Note: This review has been updated for the final release of Windows Server 2003.

Joining several colleges from Windows & .NET Magazine at a late June 2002 Reviewer's Workshop for Windows Server 2003 near Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, I received an almost mind-numbingly technical overview to the vast array of new features in the company's next server operating system. After this barrage of information, subsequent meetings with Microsoft, and months of work with Windows Server 2003, one thing is clear: Windows Server has grown up dramatically since the early NT days, and it now scales up to the most scalable and advanced hardware on the planet.

It wasn't always that way. Early versions of NT Server met with much market resistance, mostly because of the system's poor performance and low-end aspirations. So it wasn't until the release of Windows 2000 Server in February 2000 that Microsoft had a credible enterprise solution. "Windows NT 4 was all about small teams of people," said Cliff Reeves, Microsoft's Vice President of Product Management for Windows Server 2003. "Windows 2000 was focused on being a robust OS suitable for the data center. Windows Server improves on Windows 2000 and NT and introduces developer and application server capabilities. It's the tip of the iceberg for what's coming in the future on the server."

Name games

Windows Server 2003 wasn't the original name for this product family. Here are the other names Microsoft publicly touted.

January 2000: Code-name "Whistler Server"
April 30, 2001: Windows 2002 Server
June 19, 2001: Windows .NET Server
August 27, 2002: Windows .NET Server 2003
January 9, 2003: Windows Server 2003

Windows Server 2003 began life in late December 1999 alongside what became Windows XP as part of "Whistler," the Windows OS project that Microsoft started in the wake of the failed "Odyssey" and "Neptune" projects. However, after the Beta 2 releases of XP and Whistler Server in February 2001, Microsoft forked the two products and set them on separate development paths. XP was eventually finalized in August 2001 and released that October. Windows Server 2003, originally scheduled for late 2001, has been delayed several times since the Beta 3 release last fall (See my review of Beta 3). The product is now set for an April 2003 launch.

Windows Server 2003 Overview

Windows Server 2003 is so vast, so--dare I say it--rich, that it's hard to summarize quickly. Indeed, Microsoft is still grappling with the problem of describing Windows Server 2003 accurately to its customers. Reeves might have put it best when he told us that Windows Server 2003 was "a bloody good Windows 2000 version. That?s the basic Zen of what it is. It's all the things we learned, all the ideas encapsulated in a whole series of improvements. It's more secure, more manageable, more performance, more scalable. It's a kick ass Windows 2000 upgrade."

Clearly, Reeves is right. But Windows Server 2003 is also like death by a thousand small cuts: One just doesn't know where to begin, and it's easy to get lost in all the confusion of new features. In a general sense, Windows Server 2003 is simply Microsoft's latest and greatest attempt to scale what had been a departmental and workgroup server ever higher into the domain of Big Iron and high-end UNIX. And if you can accept that Windows 2000 finally put Microsoft on the enterprise map, it's not a big leap to see that Windows Server 2003 may finally overcome what little perceived advantage the competition might still have. "We want to bring PC economics to the data center," Reeves said. "We will bring the costs down, make it less expensive to acquire and manage technology, and hack away at the high cost parts of today's data center. We talk to customers about dropping the cost of managing and deploying infrastructure. Windows is seen as an inevitability in the data center now. We have bigger machines, better technology, and higher scale. The key to Windows' value is its incredible focus on the value side. What do you do above that level makes people more productive."

OK, so what do you get with Windows Server 2003? First, you're getting the results of two and a half years of improvements over Windows 2000, and the benefits of customer feedback from both NT 4 and 2000. Bill Veghte, the Corporate Vice President of Windows Server Management at Microsoft, told us that the company looked at tens of thousands of customer inputs and drove improvements based on that feedback into the product.

"Windows Server 2003 is a kick ass Windows 2000 upgrade."

