Last week, I received my first indication that Microsoft is finally taking the planning needs of its corporate customers seriously: Bob Muglia, Microsoft senior vice president of the Windows Server Division, met with me and spelled out the company's plans for the next several iterations of Windows Server, providing for the first time a predictable, obvious, and sustainable product rollout strategy. The discussion was eye-opening and, frankly, refreshing. Microsoft, historically, has been a secretive company, which I've often argued is a liability, not a benefit. Although I've heard that this secrecy will continue with the company's consumer-oriented products--its upcoming Windows Media Player (WMP) "Crescent" and Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) "Symphony" releases, for example, will be shrouded in mystery until they're ready for public consumption--Microsoft is now interested in being more open about its enterprise products. Here's what I learned when I met with Muglia.

First, the monolithic development nightmare that was most clearly seen with Windows 2000 is a thing of the past. During the Win2K development time frame, I argued that Microsoft's OS products had gotten too complex and that by the time the company met its internal goals for the product, its customers needs had changed, necessitating further release delays and product reformulations. The result was that the next server release, Windows Server 2003, was in many ways a fit-and-finish upgrade of Win2K that fixed glaring (and not-so-glaring) holes and improved security, uptime, and performance but offered few major new features. In the year since that release, Microsoft has issued an unprecedented set of add-ons--first called out-of-band (OOB) updates but now officially titled Feature Packs--that dramatically improve the features and capabilities of the base server product. Feature Packs include Windows Rights Management Services (RMS), Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), and Windows SharePoint Services (WSS).

"If you only do major releases every 4 years, you have to do lots of Feature Packs," Muglia said. "But here's what's worrying about Feature Packs: Customers have a hard time absorbing Feature Packs. They're not discoverable, \[customers\] have to download them; OEMs 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."

Thus, Microsoft's Windows Server development strategy boils down to the following simple structure: The company will issue major Windows Server upgrades every 4 years, interspersed by minor Windows Server upgrades every 2 years. The first of these minor updates, code-named Windows 2003 Server R2 (for "release 2"), will ship in mid-2005. Then, the next major Windows Server release, Windows Server Longhorn, will ship in 2007 (about 6 to 12 months after the Longhorn client). A Longhorn Server update will ship in 2009, and we can expect Blackcomb Server in 2011.

"One thing we're trying to do is move to a world where we have much more predictability associated with our software release schedules," Muglia said. "\[Two years after each major Windows Server release\] we can take features and functionality and add them on top of the \[then-current Windows Server\] kernel--not change the kernel in any way, keep things consistent for the customers, and don't break compatibility--and build functionality on top that they can utilize. \[Windows Server 2003\] R2 will be the first of these update releases."

Muglia admitted that part of the rationale for this strategy was dissatisfaction from its Software Assurance (SA) customers, many of whom expected to see another major server release during their license period. For these customers, Windows Server 2003 R2 will be included as part of their licensing costs. But when Windows Server 2003 R2 ships, other customers would need to purchase it, as they would any server release.

I asked Muglia how Windows Server 2003 R2 and subsequent update releases will affect the company's current plans for service packs and hotfixes. He said Windows Server 2003 R2 would be based on the code for Windows 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1)--due this fall--and will ship before Windows 2003 SP2. According to Muglia, when SP2 does ship, presumably in late 2005, the update will upgrade both the initial Windows 2003 release and Windows Server 2003 R2.

Muglia also talked up the upcoming 64-bit version of Windows Server that will target AMD64 (AMD Opteron) and Intel x86 (Intel Xeon EMT64T). Dubbed Windows Server 2003 64-Bit Edition for Extended Systems, this version will have the same features as existing Windows Server versions (Itanium-based versions of Windows didn't include all the features of the 32-bit versions) and will offer significant improvements over 32-bit versions, including, for the first time, performance gains. Indeed, according to Microsoft's internal testing, even 32-bit servers, services, and applications run faster on AMD 64-bit hardware than they do on comparable 32-bit hardware. More about that at a later date.

I do have one bit of bad news: During a recent visit to the Windows NT Build Lab at the Microsoft campus, I noticed a sign that detailed the lab's build-order precedence as XP SP2, then Windows 2003 SP1, followed by Win2K, then Longhorn. I was surprised to see Win2K on the build precedence list and asked Muglia whether Win2K would be getting some of the XP SP2 security fixes (code-named "Springboard"). Sadly, the answer is no. "We're taking the core fixes that we find we need to bring back to Windows 2000 and putting them back there," Muglia said. "But no, there's nothing like Springboard at this point for Windows 2000. We won't do the very broad pass that we did for XP. Just those things that we feel are the really significant security vulnerabilities we've identified ... are the only things that we're taking. You have to understand that with Springboard, we made hundreds and hundreds of changes to the operating system. We've done a lot of clean-up-type work that no one's really done any exploits on \[in XP SP2\], and yet we want to make sure there's no chance of that happening, so we're doing a ton of that sort of work. That's not all going back to Windows 2000." In other words, Win2K SP5, due in late 2004, will be a traditional service pack.

There's a lot more information, including the exact technologies Microsoft expects to ship in each Windows Server release, but I'm out of space. I'm not yet sure where the entire Muglia interview will be published, but I'll certainly provide a link to it as soon as it's available. In the meantime, please let me know what you think about Microsoft's road-map plans. Although the overall roadmap view is appreciated, I suspect that some of its plans will likely be somewhat controversial for the software giant's customers.