The next 2 years are going to bring a series of major and significant updates to all of Microsoft's Windows Server products, as well as an exciting series of new product releases aimed at ensuring that everyone's favorite software giant hits every conceivable portion of the server software market. However, even the most cynical Microsoft customers should be impressed with the sheer volume of server technologies the company is planning to introduce. So many technologies, in fact, that this article can serve only as a cursory overview, and one that I'll try to expand on in the coming months. In the meantime, here's what Microsoft has up its sleeve.

Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2
With Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), due out in the first quarter of 2007, there's much less deployment pain to fear than there was with SP1, which included major new features. Instead, SP2 is a more typical service pack that bundles all of the previously released hot fixes and patches (including SP1) into a single, easy-to-deploy update. It also includes a number of new features, and although some are quite interesting, none are major.

The most important thing you need to know about SP2 is that there'll only be one version of this service pack. Whether you're running any 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows 2003, Windows Server 2003 Enterprise x64 Edition, Windows Server 2003 Release 2 (R2), or even Windows XP x64 Edition, a single SP2 version will update your entire system. You won't have a confusing slew of slightly different SP2 releases to worry about.

So what's new? SP2 includes Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 3.0, which was introduced in R2 but is now available to all Windows 2003 users. It also includes the Scalable Networking Pack and Windows Deployment Services (WDS) so that Windows 2003 users can deploy Vista clients. WDS can be used in three modes: Legacy (in which it works like a Microsoft Remote Installation Services—RIS—server), Mixed (in which you can use both RIS and WDS tools and technologies), and Native (WDS only).

Windows 2003 SP2 will initially be made available as an optional download, via Microsoft Update, for its first three months of availability. After that, it will be deployed via Automatic Updates as a critical update, although businesses will be able to block SP2 for one year. However, after that year elapses, SP2 will become a mandatory update.

Windows Home Server
A few years back, I first wrote about Windows Home Server (currently code-named "Q" but previously code-named "Quattro"), but this highly confidential project has been developed under a fog of secrecy that Microsoft has rarely been able to sustain. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2007, however, the company finally announced its plans for a home server. In addition, while this product won't have any impact on the majority of businesses, it looks like a fascinating option for home-based and very small businesses.

Windows Home Server is unlike any other Windows Server product. It won't support Active Directory (AD) domains or any other kind of directory, although Microsoft did briefly investigate that possibility. Instead, Home Server will provide a few key pieces of functionality, the most intriguing of which is its storage technology. Windows Home Server will provide automatic backup for all of the PCs in a user's home, and by using a new patent-pending Single Instance Store (SIS) technology, it will achieve dramatic compression results. 17GB to 19GB of data, I'm told, can be compressed down to 300MB of backups. Microsoft will employ an image-based, full-PC backup with incremental backups thereafter, as well as document and data backups.

Storage on the server is handled in an obvious yet innovative way. Instead of using drive letters, Windows Home Server will aggregate all of your storage into a single storage pool, no matter how many drives you add. You can hot-add internal and external storage, whether Serial ATA (SATA) drives or USB devices, at least on the servers that will support this product (standalone Windows Home Server software will also be made available, so you will be able to install it on your own machines). What's interesting about this approach to storage is that users can specify certain data files—such as digital photos—as "important." Windows Home Server will ensure that it backs up at least two copies of "important" files, one each on two different physical drives, increasing the chance that one copy will survive in the event of a hardware failure.

Windows Home Server will also provide remote access over the Internet to any connected PC on the network running XP SP2 and later, including Vista, and to the server itself, providing the type of functionality one now associates with solutions like GoToMyPC and LogMeIn.

PC builders such as HP are coming out with innovative Windows Home Server hardware, although you can always build your own. Although pricing wasn't available at the time of this writing, Microsoft understands that this product must sell to the consumer market, so expect the company to be aggressive in this area.

Windows "Cougar" Small Business Server
Due in early 2008, Windows Cougar, Microsoft's next major version of Small Business Server (SBS), will be based on Windows Server Longhorn, which I cover a bit later. At this point, Cougar is less well defined than Windows Home Server. We know that Cougar will include Longhorn Server, Exchange Server 2007, Windows SharePoint Services 3, System Center Essentials 2007, SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition, and ISA Server 2007. We know that it will serve the same market that SBS did—small businesses with 75 or fewer PCs. We also know that it will include technologies related to PC and data protection, remote access, and antivirus/anti-spyware. More specific details, however, are unknown. Stay tuned.