-Cliff Reeves
Vice President of Product Management, Windows Server 2003

Windows Server 2003 includes technology to accelerate server and Active Directory (AD) deployments, dramatically improved migration tools (especially for NT upgraders), a best-of-breed (if poorly defined) application server, a new Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), improved file and print services, task- and role-based management tools, numerous security improvements including various feature lock-downs, dramatic performance improvements when compared to Windows 2000 Server on the same hardware, a Volume Shadow Copies feature that stores file snapshots, and enhancements to virtually every subsystem imaginable, including Windows Media Services, IIS, Terminal Services, and the like. The list goes on and on, and I'll try to cover the highlights later in this review. But Bill Veghte provided the following list of his favorite 12 features, which is a decent summary:
  1. IIS 6. "It's a big step forward."
  2. The .NET platform. "It's the most productive Web services platform available.
  3. Windows Media Services. "This one will surprise some people. It's great for training scenarios, but not yet ready for small businesses."
  4. Terminal Services. "The next best thing to being there, with session management and new redirection capabilities."
  5. Volume Shadow Copies and Shadow Copy Restore. "Provides administrator and user level data recovery."
  6. Storage management. "Storage Area Network (SAN) participation, interfaces for backup, Virtual Disk Services (VDS)."
  7. Management. "More servers, less effort."
  8. Performance and scalability. "It's a major leap forward, and we've got some big numbers to show you."
  9. Highest availability and reliability yet. "It's critical to advance this, as big as the move from NT 4 to 2000."
  10. Security. "Windows Server 2003 is secure out of the box and stays that way."
  11. Active Directory. "More power, less pain. Easier to deploy and operate, and migrations from NT 4 are easier. Cross forest transitive trust, and more."
  12. The easiest way to achieve pervasive secure network access. "This is a big deal. Lots of plumbing work has to be done."

That last one, incidentally, caused some puzzled looks. Veghte was talking about federation, a new Microsoft buzz word used to describe user authentication across disparate systems. Federation basically became a hot topic when Microsoft's partners rejected the Passport centralized user database strategy called .NET My Services and asked the company to instead develop server products that would let them keep their customer and user data in-house. Federated servers will eventually permit external authentication so that enterprises can interoperate with other companies. Microsoft announced this strategy, code-named TrustBridge, in June 2002 and expects to roll out a corresponding server product of some sort in 2003 (See my WinInfo article for more information).

Windows Server 2003 Server Family Members

Windows Server 2003 is available in a much wider range of products than was Windows 2000 Server. The mainstream 32-bit products include:

Windows Server 2003, Web Edition

Optimized solely for serving and hosting Web pages, Windows Server 2003, Web Edition supports 2 processors and up to 2 GB of RAM. Web Edition supports the .NET Framework, IIS 6, ASP.NET, Network Load Balancing (NLB), IPv6, Distributed File System (Dfs), Encrypting File System (EFS), Shadow Copy Restore, Print Services for UNIX, IntelliMirror, Resultant Set of Policy (RSoP), Windows Instrumentation Management (WMI) command line features, Remote OS installation (but not RIS), Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), and Remote Desktop. Web Edition can be a member server in an Active Directory (AD) domain, but cannot be a domain controller, and thus lacks much of the management infrastructure found in the other editions.


Web Server Edition is fairly limited and doesn't include
many of the management tools found in the other editions.

Windows Server 2003, Standard Edition

The core product for small and medium-sized businesses, Windows Server 2003, Standard Edition also supports 2 processors, but can handle up to 4 GB of RAM. Standard Edition includes all of the technologies in Web Edition, plus Enterprise UDDI Services, Internet Authentication Services (IAS), removable and remote storage, Fax Service, Services for Macintosh, Remote Installation Services (RIS), Windows Media Services (WMS), Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), Certificate Services, Smart Card support, and Terminal Services.

Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition

Targeted as the new high volume Windows Server product, Enterprise Edition supports 4-8 processors, 32 GB of RAM, and up to 8-node clusters. A 64-bit version with different specifications is also available (see below). Enterprise Edition is a superset of Standard Edition, adding Metadirectory Services Support (MMS) and Terminal Services Session Directory features, and support for hot-add memory and Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA).

Windows Server 2003, Datacenter Edition

Microsoft's performance champion is aimed at the upper end of the market, with exclusive availability and scalability enhancements. Datacenter Edition supports 8 to 32 microprocessors, 64 GB of RAM, and up to 8-node clusters. A 64-bit version with different specifications is also available (see below). Datacenter is functionally equivalent to Enterprise Edition, though it lacks the Metadirectory Services Support (MMS) and Internet Connection Firewall features, but of course adds support for the Datacenter Program (DCP).

