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Get the lowdown on the most significant enhancements to the next Windows release

The next major release of Windows 2000, code-named Whistler, promises to be a significant upgrade for Windows clients and servers. Although Whistler will bring many important changes on the server side, it's particularly important on the client side because it marks the first release in which Microsoft converges the Win2K, Windows NT, and Windows 9x code bases.

Microsoft plans to release two client versions of Whistler: Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional Edition. Home Edition will upgrade the Win9x line. Professional Edition, a superset of Home Edition, will upgrade Win2K Professional and NT Workstation 4.0. The server side will have Server, Advanced Server, Datacenter Server, and Embedded versions. The Server version will replace Win2K Server and NT Server 4.0. The Advanced Server version will replace Win2K Advanced Server, and the Datacenter Server version will replace Win2K Datacenter Server and NT Server, Enterprise Edition (NTS/E). Whistler Embedded will update NT 4.0 Embedded. Figure 1, page 28, summarizes the Whistler upgrade path.

The initial Whistler release will be 32-bit, but Microsoft plans a 64-bit release—which will run on Intel's upcoming Itanium chip—for all Whistler editions except Home Edition. (For information about Itanium, see "Intel and AMD Power Up 64-Bit Processors," December 2000.) Microsoft has said that it will release the Embedded version of Whistler within 90 days of the initial release date for devices such as Windows-based terminals, point-of-sale kiosks, and network routers.

Let's examine the most significant changes slated for the client and server sides of Whistler. All the features I mention are based on the Whistler beta, so you can expect Microsoft to introduce additional changes in functionality and in the interface before the final release to manufacturing (RTM). I performed all my testing on a 400MHz single-CPU system with 320MB of RAM.

Take a Walk on the Client Side
As you might expect, incorporating the functionality of the Win2K, NT, and Win9x code bases has resulted in significant changes to the Windows client side. But make no mistake: Whistler descends from the Win2K and NT code path and marks the end of the Win9x code base.

The Whistler client versions will support upgrades from Win2K Pro, NT Workstation 4.0, Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE), and Win98. The primary difference between Home Edition and Professional Edition is that Professional Edition adds many features designed for business users. For example, Professional Edition supports a 64-bit version, enterprise-oriented management features such as Group Policy and IntelliMirror, and high-end workstation features such as dual CPUs.

Although Microsoft hasn't finalized the minimum system requirements for the Whistler client, Whistler's affinity to Win2K means you should expect Whistler's requirements to be much more like Win2K Pro's minimum requirements than Win9x's. Table 1 lists Microsoft's minimum and recommended system requirements for the Whistler client products.

More NT Equals More Dependability
Microsoft's goal for Whistler is that it will be the most dependable version of Windows ever. Certainly, Win9x users who migrate will get the benefits of the more stable NT code base: Microsoft has replaced all the old 16-bit DOS underpinnings with the considerably more reliable 32-bit NT code base. In addition, Whistler shares Win2K's and NT's ability to secure the system with user IDs and passwords.

Whistler also extends Win2K's system reliability by letting you roll back to the previous system state if installing a new device driver causes the system to become unbootable. However, Whistler's improved reliability comes at the cost of being able to run some legacy 16-bit DOS and Windows applications, as I explain later.

The Whistler UI
The Whistler UI is dramatically different from the Win2K UI. Many system folders sport a new Web-like look. Figure 2 shows the Category View of Whistler's Control Panel. I found the Category View to be basically the same as the standard Active Desktop. If you don't care for the Category View, you can click the link in the left portion of the folder window to go to the Classic View.

A desktop change that I'm not fond of is the new Notification Area improvements, which work essentially like Win2K's Personalized Menus for items in the taskbar. When you enable this option, taskbar icons for inactive tasks disappear. However, a closely related feature that lets you group together similar items is a good way to reduce the number of items on the taskbar. This option combines like tasks on one taskbar that, when you click it, displays a pop-up menu of the tasks. You use the Start menu's Properties page to control both of these features.

Microsoft has substantially revised Whistler's Help system. All the Help is HTML-based. As Figure 3 shows, a hyperlink navigation pane is on the left-hand side of the Help window, and Help text is in the right-hand pane. The new Help is easier to navigate and work with than Win2K's online Help is. Bear in mind that this version of Whistler is still in beta, so changes to the UI are likely.

Improved Device Support and Application Compatibility
Whistler's device support will be substantially better than Win2K's. For the first time, vendors won't need to support different code bases for Win2K, NT, and Win9x. Consequently, Whistler will enjoy the widespread device support that Win9x has always had.

Whistler will also provide better application compatibility than Win2K does. According to Microsoft, more than 300 Win9x applications that don't run on Win2K will run on Whistler. Improved application compatibility is enabled by a feature called Application Compatibility, which uses a database of applications, problems, and fixes to customize the attributes of each Win9x program's execution environment in Whistler. The Auto Update feature lets you dynamically download updates to the Application Compatibility database from the Microsoft Web site. To test Application Compatibility, I dusted off old versions of Microsoft Word 5.0 and Microsoft Excel 5.0 and a couple of DOS-based programs and games that I had lying around. I ran the applications under Whistler, and all the applications worked. I did manage to freeze up a couple of DOS games when I interrupted them by switching to the desktop and then back to the application.