Windows "Centro" Midmarket Server
Microsoft's been talking up its midmarket server offering, code-named Centro, since early 2006, and with the first beta release late last year, this product is finally shaping up. Unfortunately, because of non-disclosure agreement issues, I can't discuss this product in detail yet, but if you imagine a multi-server version of SBS that works with far more users, you're on the right track. I'll write more about Centro in the coming months.

Windows Server Longhorn
Windows Server Longhorn, or Longhorn Server, is shaping up to be the biggest Windows Server release since Windows 2000. Like Vista, Longhorn Server has been redesigned from the ground up in a modular fashion, which has several benefits. First, a roles-based model makes Longhorn Server easy to install and manage, and features specific to certain functional roles aren't installed until an administrator decides they're necessary. This functionality significantly reduces the server's total attack surface. Second, because Longhorn's roles understand exactly which dependencies are required whenever features are added and removed, users never have to go back manually, as they did with Windows 2003's SCW, and reestablish security. Finally, Longhorn Server will be available in a stripped-down Windows Server Core version that will provide only basic infrastructure services with no GUI at all. Enterprises have been asking for this feature for years.

Windows Server Core provides access to seven core services—Win2K Server Terminal Services, Internet Authentication Service (IAS), Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0, Windows SharePoint Services 3, Windows Server Virtualization (see below), printing, and media streaming—all via a command-line interface, although you're free to use GUI tools if you want to control the server remotely. (You can also administer Windows Server Core via Terminal Services.) Note that because Windows Server Core doesn't include the .NET Framework, it can't support certain features in this first version. But Microsoft has big plans for the next version, which will be bundled with Longhorn R2 in 2009.

The Longhorn Server feature set is so vast that I can only hit the high points here. It will include the .NET-based Windows PowerShell command-line environment for scripting and automation. The new Windows Server Manager, based on MMC 3.0, will provide a friendly and task-based approach to managing your Windows Server's various roles. (And yes, you can finally install multiple roles simultaneously.) The newly rebuilt Windows Firewall supports bidirectional filtering and is fully policy-controlled via Group Policy and AD. Longhorn's Web server, IIS 7.0, is built on the same roles-based underpinnings as Longhorn itself, providing better security and a smaller functional footprint.

As with Vista, Longhorn's TCP/IP networking stack has been completely rewritten and now supports almost real-time analysis and control of everything that moves through it. The stack also includes the ability to fine-tune network window sizes on the fly. Previously, windows were hard-coded to certain small sizes, hindering performance and ease of use.

To protect the server from attack and reduce downtime, Longhorn Server includes a number of technologies—such as BitLocker Drive Encryption, Secure Startup, Windows service hardening, and the Restart Manager, which reduces the need to reboot by 50 percent by restarting individual services instead of the full system when a patch is installed. In addition, because of its roles-based approach, Longhorn Server is always in "shields up" mode, regardless of the roles you've configured. As roles and features are added and removed, the server ensures that it's always configured for the best security, automatically.

Longhorn Server, finally, includes Network Access Protection (NAP), providing businesses with a way to quarantine connecting clients that don't meet established security baselines. While in quarantine, these machines can be updated and swept of any malware, then allowed into the corporate network. Longhorn Server also includes Windows Rights Management Services (RMS), to provide businesses with a way to protect sensitive corporate data from prying eyes.

A new feature called Read-Only Domain Controller is perfect for branch offices, where servers are typically maintained less stringently and are more vulnerable to physical theft. With a Read-Only Domain Controller, replication is unidirectional only, and directory passwords aren't stored locally. If the server is stolen, the thieves can't get at sensitive corporate data.

Longhorn Server is on track to ship by the end of 2007, Microsoft says. A Beta 3 release should be available in February 2007.

Windows Server Virtualization
Due within 180 days of the release of Longhorn Server, Windows Server virtualization will be a free add-on for Longhorn Server that dramatically increases the capabilities and performance of a virtualized environment running on Windows Server. Windows Server virtualization is essentially a hypervisor environment that runs on Intel or AMD-based hardware, along with a Windows Server Core–based Longhorn role that runs in the primary, or parent partition. Users install and run virtualized environments in child partitions.

Windows Server Virtualization will support x64 host and guest OSs and is compatible with today's Virtual Hard Disk (VHD)–based virtual environments, which you might have created in Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 or Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2. In addition, Windows Server virtualization will natively support multiple processors, functionality that, when combined with the memory possibilities on x64 systems, will provide dramatic scalability benefits.