64-Bit Windows Server Editions

In June 2001, Microsoft began offering a limited distribution Windows Server 2003 Edition dubbed Windows Advanced Server, Limited Edition (WASLE). WASLE is a 64-bit product designed to take advantage of the first generation Itanium platform, or IA-64, which also shipped last summer, and Microsoft has recently shipped an upgrade that targets Itanium 2. This product will be superceded by Windows Server 2003, 64-bit Enterprise Edition and Windows Server 2003, 64-bit Datacenter Edition in April 2003, and both versions will support the Itanium and Itanium 2 processors. Enterprise-64 supports up to 64 GB of RAM, 8 processors, and up to 8-node clusters. Datacenter-64 supports 512MB to 256 GB of RAM (though most systems will probably be physically constrained to 128 GB initially), 8 to 32 processors, and 8-node clusters. Interestingly, the 32-processor limit on Datacenter-64 is pretty artificial, since 32-proc machines are currently only in the planning stages. But Microsoft says it could easily scale Datacenter-64 beyond 32 processors if the hardware was there today.

The 64-bit products, of course, will see fairly limited deployments during the Windows Server 2003 product lifetime, thanks to the ever-scaling capabilities and performance of the IA-32 (x86) platform and the high prices on 64-bit hardware solutions. But getting the 64-bit products out there is an important step for Microsoft, because that market will someday surpass the 32-bit products. "Eventually everything will be 64-bit," Brian Valentine, the Senior Vice President of Microsoft's Windows Division told me. "The computing world will move there over time. But it's going to take many, many years."

Windows Server 2003 Features

While I'm going to wait for some hands-on time with Windows Server Release Candidate 1 (RC1) before providing feedback about my experience with the product, I will at least address the broad strokes of new functionality you can expect. "Our vision for the server is that it is a foundation for connecting people, technology and businesses," Veghte said. "It is a platform for developing, deploying, and operating applications and services that federate seamlessly and scale without limits."

Here are some of the major new features in Windows Server 2003.

Abilities

OK, the abilities term is buzzword-friendly enough to be trying at times, but there's some truth to it. As Microsoft is so fond of pointing out, its server products are continually improving in reliability, availability, scalability, and manageability, though I'll cover that one a bit later, as well as interoperability. The idea is that Windows Server needed to be improved enough in these areas to be accepted into the data center, and while Windows 2000 got them a foot in the door, Windows Server 2003 will, theoretically at least, break the door down completely. One imagines Sun administrators running for cover. Well, Brian Valentine does anyway. Having met the man now, I'm sure of it.

Reliability

"Customers have two key questions," said Jim Livingston, the Lead Program Manager for Windows Datacenter Server. "First, is Windows really ready for mission critical work? And secondly, how can I determine why there is downtime so I don't have reboot and just hope it doesn?t happen again?" To tackle these problems, Microsoft looked at the downtime statistics for Windows 2000. According to Livingston, 76 percent of Win2K downtime is planned, while 24 percent is unplanned.

To handle the top two downtime issues--OS upgrade/Service Pack/Hot-fix and OS reconfiguration, Microsoft made core feature changes to Windows Server 2003. Most OS upgrades, including QFE/Hot-fixes, will no longer require a server reboot. Furthermore, Microsoft now supports the ability to chain QFEs so that you can install them in a single step, again without the need to reboot. The number one remaining cause of the so-called Blue Screen of death (BSOD), or more simply, blue screen--which, admittedly, is fairly rare on Windows 2000 systems--was removed via improvement to the driver verifier, which has been completely reengineered. And new problem tracking technologies--including a Shutdown Event Tracker--provide proactive help to figure out why the system is being rebooted and what can be done to prevent it. Microsoft is including its Reliability Service--previously used only in-house--in Windows Server 2003 so that customers can optionally gather reliability data from their servers, analyze the data, and obtain a reliability and availability report.

Availability

Technically, even the more reliable server is of no use if clients can't access it. So Windows Server 2003s must be available as well. Availability is achieved through clustering and failover technologies, of course, and problem avoidance techniques. Clustering has been improved from 4 nodes in Win2K to 8 nodes in this release. But clustering is also easier to set up than before, thanks to friendly wizards and proactive tools that will sense when a cluster is improperly configured and correct any problems.

