Lots of news has piled up this month and space is limited, so I'll jump in with a couple points about Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Microsoft's new unified communications announcements, plus an update on IT Innovators.

Who's Afraid of SP2?
Deploying a service pack raises memories of Windows XP SP2's and Windows 2003 SP1's security?related overhaul and resulting application-compatibility hassles. Windows 2003 SP2 is targeted for release by the end of 2006 to coincide with Windows Vista's release. But according to Microsoft Senior Technical Program Manager Ward Ralston, "We're trying not to scare anybody with the words 'service pack' and 'Windows Server 2003' in the same sentence. In SP1 we broke away from traditional service packs, which are just meant to be a rollup of security bulletins and hot fixes and to address top supportability issues. SP2 is our standard service pack."

Sort of. With every service pack, Microsoft claims that this time it's sticking to the original idea of "just fix stuff and don't add new features." But somehow new features always slip in, and SP2 is no exception.

Ward conceded, "We've done a few things we don't normally do in service packs: We've addressed some performance issues with SQL Server and with virtualization and added functionality based on customer feedback. We're bringing forward Longhorn Server features in SP2 to support Vista deployment \[e.g., Windows Deployment Services\]. Also, SP2 is the first to not only patch Server 2003, but also XP x64. This synchronization foreshadows the service pack approach with Longhorn Server and Vista."

The SP2 enhancements are interesting, and we'll publish a complete review of SP2 in an upcoming issue. For now, I quickly want to address a couple of SP2 virtualization developments relevant to my Hey Microsoft! column on page 17. First, Microsoft has announced that the plan to offer unlimited virtualization with the Datacenter SKU of Longhorn Server has been moved up to October 1, 2006, and now applies to Windows 2003 Datacenter Edition. Datacenter will now be available to volume license customers and no longer limited to OEM distribution.

Second, in the context of using virtualization to increase server utilization, I mentioned that server performance decreases with increased utilization. SP2 addresses this. Ward explained, "When Advanced Processor Interrupt Controller \[APIC\] access rates are high, essentially we chunked them up to make it more efficient. If you have a lot of virtual servers hosted on Server 2003, you'll see a performance improvement. We don't have any numbers yet. We're just in beta." (To be clear, performance will improve over the pre-SP2 level but still won't be better than the performance on a physical server that isn't utilized as heavily.)

Who's Interested in Unified Communications?
I recently talked with Clint Patterson (a Microsoft director of product management, Unified Communications) about Microsoft Speech Server 2007, which is now part of the Office Communications Server 2007 platform, scheduled for release late in 2006. Clint said, "Speech Server 2007 is Microsoft's next-generation speech and telephony platform to help contact centers and businesses meet the challenge of reducing costs while improving automated customer service over the telephone."

Microsoft says its move to integrate its communications offerings (including Exchange Server and Outlook) extends "the company's commitment to unified communications and breaks down today's silos of instant messaging, Internet Protocol telephony, voice response, audioconferencing and videoconferencing."

My question to you: How much do you deal with unified communications and telephony and how interested are you in articles on these topics?

IT Innovators
I'm always impressed by how willing IT pros are to help one another by sharing creative solutions. That's the idea behind our annual IT Innovators Awards. The November issue will feature the IT pros who have used Microsoft and third-party products in exciting new ways that can benefit everyone.

Microsoft is also enthusiastic about recognizing these innovators. Group Marketing Manager Romi Mahajan (US IT Professional Audience Marketing) told me he is eager to congratulate the winners during the awards ceremony at our Windows Connections and Microsoft Exchange Connections conferences, co-located in Las Vegas on November 6 to 9, 2006 (see www.winconnections.com). Romi said, "The IT community deserves to be proud of what it does for the industry, so we want to reward people who do good things." Thanks to everyone who submitted a solution!