By the time you read this, Microsoft will have finally rounded out its 32-bit Windows 2000 product family with the release of Win2K Datacenter Server. Datacenter builds on Win2K Advanced Server features, adding all the bug fixes in Win2K AS Service Pack 1 (SP1) as well as support for 64GB of RAM, 32-bit processors, two- and four-node clustering, partitioning, and network load balancing. Aimed at companies engaged in e-commerce, application service providers (ASPs), and other high-end customers who need reliability and scalability, Datacenter is Microsoft's first legitimate stab at a market dominated by big iron.

Microsoft has long preached an enterprise model that matches Win2K's and Windows NT's distributed computing model. Datacenter combines Win2K's scale-out benefits with a more traditional scale-up model (i.e., one large box with massive multiprocessing capabilities). With Datacenter, the company hopes to finally gain the credibility that has eluded it since it first announced NT. (NT's image has suffered because of real and perceived limitations and flaws.) But simply building a bigger Win2K isn't enough to accomplish that goal. To tackle the needs of high-end customers, many of whom might not otherwise consider Win2K, Microsoft has created a reliability-testing infrastructure called the Windows Datacenter Program, which ensures that Datacenter will be preinstalled on only those systems that the company has thoroughly tested and validated.

The key to the Windows Datacenter Program is a Hardware Compatibility Test (HCT) that each Datacenter-compatible hardware product must pass. After a hardware device has passed this rigorous test, Microsoft certifies its compatibility with Datacenter and places it on the Datacenter Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), which will be available on Microsoft's Web site after the Datacenter release. Because of the test's stringent nature, products on Datacenter's HCL are only a subset of those compatible with other Win2K editions. Datacenter systems must guarantee at least 99.9 percent uptime, and PC makers that sell such Datacenter systems must provide, on a regular basis, uptime reports and other statistics to Microsoft. In addition, Datacenter systems must support at least eight processors, although they can ship with as few as one. Datacenter licensing is based on the number of processors the system can support, and businesses must purchase Client Access Licenses (CALs) separately from the system.

Although Datacenter seems to address many of enterprise customers' scalability problems with Win2K, whether the product can make inroads into the high-end market remains to be seen. As Win2K's market scales ever upward, I'll be interested to see which platform customers ultimately embrace.