By outlining its plans for updating its Windows Server product line for the next several years, Microsoft has addressed a very real corporate need. This information helps enterprises plan upgrade and migration strategies and provides the predictability that organizations require to operate efficiently. This rollout strategy, combined with Microsoft's recent decision to lengthen its corporate product support period to 10 years, reflects a new way of thinking at Microsoft—one that more closely follows the rollout strategies of its customers. I recently spoke with Microsoft Senior Vice President of Windows Servers Bob Muglia about the roadmap. Here's what you need to know about the future of Windows Server.

A Major Release Every 4 Years; A Minor Release 2 Years Later
Under the new rollout plan, Microsoft will release one major Windows Server update approximately every 4 years and one minor update 2 years after every major release. Major releases will generally include kernel changes with the resulting potential incompatibility concerns; minor releases will use the same kernel as the preceding major release, ensuring compatibility.

Client releases, such as the successor to Windows XP, code-named Longhorn, won't follow this schedule. "The client does not have as much clarity about these update releases," said Muglia. "But \[the Windows client team\] will certainly synchronize \[client releases\] with the major \[Windows Server\] releases. There's no question about that. \[The Windows client team\] might do more targeted individual market releases, like they've done with Media Center PC and Tablet PC, but \[the client environment\] is a somewhat different environment than \[the one for servers\]."

Releases Coming Down the Pike
Windows Server 2003, which Microsoft shipped in April 2003, is considered the first major release of the new roll- out strategy, and its successor, Windows 2003 Release 2 (R2), due in mid-2005, will be the first minor release. Windows 2003 R2, then, will be built on the Windows 2003 kernel and will be compatible with its predecessor. Indeed, Microsoft says that it will release Windows 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), which will service both Windows 2003 and Windows 2003 R2, sometime in late 2005 or early 2006.

Windows 2003 R2 will include several previously unheard-of features, including Server Message Block (SMB) file sharing and Windows Terminal Services over HTTPS. Windows 2003 R2 will also include the Trustbridge Federated Security and Identity feature, which, according to Muglia, "will let a company work with their business partners, share information, and not have to worry about setting up unique Active Directory \[AD\] accounts." Windows 2003 R2 also will include the Whidbey (the next release of Visual Studio .NET) versions of the Windows .NET Framework and the Framework Common Language Runtime (CLR). Microsoft will also release a Windows 2003 R2 version of Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 and, presumably, SBS updates at each release milestone (both major and minor).

Because Microsoft released Windows 2003 before finalizing this server roadmap, the company has created a lot of Windows 2003 add-ons (called feature packs), which it will roll into the Windows 2003 R2 release. According to Muglia, subsequent Windows Server releases won't have as many feature packs. "If you only do major releases every 4 years, you have to do lots of feature packs," he said. "If your releases are 2 years apart, you can do less of them. Where possible, I will roll features into update releases, rather than have them be released separately as feature packs. Customers have a hard time absorbing feature packs. They're not discoverable. \[Customers\] have to download them; \[PC makers\] don't ship them. There's a lot of convenience that comes from having a single release, and it just provides a lot more value to the customer. I would never say that we're not going to do another feature pack, because we will do feature packs. An example of one we'll always do is \[Windows\] SharePoint \[Services (WSS)\], which ships when \[Microsoft\] Office ships, because the alignment \[of that product\] is predominantly with Office. We'll make sure we do the right thing, which, in this case, means that feature pack will ship when the next version of Office ships, and then we'll roll it into the next server version."

In 2007, Microsoft will ship the next major Windows Server version, code-named Longhorn. This release will include a dynamic partitioning feature, which lets the OS automatically and on the fly allocate resources such as CPUs, disk space, and RAM to applications; diskless blade server support; and new generations of Active Server Pages .NET (ASP .NET), Microsoft IIS, and an integrated Web services platform called Indigo. "Because \[Longhorn\] is a major release, my certainty of perfect \[application compatibility\] is less certain than it is with \[Windows 2003\] R2," Muglia said. "It's also time for a whole new generation of hardware support."

Longhorn Server will be followed in 2009 by a minor update, currently called simply Longhorn Server Update, and in 2011 by a major release called Blackcomb. "You may think that Longhorn is a long time away, but you'd be shocked by how fast that much time goes by. Think about something like Indigo, which has been in development for almost 4 years now, and you realize that some of these major innovations take a long time to bring to market, especially in an enterprise environment where customers really have an expectation in terms of maturity and availability."

Road Bumps Along the Way
Several Windows Server-related releases are coming up in the next several months that administrators need to think about. In late 2004, Microsoft will ship Win2K SP5, which will be a traditional service pack that doesn't include any of the security technologies (codenamed Springboard) found in XP SP2.

Due in late 2005 is Windows 2003 SP1, which includes the relevant Springboard security technologies as well as some important new features, such as the roles-based Security Configuration Wizard (SCW). Windows 2003 SP1 also adds support for the new 64-bit platforms, AMD64 and Intel's Xeon Intel Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T). Along with Windows 2003 SP1, Microsoft will release a new Windows Server version, Windows Server 2003 for 64-Bit Extended Systems. Unlike the Windows Server versions that target Intel's Itanium platform, this OS will run 32-bit applications at full speed or better (Muglia reported a significant performance boost simply by running 32-bit applications on 64-bit systems that are running a 64-bit OS) and will include every feature that is found in the 32-bit editions. This marks the first time Microsoft has included a complete 32-bit feature set in its 64-bit OS—an indication that these new 64-bit platforms are going mainstream faster than you might expect. "It's only a matter of time before we get to the point where it doesn't make sense for a server vendor to ship anything but 64-bit machines based on AMD64, EM64T, or Itanium," Muglia noted.

Although we might wonder what took the company so long, we should commend Microsoft for finally delivering the news and information its corporate customers so desperately need. Microsoft's product roadmap for Windows Server is logical and clear and should help IT decision makers plot their migration and upgrade strategies over the next decade. The only question, of course, is implementation: Microsoft doesn't exactly have a proud history of sticking to release schedules. But clearly, the company has undergone an attitude change about product deliveries since the interminable Win2K development, and this roadmap should be fairly easy to follow, barring any unforeseen changes in customer requirements. Let's hope that the company's inevitable fine-tuning of this plan doesn't wipe out the usefulness of such a tool.