Recently, several representatives from Windows IT Pro Magazine received a briefing about the Beta 1 version of Longhorn Server, the next member of the Windows Server family, currently due in the first quarter of 2007, or about six months after Windows Vista ships in late 2006. There was just one condition for this briefing: Our non-disclosure agreement (NDA) was "permanent," which was a bit unusual. The problem, we were told, was that Longhorn Server Beta 1 included just a tiny subset of the features Microsoft was planning for the final release. The company didn't want to disappoint anyone, noting that the Beta 1 release was more of an alpha-quality build and not a true beta.

They needn't have worried. As Ward Ralston, a senior technical product manager on the Windows Server team, navigated through the increasingly impressive Longhorn Server Beta 1 feature set, my doubts about this release quickly turned to excitement. Even with this supposedly tiny subset of functionality, Longhorn Server in Beta 1 form was clearly a major functional upgrade over today's Windows Server 2003 (see my review) and R2 (see my review) products. My only concern was that I couldn't write about and likely wouldn't be able to write about it until quite some time in the future. As the briefing ended, I was disappointed to think that it would be months, probably, before I could reveal the features we discovered on that afternoon. And this is a release that will revolutionize Windows Server. It's practically begging me to write about it.

Well, flash forward to late September 2005 and the NDA has ended. With the release of Windows Server Longhorn Community Technical Preview (CTP, or build 5219), we're now free to write about the next Windows Server version. And if you're wondering what Microsoft is going to do to change Windows Server, I think you're going to be impressed.

Easing the pain

As is so often the case with new OS releases, Windows Server Longhorn seeks to answer complaints about today's Windows Server versions. Users have told Microsoft their issues, and across the board, the software giant appears to be answering those concerns. Much of the work that's going in Windows Server revolves around making things easier--things like security, patching, and deployment--or making Longhorn Server as reliable as possible. Other improvements are more wide-reaching: In response to complaints about the bloat of Windows Server, Microsoft has completely componentized, or modularized as they call it, the product. That means that you can install just the bits you need for servers with specific roles, resulting in smaller, better performing, and more easily updated systems.

So where does Longhorn Server fit in the wider scheme of things? If you accept the fact that Windows 2000 Server was a major release, arguably the most major release in the history of Windows Server, and that Windows Server 2003 was all about fit and finish, and that Windows Server 2003 R2 is a minor upgrade, then Longhorn Server would have to be a major release. Indeed, the Longhorn Server feature set rivals that of Windows 2000, without also bringing along the pain of switching to a new directory infrastructure and Group Policy. That is, even though Longhorn Server will be as big an improvement over previous versions as was Windows 2000, it will not be as difficult to deploy and migrate to.

Longhorn Server roles in a nutshell

In Windows Server 2003, Microsoft introduced an intriguing if largely ignored task-based interface that allowed administrators to configure servers for specific workloads. These workloads were organized by roles, such as File Server and Application/Web Server, and were designed for optimal security. That is, if you configured your Windows Server 2003 install as a Web server, you would typically only install those features that were necessary for the sites you were hosting, keeping the system as secure as possible. In the Windows 2000 days, by comparison, the Web server was installed by default whether you wanted it or not.

I always thought that the roles-based system employed in Windows Server 2003 was a good idea, though I still wonder to this day if most experienced admins (foolishly) skip over it because it's housed in a wizard-like application called Configure Your Server, which admittedly has a Fisher Price-like name. But hold on to your hats, wizard haters: Longhorn Server will support far more discrete workloads than its predecessors and will thus support a far wider range of configurable roles.

But Microsoft isn't just adding more roles. Instead, Longhorn Server has been rearchitected to be more modular, with a core OS component called Server Core that provides the basis for all Longhorn Server product editions. When you add roles to Server Core, you get servers that are capable Web servers, file servers, print servers, and so on, but with none of the unnecessary code that bogs down today's servers. Because of its modular design, Longhorn Server installations will only include the parts of the system that they need to perform the roles you configure. This is good for performance, but it's also critical for security and maintainability. Suddenly, roles aren't just lip service. They're integral to the system.

So what about those workloads I discussed? At this point in time, Microsoft is discussing a number of server workloads that Longhorn Server will handle, though this list could change over time: Networking, remote access, security, identity management, Terminal Services, storage (file, portal), print, email, collaboration, application/Web server, Unix integration services, database, high performance computing (HPC), software distribution, virtualization, operations management, general purpose and enterprise, medium business (Centro), and small business.

What's amazing about all this is that Microsoft has even reorganized the Windows Server development teams around these roles. So there are actual product teams for Terminal Services, print server, storage, and all the other roles. And their goals are all the same: Make Longhorn Server the best [insert role here] server it can be. "We want to make the best storage server, the best Terminal Services server, and so on," Ralston told us.

Longhorn Server fundamentals

A few years back, Microsoft halted development of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP in order to complete a massive security code review as part of its Trustworthy Computing initiative in which the company examined every single line of code in its current OS products to look for common security mistakes. Since then, Microsoft has undergone a security overhaul the likes of which our industry has never seen. Indeed, though one can make great arguments about the quality of Windows requiring such an overhaul, it's equally true that no other OS vendors have made the ongoing and never-ending security investments that Microsoft has. The results can be seen in products such as Windows Server 2003, which has performed admirably, from a security standpoint, against traditional Unix and Linux competitors.

