Lately, you might have been hearing a lot about two new forthcoming operating systems, Longhorn and Blackcomb. Longhorn is the long awaited successor to Windows XP, and Blackcomb, also known as Longhorn Server, will be the successor to Windows Server 2003. In spite of all of the press that these operating systems have been getting lately, they are still a long way off. According to Microsoft, Longhorn won’t be released until sometime in 2006 at the earliest, and Blackcomb isn’t slated for release until 2007 (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/evaluation/overview/roadmap.mspx).
Being that it’s still going to be a long time until these operating systems are released, Microsoft has decided to grace us with some interim Windows releases. Microsoft is currently working on a new version of Windows Server 2003 that is presently code named R2 (release two). There has also been a lot of talk about an interim release of Windows XP.
So the big question now is what can you expect from these new releases? As with any pre-release software, details tend to be a bit sketchy and there are a lot of contradictory rumors. However, I will attempt to cut through all of that and let you know what you can expect from these two new releases. Keep in mind though that since the actual operating systems have yet to be released, Microsoft still has time to make substantial changes.
Windows XP Reloaded
For a long time, Microsoft consistently denied rumors that it would be releasing an interim version of Windows between Windows XP and Longhorn. In February of this year though, Microsoft announced that they would be providing an interim release after all. The release was slated to be an upgrade to the current version of Windows XP, and was originally coded D2 (R2-D2, get it?). The code name was soon changed to Windows XP Reload.
Microsoft made this announcement last February, so what ever happened to this new version of Windows XP? As it turns out, the whole Windows XP Reloaded thing was more of a marketing ploy than a product release. Microsoft did make good on their promise for better security and enhanced functionality by rolling all of the code that was slated for Windows XP Reloaded into Windows XP Service Pack 2.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that Windows XP Service Pack 2 is more than just a collection of bug fixes. Service Pack 2 represents a major revision to the operating system. In Service Pack 2, Microsoft has plugged a number of security holes, made it easier for the user to maintain a secure environment, and added some new features. These new features include things like the Windows Security Center, and new versions of things like Windows Update, Windows Movie Maker, and Media Player (available as a separate download).
Windows Server 2003 R2
Now that you have seen what happened to Windows XP Reloaded, let’s talk about Windows Server 2003 R2. The first thing that I will tell you about R2 is not to hold your breath waiting for it to be released. The current projection is that Microsoft will not release Windows Server 2003 R2 until the second half of 2005.
Microsoft’s current plan is that when R2 is released, those customers who subscribe to Microsoft’s Software Assurance Program or to an enterprise license agreement will be automatically eligible for an upgrade to R2. From that point on, any customer who purchases a copy of Windows Server 2003 will automatically receive the R2 version. Right now there is a lot of contradictory information regarding how current Microsoft customers who do not subscribe to the software assurance program will be able to acquire R2. According to some sources, those customers will have to buy R2, but other sources indicate that an upgrade will be made freely available. One fact that is not being disputed though is that companies will not have to buy new client access licenses if they implement R2. Windows Server 2003 client access licenses will also be valid for servers running R2.
Right now you are probably wondering how R2 will differ from the current version of Windows Server 2003. Again, the available information is really sketchy, but here is what I know for sure. At the current time, Microsoft is planning for R2 to consume two CDs. The first CD will contain the current version of Windows Server 2003. Right now Microsoft is saying that the only way that this CD will differ from the current Windows Server 2003 CDs is that it will contain a slip streamed version of Service Pack 1.
The second CD will contain all of the mysterious R2 code. Right now, Microsoft is being tight lipped about what the R2 code will consist of. There are however hints scattered all over the Internet. Speakers at various Microsoft live events have also made comments regarding what will be included in R2.
One thing that is sure to make it into R2 are the various Windows Server 2003 feature packs. When Microsoft was preparing to release Windows Server 2003, they decided that not all of the features could be completed by the software’s release date. Rather than pushing back the release date, Microsoft elected to incorporate the incomplete features into downloadable feature packs that would be released online as they became available. I am predicting that these and possibly other feature packs will be integrated into R2.
One of the new features in Windows Server 2003 was something called quarantine mode. The idea behind quarantine mode was that it can protect your network against remote users by refusing to grant access to remote systems unless those systems conform to the network security policy. For example, if someone were to dial into the network through a RAS connection, Windows could verify that the remote system had the latest service packs and anti virus definitions. If the remote machine’s configuration were not up to par, then the machine would be quarantined until the latest updates could be loaded.
Quarantine mode was a good idea, but the problem is that it is insanely complex to configure. You practically need a PHD in computer science to figure it out. To get around the problem of quarantine mode being so complex to configure, Microsoft is releasing a new policy enforcement platform called Network Access Protection (or NAP). NAP will make its debut in R2. You can read more details about Network Access Protection at: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/technologies/networking/nap/default.mspx
At the MVP Global Summit in Redmond last spring, Microsoft also demonstrated a new scripting technology that is slated to be included in R2. This scripting engine is designed to allow developers to write more powerful batch files. It will allow the Active Directory and the system registry to be navigated from the command prompt in much the same way that you can currently navigate through the file system.
At TechEd, last May in San Diego, California, Microsoft demonstrated some of the other technologies that may eventually be included in R2. One such feature is a new file replication engine. This replication engine is designed to make the distributed file system (DFS) feature more efficient.
Currently, in a DFS environment, if you were to update a file, the file is then replicated to all DFS replica servers. The problem is that the entire file is replicated, even if only one byte has changed. The new replication technology will allow only the changed bytes to be replicated rather than DFS having to replicate the entire file. This will save a considerable amount of bandwidth when small changes are made to huge files or when rapid changes are made to a file.
Another new technology that is supposed to be making its way into R2 is something called Active Directory Federation (formerly code named Trust Bridge). Again, the details are very sketchy, but there was a brief discussion of this feature at TechEd this year. The idea behind this technology is that it will allow a user from one company to be authenticated into another company’s network by means of an Active Directory level authentication mechanism.
One last feature that was discussed at TechEd was a technology called Anywhere Access. Anywhere Access is a networking technology that will allow users to access E-mail and other services on a corporate network even if no VPN is available. Anywhere Access isn’t designed to replace VPN technology, but is simply an alternative to it.
In this article, I have attempted to cut through the rumors and marketing hype and give you the best information that I can get on what to expect from Microsoft’s R2 release of Windows Server 2003. Keep in mind though that R2 is still about a year away and anything can change. After all, Microsoft had plans for a new version of Windows XP, and the new version was simply rolled into a service pack. It is possible (although unlikely) that the same thing could happen to R2.