Windows Server 2003 implements fault tolerance features through memory mirroring support, ensuring that no memory failure will bring down the system; Hot Plug PCI technology for adding PCI cards without shutting down the server; Hot Add Memory, for adding memory (but not removing it; that will be implemented in Longhorn); load balancing and failover; and multi-path IO for storage. Windows Server 2003's support for Storage Area Networks (SANs) is also improved, and its now possible to implement a SAN-based file system without drive letters.

Scalability

The Windows scalability challenge remains unchanged from Windows 2000: Microsoft wants Windows computers to be the top performing computers in the world. And make no mistake about the company's goals for world domination: It wants Windows Server to win every single performance benchmark. But with Win2K, there were still two major customer concerns: They wanted more hardware choices on the very high end, and wanted proof that Windows could scale as high as UNIX.

To address these concerns, Windows Server 2003 supports up to 256 GB of RAM, and technologies such as hyperthreading and NUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Architecture), which allows Windows Servers to be partitioned like a mainframe. More importantly for most Microsoft customers, perhaps, is that the 32-bit products can work in systems with up to 32 processors. "And we can move forward from 32-proc support," Livingston said. "That's a limitation of today's hardware, not Windows."

"Interoperability is the key to surviving and thriving. It's a big change for Microsoft. We used to ask customers to throw everything else out."

-Barry Goffe
Group Manager for Enterprise Marketing Strategy

A new Windows Resource Manager (WRM)--available only on Datacenter--lets you run want to run more than one Line Of Business (LOB) application on a 32-way server, and create rules about which services are most important, giving them processor and RAM priority. By default, WRM evens off processor time by default between running apps. But typically, you will want to determine how much time each application gets. So you can create policies, schedule them on a calendar (so, for example, you might have a daytime policy or dynamically changing policies) and fire changes based on events.

Interoperability

Historically, Microsoft has had a pretty weak interoperability story, due largely to the omnipresent mentality that all the machines in every network would be running Windows. However, the company now embraces the notion that heterogeneous platforms will interoperate using Web services and open standards such as XML and SOAP. So Windows Server 2003 is the first Microsoft server OS to fully embrace this new vision. "Interoperability is the key to surviving and thriving," said Barry Goffe, the Group Manager for Enterprise Marketing Strategy. "It's a big change for Microsoft. We used to ask customers to throw everything else out."

As noted previously, Microsoft's interoperability story revolves almost solely around Web services, and of course, the company is working to get its .NET technologies as widely adopted as possible.

Also, in the event that this isn't obvious, the 32-bit and 64-bit Windows Server 2003 products are completely interoperable. The systems don't appear differently on a network in any way.

Security

Microsoft security may be an oxymoron today, but the company is undergoing a dramatic change in the way it approaches security, and Windows Server 2003 will be the first major OS release from the company that was produced in the wake of its Trustworthy Computing code review, which occurred in February-March 2002. "Windows Server is secure by design, secure by default, and secure in deployment," Veghte said.

Windows Server 2003 includes a secure VPN gateway, a new secure wireless standard called 802.1x, and a standards-based TCP/IP infrastructure, including support for DNS, DHCP, NAT, and IPv6.

"If you're not secure, you're not a player," said Praerit Garg, the Group Program Manager for Windows Security. Garg highlighted the secure defaults in Windows Server 2003, which provide a significantly reduced attack surface: IIS 6 is not enabled by default, and over 20 other services are now turned off by default, when compared to Windows 2000. Microsoft reduced the privileges for some services, including NetworkService and LocalService. There are stronger ACL and policy default settings, and blank password attacks have been eliminated. That is, no network authentication is provided for accounts with blank passwords.


The Web Server Security Lockdown Wizard has actually
been replaced since this build. Why? Because IIS is
locked down before you even run the wizard.

To protect systems after deployment, a new Software Restriction Policies (SRP) feature lets administrators determine which applications can--and can not--execute in their environment. Windows Server 2003 also supports Smartcard technologies, so that admins can logon with a normal account but swipe the card when they need to perform secure administrative tasks under admin privileges.