Security

It should come as no surprise, then, that Microsoft intends for Longhorn Server to be its more secure Windows Server version ever. "It all starts with security," Ralston said. "During every phase of the development effort, we do threat modeling, extensive reviews, and thorough testing. At the end of the day, we can hold our heads high, knowing we did the best security job." Ralston noted that all of the security improvements that first appeared during the Trustworthy Computing initiative are still present and improved in Longhorn Server.

There are number of new security features in Longhorn Server. The first, Secure Install, prevents a server from being compromised during previously vulnerable stages. A second new security feature (also found in Windows Vista) called Secure Startup prevents network connections until the security subsystem is activated. Secure Startup (codenamed Cornerstone) requires server hardware that includes the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2 chipset. This is part of the technology, previously codenamed Palladium, which was going to revolutionize Windows security in the Longhorn time frame, and maybe it still will someday. However, Microsoft is now taking a slower path to hardware-based security features. In Windows Vista and Longhorn Server, Secure Startup is one of only two pieces of Palladium left.

The second TPM feature is Full Volume Encryption (FVE). This feature, based on the Encrypting File System (EFS) that debuted in Windows 2000, encrypts the entire hard drive and prevents someone from physically stealing a server and then accessing the hard drive by installing it in another system. "The drive is useless by itself," Ralston said. "It's a great feature for branch offices [where physical security is often less impressive than in typical data centers]." To access data on an encrypted drive in the event of a system failure, you'll need the drive's encryption password. And yes, if you forget the password, the data is gone forever. Microsoft says this is a fair trade-off, and they're likely right. So secure those passwords.

Manageability

Thanks to its newly modularized architecture, Longhorn Server, like Windows Vista, will be much easier to service and manage. Consider the first install experience for a typical administrator: All of the deployment methodologies you used before in Windows Server 2003 will still work, but new admins performing interactive installs will be presented with a much simpler install. All you really need to install Longhorn Server is a product key, which unlocks what is essentially a Server Core install. Once the system is installed, it boots into an Initial Configuration Tasks screen, which lets you specify options such as the administrator password (required), networking configuration, computer name and domain, time zone, regional and language settings, and Product Activation. You can also download and install any product updates, configure Automatic Updates, and customize the server with server roles. If you choose the latter option, you'll be presented with a series of Longhorn Server roles, including Certificate Services, DHCP, Directory (AD), DNS, Fax, File, Media, RADIUS/IAS, Remote Access (VPN Server), Terminal Server (Application Server), Terminal Server Proxy, Terminal Server Session Proxy, Web, and Windows Deployment Services (Figure). Note that all of these roles are suddenly much friendlier, with plain English names.

This last step, which we can think of as the logical successor to Configure Your Server, will likely be called Roles Management Tool (RMT), a name that is decidedly less friendly than Configure Your Server and thus will likely be less threatening to experienced, wizard-adverse admins. "The roles configuration in Longhorn Server will leverage the security technologies we introduced in previous Windows Server updates," Ralston said. "At the time that a role is unlocked, the configuration of that role is in tandem with security so that everything else is locked down." The end result: A highly useable server that is as secure as it can be.

So what else is new in manageability? Here's a shocker: The event logs in Longhorn Server have been completely replaced by new XML-based logs with a new application programming interface (API) set that will make it much, much easier for third party developers to plug into events and notifications. "Any management tool can now go in and look at the logs, subscribe to events, and aggregate them however they wish," Ralston noted. "The new event logs are completely open. You can bubble up system health much more easily, giving you access to server-wide health information. And we're shipping new diagnostics consoles for accurately diagnosing OS problems." These capabilities are proactive as well: You can be warned when a drive is about to fail or a volume is reaching a percent percentage of its capacity or quotas.

Software updating, or patching, is obviously a big concern. In Longhorn Server, the technologies behind Windows Server Update Services (WSUS, formerly Software Update Services or SUS) is being integrated directly into the system and renamed, yet again, to Windows Deployment Services. But software updates will be easier than ever thanks to Longhorn Server's modular architecture. That means that international businesses won't have to deploy mind-boggling numbers of similar patches: Instead, most patches will simply work world-wide, in almost all locales.

Responsiveness

For core server tasks such as file server, print server, Web server, and Terminal Services, Microsoft is promising performance and scalability that exceeds that of Windows Server 2003 with SP1 (itself a better performer than the initial Windows Server 2003 version) on the same hardware. While I haven't been able to evaluate that claim yet, it's pretty clear that the biggest performance gains to be had with Longhorn Server are on the x64 platform, which offers far great memory and scalability opportunities than does the aging 32-bit x86 platform. "Longhorn Server is being built on both 64-bit and 32-bit platforms," Ralston said. "But we expect to see x64 take off with Longhorn Server."

While today's Windows Server x64 editions are largely limited to 1 TB of RAM, that is an artificial limitation based on the specification of real-world servers. "8 TB of RAM is absolutely possible," Ralston added. Longhorn Server will also be optimized for the virtualization hardware platforms of the near future, which will eventually enable Microsoft to bring its Virtual Server technologies down from the applications area and into the core OS. And in Longhorn Server, the NTFS file system (and Registry) are being upgraded--finally--to support transactions. That's right: NTFS will be transactional in Longhorn Server, letting you rollback file operations or gracefully back out of error conditions. Developers cheered that last bit when Jim Allchin announced it at PDC 2005, as well they should. That's incredible new functionality.

Part 2 coming soon!