Microsoft has released a public beta version of its upcoming Windows Server 2003 interim release, code-named R2. The release is available through the R2 Customer Preview Program. I've been following R2 development and have been working with beta R2 code for several months now. In this week's commentary, I give you some information about what to expect--and perhaps more important, what not to expect--from R2.

The original concept for R2 grew out of the lengthening development time of Windows Server releases. Given the needs of its enterprise customers, Microsoft settled on a regular schedule for Windows Server releases, although only time will tell how well the company adheres to that schedule. Every 4 years, the company will ship a major release, such as Windows 2003. Between those major releases, Microsoft plans to ship a minor, or R2, release. Windows 2003 R2 is the first of those minor updates; a Longhorn Server R2 release will occur down the road as well.

R2 releases will retain the same kernel as the major releases they follow, ensuring application compatibility. R2 releases will simply be considered the latest version of the current Windows Server product. When Windows 2003 R2 ships later this year, it will simply replace Windows 2003 in the market. However, because it's a minor release, most customers won't want--or need--to upgrade, especially because Windows 2003 R2's original release has been seriously defanged.

Originally, Windows 2003 R2 was to have included two major features that would have made it a far more interesting release to more of Microsoft's customers. The first, Windows "Bear Paw," the next release of Windows Terminal Services, would have let administrators distribute remote applications (e.g., Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel) to users. Instead of needing to train users about Remote Desktop, you could simply distribute applications to them. Users could launch those applications from the Start Menu, cut and paste between them and local applications, and save documents to their My Documents folder, without realizing that those applications were running from a remote server. Bear Paw is a great idea--but it won't happen until Longhorn Server in 2007.

The second major feature that Microsoft stripped from R2 is a fully implemented version of Network Access Protection (NAP), a network-quarantine feature that would prevent remote users from connecting to a private network until they met security requirements. While in quarantine, the users would receive the appropriate updates and then be allowed to access the network. Today (and in R2), Microsoft supplies only basic quarantine functionality that requires a lot of extra work to implement.

R2 is now much less exciting to the average Windows 2003 customer. Instead, R2 targets three specific needs: simpler management tools for businesses with branch offices, cross-business identity federation, and improved storage-management functionality. If you have any of these needs, you should evaluate R2. If you don't, I recommend you skip this release and look ahead to Longhorn Server.

So what does R2 bring to the table? First, R2 will provide simpler management tools for businesses with branch offices. The tools will help you deploy and manage systems in remote offices that have little or no IT staff. There is also a new version of DFS, which Microsoft renamed DFS Namespaces. DFS Namespaces now includes a feature called DFS Replication (formerly File Replication Services), supports multilevel failover and failback, and can work more efficiently over WANs.

Second, R2 supports cross-business identity federation through Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS--code-named Trustbridge). This functionality simplifies collaboration between companies that trust each other. Microsoft says that governments and large international businesses are actively testing this feature.

Third, R2 includes improvements to some of Windows Server's core storage-management functionality. Specifically, R2 will support folder-based quota management. Also, R2 will offer a new Virtual Disk Service (VDS) 1.1-compatible SAN management console called Storage Resource Manager.

R2 offers many small improvements as well. It will include the Windows .NET Framework 2.0, Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 2.1, a new Common Log File System, and a new Printer Management console. It will also bundle three feature packs: Active Directory Application Mode (ADAM), Windows SharePoint Services 2.0, and the Subsystem for UNIX Applications (previously known as Windows Services for UNIX).

I hope I've given you the information you need to understand whether you should pursue an evaluation of this product. In upcoming weeks, I'll delve into specific R2 features and look at the ways in which you can deploy and integrate R2 into your existing environments. Though it's been considerably scaled back--a message I suspect Microsoft would rather I didn't communicate so bluntly--the current vision for R2 will be far less disruptive and thus fits rather neatly in its intended interim release mold. So it's not all bad. And certainly, if you've been waiting for one or more of R2's unique new features, it could be quite compelling indeed.

Windows Server 2003 R2 Trial Software (Microsoft)