Compared to the Whistler client releases, which became known as Windows XP back in February, the Whistler Server beta has been relatively quiet for a long time. Whistler Server hit Beta 2 in late March alongside Windows XP, when Microsoft noted that the two product lines would then follow different development paths. In late April, Microsoft announced that the Whistler Server products would be marketed as Windows 2002 Server, though Group Vice President Jim Allchin remarked at the time that, "the fat lady hasn't sung yet." And he was right: After much debate, the company finally decided to rename the product Windows .NET Server, and Bill Gates made the announcement during his Tech Ed keynote in late June.

The oft-delayed Beta 3 release was originally expected when Windows XP hit RC1. Then with RC2. Then with XP's RTM. None of these dates were met, and November 1 became the target date. Finally, I caught word that "mid-November" was a more likely timeframe, and Microsoft corroborated this with an informational packet that spelled out the new schedule. I was eager to speak with the company about Server after such a long period of silence.

So this overview of the Beta 3 release was written on recent pre-Beta 3 code that won't be made available to testers, and based on conversations I've had with Windows .NET Server Solutions Group Product Manager Andy Ma. I was told that the Beta 3 release will be announced the week of COMDEX (November 10-14, 2001) and that I can publish information about Beta 3 beginning November 15; you're reading that now. I hope to have more information when I've been able to spend some time with Beta 3, but in the meantime, here's what I know about this previously secretive release.

Meet the Family
Incidentally, the new product naming wasn't chosen randomly. Because this release will include the .NET framework as well as full support for XML Web services, the company felt that it was the right time to move to the .NET naming scheme. Even still, Windows .NET Server isn't a new product, but rather an evolutionary improvement over the Windows 2000 products that preceded it. Various product editions have been tweaked and renamed, and a new member of the family is coming onboard.

You'll recall that the Windows 2000 Server family consisted of Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. Each product was designed to meet the needs of specific customers, from the small office all the way up to the most demanding data centers. With Windows .NET Server, these products have been upgraded substantially, and a new single-purpose Web Server edition has been added. Here are the new family members along with comparisons to the 2000-era products they replace. Unless otherwise noted, all of these products are 32-bit only.

Windows .NET Web Server
Windows .NET Web Server is the new product, which Microsoft executive Brian Valentine hinted at last April when he mentioned a possible "Web Blade" version of Whistler Server. It supports up to two processors and 2 GB of RAM only. Windows .NET Web Server is built specifically for low-cost Web serving and hosting only.

Windows .NET Standard Server
Windows .NET Standard Server replaces Windows 2000 Server. This version features support for up to two processors and 4 GB of RAM. Like its predecessor, Windows .NET Standard Server is designed for small and medium-sized businesses with basic file, print, and collaboration needs.

Windows .NET Enterprise Server (also in 64-bit Edition)
This product version replaces Windows 2000 Advanced Server and offers support for up to 8 processors (up from 4 in Advanced Server), 32 GB of RAM, and 4-node clusters. A 64-bit version is also available for Intel Itanium systems. This versions supports 64 GB of RAM.

Windows .NET Datacenter Server (also in 64-bit Edition)
For the most demanding scenarios, Microsoft is offering Windows .NET Datacenter Server, which replaces Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. This product, which is available in 32-bit and 64-bit variants, supports 64 GB of RAM (128 GB of RAM in the 64-bit version), up to 32 processors, and 8-node clusters (up from 4 in Windows 2000 Datacenter Server).

On the Road to Whistler Server: Beta 1 and Beta 2
Whistler Server Beta 1 was released October 31, 2000, over a year ago, and offered only minor changes when compared to Windows 2000 Server. In March 2001, the company released Beta 2, which included an optional XP-like Luna user interface, and some other minor feature changes. With Beta 3, more incremental changes are on tap. In this section, I'd like to focus on the features that were added to Server pre-Beta 3, so we can see how this product has evolved over time.

Whistler Server Beta 1: Incremental Improvements
Whistler Server Beta 1 offered improvements in three key areas:

Deployment - Active Directory (AD) deployments were made to be faster and more flexible through a new Domain Controller Upgrade Wizard. This wizard allowed administrators to backup the AD database to removable media, such as a CD-ROM, and then use that backup to restore it to a new machine. This solved a problem where people were actually shipping fully configured DC machines to remote offices so that they could install a new DC. Now, only removable media needs to be shipped. The Advanced System Recovery (ASR) technology was added to NTBackup, giving Whistler Server (like XP) a snapshot capability for getting non-bootable machines back online. Third party developers can also build products on the new snapshot APIs as well.

