Borrowing a page from the Microsoft SQL Server Web Releases, Microsoft's out-of-band product-delivery mechanism for Windows Server 2003 will significantly improve Windows 2003's overall value and manageability. Essentially, Microsoft's new out-of-band release strategy means that Microsoft will continue to add functionality to Windows 2003 throughout the OS's life cycle. In this sense, the word band is a reference to the Windows 2003 product release schedule. Instead of forcing customers to wait until the next major product release for added functionality or sneaking small features into service packs, Microsoft will make the new features available to licensed customers through the Web.

The Out-of-Band Beginnings
Microsoft's SQL Server 2000 team pioneered the out-of-band experience. So far, Microsoft has used this method to release the XML for SQL Server (SQLXML) add-on and the SQL Server 2000 Notification Services add-on. Later this year, Microsoft plans to release another add-on called SQL Server Reporting Services. SQLXML extends SQL Server 2000's native XML support, enabling SQL Server to process a variety of XML documents (e.g., updategrams) and expose existing stored procedures as Web services. SQL Notification Services is a framework to support the development of notification applications. Reporting Services will be an add-on for report development and deployment. These products add useful functionality to SQL Server 2000 without requiring existing customers to wait for the next release or service pack.

For Windows 2003, Microsoft has already used the out-of-band strategy to release an add-on for Internet SCSI (iSCSI) support, and Microsoft officials have announced plans for other releases as well. At the Windows 2003 launch in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that Microsoft will release Windows SharePoint Services (WSS—formerly known as SharePoint Team Services) later in the year. WSS's release will coincide with Microsoft Office 2003's release to manufacturing (RTM). WSS, which integrates with Office 2003, lets users build collaborative Web sites. (Don't confuse WSS with Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server. SharePoint Portal Server is a separately purchased server application that lets enterprises build intranet portals. Microsoft will release SharePoint Portal Server in the same time frame as WSS.) At this year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), Dave Thompson, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Server product group, mentioned Microsoft plans to release the Automated Deployment Services add-on in third quarter 2003 and a Virtual PC add-on (which uses technology acquired from Connectix) in fourth quarter 2003. Just as a comparison, consider that the first service pack for Windows 2003 isn't scheduled for release until the end of this year.

It's a Good Thing
Based on my experience with the SQL Server Web Releases, I fully expect the Windows 2003 out-of-band features to be a big plus for the product and a great benefit for customers. Overall, the only negative aspect that I've run into with the SQL Server Web Releases is the number of customers who aren't aware of the Web releases' existence.

Separating add-on components from the core product release is a win for customers who want to use the added functionality. They can obtain the add-on functionality from the Web, test it, then implement it without having to wait a couple of years for the next release. At the same time, customers who have no interest in the add-ons can easily disregard the Web releases. Gone at last (I hope) is Microsoft's compulsion to inject add-on features into service packs, thus eliminating one administrative headache. Windows 2003 out-of-band features might not be out of this world, but they're definitely a step in the right direction.