This week, Microsoft unleashed new security-oriented service pack betas for Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, products that won't ship until sometime in 2004. Microsoft has redesigned the XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) beta to include pervasive safety technologies, such as an improved firewall, enhanced memory protection, and Web pop-up prevention. The Windows 2003 SP1 includes a new Security Configuration Wizard, an IP version 6 (IPv6)-compatible firewall, and other security-related features. Both are currently available only to beta testers, but Microsoft will release the XP SP2 beta to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) members later this week.
   A Microsoft representative told me, "The Windows XP SP2 beta is intended to provide developers and IT professionals an opportunity to conduct early testing and to allow Microsoft to collect valuable customer feedback. During this beta, Microsoft hopes to garner significant feedback from software developers and IT professionals that will be incorporated into and improve the final product." The company notes that the current XP SP2 beta contains only a subset of the technologies that will ultimately ship in the final SP2 version, and that the final technology set will be based largely on customer feedback generated during the beta process.
   XP SP2 includes the following security improvements:
   - Network protection: The new, more powerful version of Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) in SP2 is enabled by default.
   - Safer Web browsing: Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0 provides improved protection against harmful Web downloads and pop-up advertisements.
   - Enhanced memory protection: By preventing errant applications from copying too much data into areas of a computer's memory, XP can now stave off buffer-overrun attacks.
   - Safer email and Instant Messaging (IM): XP SP2 protects against malicious email attachments and IM file transfers.

   According to Microsoft, XP SP2 is still on track for delivery in the first half of 2004. Given the wide range of improvements in this release, as well as its lengthy development time, XP SP2 is probably the most important XP update ever. When Microsoft releases the product next year, the company will likely work diligently to move all of its XP customers to SP2 as quickly as possible.
   Meanwhile, Windows 2003 SP1 is on a longer development cycle than XP SP2 and won't ship until late 2004. This week, Microsoft issued a new interim build of the service pack: Build 1137 includes versions for Intel x86 and AMD64 systems. Windows 2003 includes the following improvements:
   - Security Configuration Wizard (SCW): You can use this rules-based wizard to create, edit, or apply security policies for a computer or group of similarly configured computers.
   - Microsoft IIS 6.0 performance enhancements: New kernel-mode Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) functionality improves performance by moving encryption and decryption operations to the Windows kernel.
   - ICF for IPv6: The new, two-way ICF is now IPv6-compatible.
   - 32-bit application performance on 64-bit platforms: New Intel technologies improve the performance of 32-bit applications running on 64-bit Windows OSs (aka Windows on Windows 64--WOW64).

   Unlike the XP SP2 beta, the Windows 2003 SP1 beta won't be widely available at this time. However, a later milestone release will likely be more widely available, the company notes.