Despite Whistler's improved compatibility, don't expect all old DOS-based programs to run on the new OS version. DOS is gone for good, and Whistler's NT code base won't run many older programs that rely on direct hardware access. This limitation will inconvenience few business users because most business applications have had native Win32 versions for years, and these programs will work just fine under Whistler. However, home users who never upgrade their software might face problems upgrading to Whistler.

In addition to improved legacy-application support, Whistler includes compatibility scripts that make several current office applications easier to use with Whistler Terminal Services. Terminal Server Application Compatibility scripts include scripts for Corel's WordPerfect Office 8.0 and WordPerfect Office 7.0, Lotus SmartSuite 9.0 and SmartSuite 97, and Microsoft Office 97 and Office 95.

Improved Deployment
Whistler Group Policy improvements let you fully install an application at logon rather than only on demand, as with Win2K. Although this feature can slow a user's first logon after installing an application, it also helps ensure that applications are installed properly.

Unattended-installation enhancements let you merge information in the answer file with existing system data. As a result, you can ensure that required configuration parameters are correct before you install new systems into the domain. For example, an answer file can provide all required network configuration settings and direct the Windows installation process to apply them during installation. Similarly, an unattended installation can change power-management settings so that the end user doesn't need to manually customize the default power settings. The Home and Professional versions also include a new User State Management Tool (USMT) that lets you record and later restore all desktop settings, including wallpaper, desktop scheme, and the proxy server and email server configuration values.

Other interesting client-side features of Whistler are support for fast boot, CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) burning, ClearType text display, and fast user-context switching. Fast boot lets the system boot up more quickly than Win2K does. On my test system, I measured the time a boot took from selecting the OS to displaying the desktop and found that Whistler booted in less than a quarter of the time that a similar Win2K AS configuration required.

Whistler's ability to create CD-RWs eliminates the need for third-party CD-RW authoring software. To burn a CD-RW under Whistler, you simply use Windows Explorer to select the desired files, then drag them to the CD-RW icon.

ClearType triples the horizontal display resolution for LCD monitors that have a digital interface, which lets text be displayed much more clearly on the screen. Fast user switching lets multiple users share a computer without requiring a user to close all applications and log off before another user can log on. Whistler saves the first user's application state in the background and restores it when the user gets back on. Fast switching is available to users on standalone desktops and in Workgroup installations but not to users who must authenticate with a domain controller (DC).

Behind the Server Side of Whistler
Although Whistler focuses most of its enhancements on the client side, Win2K customer requests have spurred many server-side enhancements. The distinctions between Whistler's Server, Advanced Server, and Datacenter Server versions are the same as the distinctions between their Win2K predecessors. Whistler Server supports as many as four processors and as much as 4GB of RAM. Whistler Advanced Server supports from one to eight processors and as much as 8GB of RAM. Advanced Server also supports dual-node failover clustering and 32-node network load balancing. As the high-end version, Whistler Datacenter Server will support as many as 32 processors and as much as 64GB of main storage. The Whistler Server editions will support upgrades from Win2K Server, Win2K AS, Datacenter, NT Server 4.0, and NTS/E.

Microsoft hasn't yet released the minimum system requirements for the Whistler Server versions. However, as with the Whistler client, you can expect the requirements to be very similar to the requirements for Win2K Server. Table 2 lists the minimum and recommended requirements for Whistler beta 1 server versions.

Active Directory Enhancements
You can think of Whistler's enhanced Active Directory (AD) as AD 2.0. One management enhancement lets you drag users between organizational units (OUs). Another enhancement lets you establish interforest transitive trust relationships and use Kerberos authentication to pass authentication information between AD forests. Whistler Server also can save and rerun stock queries.

A new feature in the Whistler implementation of AD is the ability to authenticate to a local DC without needing to contact a Global Catalog (GC). Win2K requires all authentications to use the GC. As a result, many administrators must replicate their GC to a local DC or subject users to sluggish remote authentication.

An Install Replica from Media feature permits faster creation of DCs than does Win2K, especially for remote and low-bandwidth installations. When you use Dcpromo to run the feature, you can specify that the initial replication for a new DC will come from a tape, CD-ROM, DVD, or network share rather than from the network. Any AD-aware backup utility can generate the initial replication files.

Whistler also improves several AD management tools. Whistler's Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Active Directory Users and Computers snap-in lets you select multiple objects in the AD tree and change values on the Properties sheet to edit the objects. The Active Directory Migration Tool (ADMT) supports scriptable migrations of users and computers as well as the ability to migrate passwords between forests. And the Active Directory Replication and Trust Monitoring tool lets you ensure that trust relations and AD replication between domains are functioning correctly.

