Late last week, Microsoft finally shipped the long-awaited Beta 3 release of Windows Server "Longhorn," the first publicly available version of its next-generation Windows Server product. Due in late 2007, Longhorn is a major upgrade, and if you're administering Windows-based environments, this is the time to take a first peek. What you see might astonish you, for better or worse.

Like Vista, Longhorn is fully componentized, and the result is a more granular OS that you can install piecemeal, in functional bits, so that only the code you actually need is running on the server. The ultimate manifestation of this change is the new Server Core install type, a command line-only version of Windows Server that eschews GUI niceties for the smallest, lightest, and most secure installation possible. There are trade-offs, of course: The final version of Server Core will support only 7 of the 18 roles, or clearly defined workloads, that the more traditional Longhorn versions will support. And bereft of the familiar GUI, Server Core will require you to exercise some command-line muscles you might have never used or not used in years. There's a fall-back plan, however: You can administer Server Core remotely using the management GUIs on your desktop or other servers.

Speaking of management, Longhorn also includes a new uber management tool called Server Manager that combines all the most-needed management consoles into a single location and wraps them up with useful HTML-like home pages from which you can view and change almost any aspect of a running Longhorn server. And for command-line gurus, Server Manager is augmented by a command-line equivalent called servermanagercmd.exe that provides all the GUI's functionality in a scriptable environment. (A related Server Core command, oclist.exe, provides access to all of that installation's roles and features, except Active Directory--AD--which you configure via a Server Core-specific version of dcpromo.exe.)

Terminal Services has gotten a major shot in the arm with a wide range of new core features--32-bit color support in terminal sessions, copy and paste between the host OS and a terminal session, support for high-resolution and wide-aspect ratio displays, and simpler printing--and also some major new functionality. Terminal Services (TS) Gateway will let you deliver terminal sessions outside of your firewall without a VPN, using HTTP Secure (HTTPS) tunneling. And TS RemoteApp provides a long-awaited Citrix-like feature, the ability to deliver individual applications to users, not just entire environments. Aside from the initial logon, these applications look and behave like locally installed applications, and even include OS-specific "chrome."

Longhorn Server includes huge advances for remote offices. Key technologies include a new domain controller (DC) install type called Read-Only Domain Controller (RODC), in which the AD database is read-only and replication is unidirectional. Should such a server be stolen in a remote office, the thief won't gain access to all your environment's data, including the user names and passwords of all users. Instead, only the user names and passwords of users who logged on via the remote office are stored on the RODC, and deleting the RODC from the domain and resetting the passwords of compromised users is a simple, one-dialog affair. When you combine RODC with related technologies such as BitLocker full-disk encryption, Server Core, and Encrypting File System (EFS), you get an unprecedented solution for branch offices that provides an excellent combination of physical and electronic security with simple maintenance that doesn't require any on-site support staff.

There's so much more, but I'm running out of space. Longhorn includes major advances in its IIS 7.0 Web Server, network quarantining solutions, deployment technologies, backup, high-availability features, and other technologies. And in Beta 3, there are serious improvements over previous betas, including the inclusion of the PowerShell command-line environment (though not in Server Core), a version of the Windows Firewall that's always on by default and yet doesn't break everything, a new Application Server role that's separate from Web server, and a slew of changes to the roles-based installation and configuration technologies. I've written a lot about Longhorn Beta 3 on the SuperSite for Windows already, so if you're looking for more information, please visit that site. (http://www.winsupersite.com ) But please do check out Longhorn: My suspicion is that you're going to find something to love.

http://www.microsoft.com/getbeta3