Locking down IIS and other services was eye-opening, the company says. "The first thing we discovered when we locked down the server was that no applications worked," Brian Valentine told us. "They needed IIS or whatever. It was definitely a compatibility issue. But we learned a lot by locking down the server. Our general vision--the focus on general purpose computing OSes--is deployment-specific. As you install it, you can choose the mode you want to run in and we will configure it for you as well as we can. But we want it to be secure by default, and if you mess with something, you should be told about it: 'This is the risk. This is the exposure are you taking.' The system will get that knowledgeable, but the couplings between system behaviors need to be tightened up first."

Communications and Networking

Even Microsoft's earliest server products, of course, offered various communications and networking technologies. But with the ever-increasing importance of the Internet and interoperability, Windows Server 2003 has been enhanced to support the latest communications technologies, including IPv6, network bridging and Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), IPSec, NAT transversal, IP over Firewire, and so on.

One of the Windows Server 2003 communications goals was inspired by the way Microsoft employees often work from home. "Remote access is so common now that all previous dial-up users are now using VPN (Virtual Private Networking) at Microsoft, said Windows Server Group Product Manager Ron Cully. "There's also a lot in Windows Server 2003 to address how wireless network access works."

Active Directory

Microsoft's move to Active Directory (AD) directory services in Windows 2000 has met with mixed results, though most customers agree that AD is surprisingly full-featured for a 1.0 product. In Windows Server 2003, the goal for AD is refinement, and to ensure that they get it right, 240 of Microsoft's 250 domain controllers are already running Windows Server 2003 beta code (fun fact: The other 10 are using Windows 2000 for interoperability testing reasons only).

The main complaint from Win2K AD was that it could be easier to deploy, so Microsoft has built a number of tools that ease AD deployment. Upgrading to Windows Server 2003 AD is a simple in-place upgrade from Win2K, and can be as simple under NT 4 if you've already worked to clean up your NT 4 domain. If not, Windows Server 2003 includes the Active Directory Migration Tool (ADMT) 2.0 to ease the process. New cross-forest trust, domain rename, and schema reversal features address other common complaints.

From a management standpoint, AD includes numerous UI improvements, including drag and drop capabilities, multiple object selection and editing, saved queries, and other refinements. A full suite of AD-based command line tools are also available for command line junkies and scripting purposes.

Management

Technically, manageability is one of the many abilities that Microsoft likes to tout in Windows Server 2003. But management is so fundamental to the server that I've broken it out separately here. In Windows Server 2003, Microsoft has identified several "pillars" of manageability, including:

Easier deployment and configuration

Windows Server 2003 now supports Remote Installation Services (RIS) for the rapid installation of a small number servers; this feature was previous available only on Windows desktop systems. New Manage Your Server and Configure Your Server wizards simplify the process of assigning server roles, a new concept for this release: You might configure a server to be a file server, print server, Web server, and so on, and can easily assign multiple roles where appropriate.


The new Manage Your Server wizard assists in assigning
 server roles, which is handy and easy to use.

Staying up to date and secure

Windows Server 2003 supports Software Update Services (SUS, formerly Windows Update Corporate) and AutoUpdate, to ensure that servers are kept up-to-date, and automatically. The new Software Restriction Policies (SRP) feature creates a virtual sandbox that prevents unauthorized code execution. SRP is policy-based.


This nifty dialog--also available in XP SP1--lets you
auto-download critical bug fixes and then auto-install them.
It's about time.

Managing many as one

A new Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) provides a scriptable interface for managing group policies. The GPMC is an MMC snap-in built onto those interfaces and designed directly from customer feedback. Microsoft says that GPMC will not be included in the final RTM version of Windows Server 2003, but will ship soon thereafter as a separate, but free, Web download. One nice feature of this tool is its integration with Resultant Set of Policies (RSoP), which lets admins generate reports to view what policies have been applied to specific users and machines, and test policy changes before implementing them live.

Enable richer administrative control and flexibility

"We wanted to give administrators more control," said Michael Dennis, the Lead Program Manager of the Windows Server Management Group. "There was just a lot of stuff we didn't think of originally. But customers were asking for more command line tools, headless server mode, task-based administration tools, command line access to WMI (Windows Management Infrastructure), and emergency server access, which lets you access the server when the keyboard and mouse won't work. We implemented all of this in Windows Server."