Management - "Headless" management capabilities were added, along with out-of-band management functionality, so that remote servers could be examined and possibly fixed without requiring a physical visit. This is typically done through non-networked connections, such as serial ports and proprietary third party solutions; a TTY connection is established and text-based command line tools for viewing running tasks, killing processes, and resetting and changing IP information. Microsoft continued its work adding scripting capabilities to the wide range of tools included in Server; this release added numerous command line and scripting enhancements.

Performance and Reliability - Performance and scalability was enhanced through quicker boot times and enhanced hardware support. To tackle reliability, scheduled and unscheduled reboots and downtime are now tracked and logged by the system so that it can intelligently identify problems. This resulted in a Restart dialog that requires the administrator to explain why the system is going down, a key customer request. The driver subsystem was also improved to work better with non-HCL drivers.

Whistler Server Beta 2: IIS 6 and Active Directory
In all the hoopla surrounding Windows XP this Spring, Whistler Server Beta 2 was almost lost in the mix. But Microsoft improved the product in three key areas during that timeframe as well:

Internet Information Services 6.0 - IIS 6 debuted for the first time in Beta 2, offering a new process model and a dedicated application mode, where Web applications cannot affect other Web applications. So if one goes down, it doesn't bring others--or IIS itself--with it. The core Web server is also isolated from everything else in the system, for security reasons. IIS 6 also adds support for an XML-based metabase, instead of the old proprietary version. This metabase can now more easily be managed through any XML editor (including Notepad), or over the Web. And changes to the metabase occur instantly, as soon as the document is saved. IIS worker processes and kernel mode queuing are now monitor so that IIS is aware of misbehaving processes and is able to automatically shut them down and replace them.

Active Directory - Cross-forest trust was added so that companies that merge or acquire other companies can add those directory structures to their enterprise and link them through one-way or two-way trust. Cross-forest trust is not transitive: If Forest A trusts Forest B, and Forest B trust Forest C, Forest A does not automatically trust Forest C. Additionally, cross-forest authentication and authorization was added, along with various deployment and configuration enhancements.

Management - Over 28 brand new command line tools were added to Server, such as sc.exe for starting and stopping services, and shutdown.exe for shutting down the system; this work via the command line and through any scripting environment. Microsoft also added 160 new Group Policy settings, many of which are related to new features in Windows XP, such as Remote Assistance and Windows Media Player. A new feature, Software Restriction Policies, lets administrators specify exactly which applications users can and cannot run; this is a critical feature that will likely be greatly appreciated. You can set it up to "allow all, except for..." or "allow nothing but..." and the like. Terminal Services were also enhanced with XP features such as 32-bit color support and audio redirect, as well as unique new features including local resource redirection for using floppy drives, hard drives, ports, and other local resources on the remote machine.

Windows .NET Server Beta 3: Bringing It All Together
And that brings us to Beta 3. Microsoft says that Beta 3 is largely feature complete, so it's a good indication of the final product. Like the previous beta releases, Windows .NET Server Beta 3 offers several key feature improvements, which the company lumps into categories such as "business ready," "comprehensive application environment," and "knowledge worker infrastructure." There's a lot of dense information to relay, but here's my take on the new features in Beta 3:

Refining the Business Agility Theme
Active Directory Enhancements - Beta 3 adds a much-needed AD Domain Rename feature that retains Global Unique Identifiers (GUIDs) and Security IDs (SIDs). It's even possible to rename the root domain, though you cannot make a sub-domain the root domain. Additionally, the AD schema can be modified so that certain classes and attributes are deactivated. This gives developers the ability to develop in-house applications that extend the AD schema without creating schema conflicts. Finally, the Trust Wizard has been streamlined, giving administrators one-click access to cross-forest synchronization.

Administration Improvements - The Configure Your Server Wizard that runs on first boot has been enhanced to include new modes, such as Terminal Services Application mode and Real Time Collaboration Server mode. 18 command line tools that used to be found only in the NT/2000 Resource Kits have been added to the base OS. A new Application Verifier Tool, based on the Driver Verification Tool, will monitor installed and running applications, and restart or stop them if any problems come up (this is a reliability feature, and not designed to stop rogue applications). The "reboot reason collector" has been renamed to the Shutdown Event Tracker; it now saves system state data as well.

