations have less radical goals, including uptime, compatibility, and reliability. They need systems that just work, and they need to be able to plan new software and hardware installs, upgrades, and migrations years in advance. When a new Windows Server release hits, these companies aren't hopping online to order upgrades on day one.
Microsoft's historically spazzy OS release schedule--really, how else can you describe it?--is the complete antithesis of what these companies were looking for. So, in late 2003, Microsoft reorganized around three basic organizations for Windows product line development. The newly separated Windows Server group was (and still is) run by Bob Muglia (see my interview with Mr. Muglia for details). And the first order of business was to settle on a predictable release schedule. Here's what they came up with.
Every four years, Microsoft will ship a major Windows Server release. The first such release was Windows Server 2003, which shipped in April 2003. The next one will be Longhorn Server, which is due in 2007. Two years after each major release, Microsoft plans to ship interim, or R2 ("release 2"), versions of the previous major release. The first of these releases, then, is Windows Server 2003 R2. I'll refer to this product as R2 during this review, but the R2 nomenclature is now being applied to a broad range of products. And there will, of course, be an R2 version of Longhorn Server (due, predictably, in 2009, about 12 to 18 months after the initial Longhorn Server release).
The major Windows Server releases will include major changes to the system, including kernel changes, and could thus introduce application incompatibilities when compared to the previous version. The interim, or R2, releases will not be based on new kernels and will not introduce incompatibility issues. They will replace the then-current major Windows Server release in the channel, and the R2 releases can be mixed and matched in existing environments without any issues. Furthermore, service packs and hot fixes will apply to both the current major release and its R2 update. So when Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) ships in 2006, it will apply to both Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 R2 versions. There is no need for separate service packs under the new maintenance scheme.
This plan is predictable. It's exactly what Microsoft's customers want. And this fall, for the first time, perhaps, Microsoft has actually adhered to an important product schedule. They've successfully completed the first product--Windows Server 2003 R2--released since this new roadmap was created. Let's take a look.