File System and Storage

Windows Server 2003 includes various improvements to the NTFS file system and storage subsystem. David Golds, the Group Program Manager for the Core File System Team, says that his favorite new feature is Volume Shadow Copies. Essentially a network-based System Restore feature, Volume Shadow Copies lets you access older versions of files on the network after they've been changed or deleted. "It's the largest single bet in Windows Server 2003," Golds said. "We create a permanent or temporary volume representing a snapshot of an existing volume at a certain point in time, and then freeze that point in time, and let you come back to it. It's not arbitrary." The Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) required for this feature represents the first time Microsoft has created a backup framework, one that can be extended by third parties.

Other file system and storage improvements include deep SAN support, Virtual Disk Service (VDS, for abstracting RAID systems), Automated System Recovery (ASR, which debuted in XP), command line disk defragging that now supports any cluster size (Windows 2000 supported only 4K clusters), a dramatically enhanced Check Disk (Microsoft reports over 1000 percent improvement), and dramatic improvements in the scalability of the NTFS file system.

Terminal Server

To improve Terminal Server (previously Terminal Services), Windows Server 2003 will ship with Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) 5.2, an upgrade to the RDP 5.1 version that shipped in Windows XP. Terminal Server, as before, supports two modes: A single user mode for administration purposes, and a multi-user mode for full Terminal Server functionality, where users are accessing a desktop or specific applications remotely. Windows Server 2003 also supports the Remote Assistance functionality from XP.


The new Remote Desktops tool makes it easy to manage multiple
TS sessions.

New to this release are file redirection, high color support, resolutions up to 1600x1200, a cleaner user interface, enhanced management through WMI and Group Policies, better scalability, and a new Remote Desktop Client, which supports execution of remote desktops within a window, an IE browser, or the MMC. XP users working off of a Windows Server 2003-based Terminal Server will also get a handy auto-reconnect feature.

Windows Media Services 9 Series

One of the most exciting advances in Windows Server 2003 is its integrated Windows Media Services (WMS) Series 9 server, code-named Corona Server. WMS 9 Series features a new Fast Streaming feature and dynamic content programming, and will work with prior Windows Media Player versions, but better with the upcoming Windows Media 9 Series Player. Note that WMS is included in the Standard, Enterprise, and Datacenter editions of Windows Server 2003, but not as part of Web Server Edition. Windows Server 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter Editions include unique WMS features such as cache/proxy server support and multicast content delivery.

Application Server

Despite the fact that Microsoft's application server is one of the most often-used parts of Windows Server, it's an ill-defined and misunderstood component. John Montgomery, the Group Product Manager of the Developer Platform and Evangelism Group, says that application server integration with Windows Server began in 1997, when the company shipped the NT 4.0 Option Pack. At the time, integrating an application server with the OS seemed foolish to certain analysts, but now everyone is doing it: Sun and HP both ship their app server products in the box with their UNIX OSes.

So what is the Windows Server 2003 application server, you might ask? Montgomery said that it's a role, not a product. It provides the middle-tier application services that historically have been handled by COM+, Microsoft Message Queue (MSMQ) and IIS. However, in Windows Server 2003, the application server has been expanded to include the .NET Framework and its support for ASP .NET, ADO .NET, and related technologies. Essentially, it's that portion of the OS that lets Windows Server act as the middle tier of a multi-tier application and services infrastructure.

Windows Server 2003 ships with .NET Framework 1.1, SOAP 1.2, COM+ 1.5, and MSMQ 3.0 (which now supports SOAP messages).

Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0

IIS 6.0 is the poster child for Windows Server 2003 security: The server ships with IIS disabled by default for the first time, and when users do manually install this feature, its several handicapped by default. According to Andrew Cushman, the IIS Group Product Manager, this situation will prevent enterprises from exposing themselves to risk when installing Windows Server 2003. "IIS 6 is locked down and more secure than previous versions," Cushman said. "It's locked down by default, and not installed by default. IIS 6 will serve only static content by default when installed, and it runs on a lower privilege account than before. We have more secure default settings, include no sample code, have more aggressive limits and timeouts, and stronger ACLs."