Headless Operations
To facilitate remote operations and troubleshooting, all the server versions of Whistler will include a Terminal Services administration mode that lets you easily manage the server from a networked client. However, Whistler goes a step further by providing true headless operation, which lets you run and manage the system without using a video card, monitor, keyboard, or mouse. Headless operation lets Whistler effectively compete with UNIX and Linux servers, which let administrators use a Telnet interface to easily manage servers that are behind locked doors. The Emergency Management Services (EMS) feature enables headless operation in Whistler. EMS provides a Telnet-based management console that you access through the serial port or, if the hardware supports it, a USB or an RJ-45 Ethernet connection.

To use EMS through the serial port, you must first enable EMS support, which you can do through the Whistler setup options or by adding the redirect= line to the boot loader section of the boot.ini file. Listing 1 shows the boot loader section with the added redirect= line. The changes take effect when you restart the system.

After you enable EMS support, you need to use a null modem cable to connect another system to the Whistler serial port. The connected system runs VT100 terminal emulation to connect to Whistler's Special Administration Console (SAC). Then, you power down the Whistler system and disconnect the mouse and keyboard. You also need to remove the video card; if the system detects the video card during startup, Whistler automatically disables its headless drivers. Another requirement for EMS support to work is that the system's BIOS must be able to boot without a video card, mouse, and keyboard.

Figure 4 shows the SAC window that appears on a system connected to a headless Whistler system. From the SAC, you can manage the Whistler server by using the text commands that Figure 4 lists. The SAC makes available all the basic administrative commands that you would typically run locally, including the ability to reboot the server, change BIOS settings, and select OSs at startup.

Improved Enterprise Management
A major Whistler management enhancement is a Resultant Set of Policies (RSoP) wizard that helps determine which policies apply to users and groups that connect to the server. Under Win2K Server, you can have difficulty determining exactly which policies apply to a particular logon. The Microsoft Windows 2000 Resource Kit Supplement 1 provides FAZAM 2000 Reduced Functionality Version (FAZAM 2000 RFV), a lite version of a tool from FullArmor that helps debug policies. (For more information about FAZAM 2000 RFV, see Mark Minasi, This Old Resource Kit, "A Group Policy Modeling Tool," March 2001.) Whistler includes an RSoP Wizard that you can use to plan and log policies. The wizard's logging mode lets you trace the policies that apply to a given logon.

Whistler's public key infrastructure (PKI)-related enhancements include the ability to edit certificate templates, specify automatic enrollment of certificates for users, and publish certificate revocation list (CRL) deltas. Although Win2K lets you create certificate templates, you can't change templates you've created. Whistler's MMC Certificate Templates snap-in can create new certificate templates based on existing templates and can modify template properties. Auto enrollment for users lets you automatically enroll users and computers for Encrypting File System (EFS) certificates. The CRL delta feature lets the Certificate Authority (CA) publish only changes in the CRL, rather than republish the entire CRL whenever it changes.

Whistler's upgraded Performance Monitor tool can compare the performance between two servers as well as record current performance statistics for analysis. Perfmon also can write log entries to Microsoft SQL Server or to another ODBC-compliant database.

Whistler Server includes numerous other management tools. A new Microsoft IIS capacity-planning tool can help ascertain the demand on the Web server. A dynamic DNS (DDNS) diagnostic tool called DrDNS provides information about DNS configuration and DC locator problems. And the Windows Update Components program lets you apply automatic updates of the Whistler OS to the system.

Enterprise Backup and Recovery Enhancements
Enterprise-inspired enhancements to Whistler Server include its ability to perform native snapshot backup. The snapshot backup API provides a point-in-time picture of a system that simplifies backup and recovery in 24 x 7 environments. When a third-party backup application calls the snapshot backup application, Whistler briefly freezes the system's I/O, dumps the system's memory, and copies the system's current status. The third-party backup application then writes that backup image to media.

Microsoft also added Automated System Recovery (ASR) backup to Whistler. When you use ASR to install applications, you can automatically restore the applications' configuration settings when you restore the application data. ASR also supports Plug and Play (PnP) functionality for failed components. For example, ASR can restore a failed hard disk's contents to a new disk.

Winding Up Whistler
Whistler is too big to cover every feature in one article, but this peek should give you an idea of the major changes that are in store for the next version of Windows. Rumors suggest that Whistler will include several additional features that didn't appear in beta 1. Among these are IIS 6.0, Office server extensions, and the ability to graphically cut and graft the AD tree. Microsoft has stated that beta 1 isn't feature-complete and that any additional features that will be in the final release will appear in beta 2, which might be shipping by the time you read this article.

The latest word from Microsoft is that it will release Whistler in the second half of 2001; the Home Edition and Professional Edition release dates will be much earlier than the server release dates. The Whistler family of products won't carry the .NET name, and Microsoft doesn't plan to include the core parts of the .NET Framework (e.g., Common Language Runtime—CLR) as part of the Whistler release. Although Microsoft might change this plan by the time it releases the OS, the core .NET integration components are more likely to appear in the OS's subsequent release, currently known as Blackcomb.