Availability, Reliability and Security Improvements - Datacenter Server and Enterprise Server doubled their cluster support to 8 nodes and 4 nodes, respectively, thanks to an architectural change in the products' clustering support. Windows clusters can now work over a Storage Area Network (SAN), so that they're no longer bound by strict physical requirements. IIS 6 will be locked down out of the box, and not install by default, thanks to a recent Microsoft security initiative. The first time IIS is started, the administrator will be presented with a wizard that will allow features to be turned on, along with descriptions of the risks these features may cause. And finally, blank passwords are restricted to local machines only, though I don't think that they should be allowed at all; Andy Ma told me that certain customer situations, such as locations that have physical security, required them to continue allowing blank passwords, however.

A Comprehensive Application Environment
Simplify Integration and Interoperability - Windows .NET Server will fully support technologies such as XML, SOAP, UDDI, and WSDL, though UDDI support will not be available yet in the Beta 3 release. The .NET Framework is fully integrated into the product for the first time, though Windows 2000 Server users will be able to download this piece sometime next year as well. Microsoft Message Queuing (MSMQ) now uses XML/SOAP as its native format, though DCOM/RPC is still available for backwards compatibility. And Windows .NET Server supports federation (single sign-on) through the integration of IIS 6, AD, and Passport. This will eventually allow for the creation of local Passport servers, though that capability is not available in the base Server products now.

Increase Developer Productivity - Web services can be easily created now using ASP .NET technologies, which finally separate code from content (the old model, ASP, combined code and content). ASP .NET is also bolstered by multiple language support, new built-in server-side controls, and a rich set of services, including ADO .NET for data access and COM+ 1.1 for transactions.

Build upon Enterprise Abilities - ASP .NET is integrated into IIS, so it's free out of the box, and MSMQ is built on SOAP. A new Application Security Framework provides an environment for security authorization, where developers write only to the Kerberos APIs, even though the underlying authentication might be anything from NTLM to digest, or even clear text. A new Code Access Security feature is provided as part of the .NET Frameworks. And a new XCopy deployment option provides a way to easily move Web applications from machine to machine, since they no longer require registry settings. And yes, this is "xcopy" the command line tool.

Extending the Infrastructure
Real Time Communications and Remote Access Enhancements - Windows .NET Server now includes the server-side version of Microsoft's Windows Messenger client, the awkwardly named Real Time Communications (RTC) Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) Proxy Server. This component lets you control Windows Messenger security and bandwidth across a network. Terminal Services has been optimized to be as much as 50 percent faster than before on the same hardware. A new Background Intelligent Transfer Service provides performance enhancements for a variety of connection types: Under Windows 2000, an interrupted dial-up connection would require any file transfers to be restarted; in Windows .NET Server file transfers can be taken up where they left off, automatically.

Shadow Copy - Shadow Copy is a new feature that provides "network Recycle Bin" functionality, though it's not enabled by default because of potential space issues. It provides a view of network folder contents as they were at previous points in the past. Users can recover accidentally deleted files or folders on network shares without requiring a network administrator to restore a backup. When enabled, Shadow Copy takes snapshots at 7:00 am and 12 noon by default, though this can be changed. There is negligible impact on the network when these snapshots are taken, and only files that are subsequently changed are backed up. Shadow Copy is fully administerable.

Windows Media Services - This new version of Windows Media Services (code-named "Hercules") now starts much more quickly, and offers up to 50 percent more concurrent media streams than previous versions.

What's Next: Two Release Candidates, RTM
With Beta 3 in the bag, Microsoft will usher this family of products to completion over the next several months. Beginning in early 2002, the company will release two Release Candidate (RC) builds, and then the final version sometime during the first half of 2002.

Conclusions
I've installed Windows .NET Enterprise Server (build 3562) on a single machine only and didn't garner enough experience with it to write a full review in time for publication. However, I will be looking at the Beta 3 release more in the coming months and expect to have more to say about this exciting release. In the meantime, I'm making travel plans for Whistler, British Columbia, where Microsoft is hosting a Technical Reviewers Workshop for the winter. See you in Whistler!