From a features standpoint, the coolest new feature is IIS' new XML-based metabase, which can be edited live, so when you make a change, it happens immediately without requiring the server to be restarted. And because it's XML, you can use any XML-based tool to make the edits if you'd like. "It's text-based, so you can open it in any text editor," Cushman said.

Performance in IIS 6 has also been improved dramatically. According to Microsoft, IIS 6 offers roughly twice the performance of IIS 5 one the same two processor hardware, and 2.5 times the performance on four processors. New to this release is the concept of "Web Gardens," collections of small, single-purpose Web servers that scale by simply adding new machines.

Looking Forward

Microsoft delivered Windows Server 2003 Release Candidate 1 (RC1) in late July, and RC2 in December 2002. The company then completed the product development in late March 2003 and will launch the product April 24, 2003. But the completion of Windows Server 2003 will only trigger a new round of enterprise server products from Microsoft, all of which will be "infused" with support for XML Web services. Goffe said that future versions of the Windows Server family, the .NET Enterprise Servers, Windows desktop versions, and even Microsoft Office will be largely reworked around this concept.

The next Windows Server version will include support for Intel's 64-bit Itanium family, of course, but it will also support 2-4 other 64-bit platforms, including AMD's Opteron, said Brian Valentine. "We will only support high volume 64-bit platforms," he said, alluding to problems Microsoft had supporting alternative architectures such as the MIPs and PowerPC on NT 4. "We will support them fully with key enterprise applications. There may be a slight lag time after the x86-64 release [of these applications], but we will support [the new platforms]." Valentine wouldn't elaborate on which 64-bit platforms Microsoft was currently evaluating.

Longhorn--the next Windows client release--will also feature more managed code. "The goal is that everything in the future will be managed code," Valentine said. "[Longhorn] will have lots of managed code in key areas, including the shell. But there is a lot of work to do before we move to all-managed code. Office is a big code base that is not managed, though [the Office team] is moving there. The next Office version will have lots of legacy code but more in each release will be managed."

Other upcoming server products include Exchange 2003 ("Titanium", due in June 2003) and SQL Server "Yukon," which will ship in late 2003. Note that Exchange Server 2000 will not install on Windows Server 2003, so customers will need to upgrade to Titanium if they wish to use Exchange on Windows Server 2003. Yukon, however, is arguably Microsoft's most important post-Windows Server 2003 release, since it will be used as the basis for future file system, Active Directory, and Exchange Server products. "SQL Server is the anchor of next to Windows Server 2003," Goffe told us. "It's the largest revenue server, well over a $1 billion dollar business. In Yukon, we'll add deep XML and SOAP integration, .NET CLR integration, and include the Visual Studio development environment so database programmers don't have to learn two environments." Yukon will also feature enhanced self management and self tuning features.

Pricing

Regarding the cost of Windows Server 2003, Brian Valentine told us last summer to expect pricing to be in line with the price of the various Windows 2000 Server family members, and indeed, the company ultimately decided to keep the price identical to that of Windows 2000. "Given the environment of late, and the fact that people perceive us as being bad people, we're not going to add fuel to the fire," he said. "You can assume that the pricing will be about the same as Windows 2000. There are still a lot of NT 4 boxes out there, and we want to get them all to Windows Server 2003. We want all Windows 2000 users to upgrade. And Sun's customers too. We're going to ask why they're on that expensive architecture."

Conclusions

Windows Server 2003 is a surprisingly full-featured release, but because it builds on the strong base of Windows 2000 Server, it will be a simple in-place upgrade for those customers. Thanks to its new upgrade features, it should also prove to be a simpler upgrade for the large crowd of NT 4.0 Server holdouts, though we'll have to test that functionality before passing final judgment.

My recommendation for this release is based largely on your requirements. Existing Windows 2000 Server customers should skip Windows Server 2003 unless it provides some important specific functionality that is unavailable in the prior release (for example, merging companies can take advantage of the cross-forest trust and domain renaming features in order to avoid costly and time-consuming domain rebuilding). NT 4.0 Server users should carefully evaluate this release and strongly consider upgrading to Windows Server 2003.

In part two of my review, I take a look at Windows Server in the real world.