Is Microsoft quietly raising the price of the Windows Server OS? In fact, is the company, in effect, quadrupling the price?

Ever since the days of Windows NT 4.0, Microsoft has offered two versions of the server OS. We got NT Server4.0, as well as NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition. Then, we got Windows 2000 Server, as well as Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Now, we have Windows Server 2003, Standard Edition, as well as Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition. As long as Microsoft continues its alternate-the-names game, I assume Longhorn Server will come in both Windows Server 2007 and Windows Advanced Server 2007 varieties. Keeping track of these names can be confusing, so for the sake of simplicity, I'll just call them Standard and Enterprise. (And yes, we shouldn't forget about the Datacenter Edition and Web Edition versions, but considering that 99 percent of Windows Server sales go to either the Standard or Enterprise version, I’ll stick with those two.)

Since the dawn of this century, the Standard edition of the OS has cost about $1000 retail and the Enterprise edition has cost four times that price—$4000. I’ve done most of my work on Standard simply because I’m not rich and, frankly, I've been able to live without Enterprise’s features. Back in 2000, that was easy because the list of features that Enterprise offered that Standard didn't offer was short. First, Win2K Enterprise offered the option to realign the OS's memory structure from its standard configuration—2GB of address space for the OS and 2GB of address space for each application—to a more big-application-friendly 1GB of address space for the OS and 3GB of address space for applications. (This feature was available only to apps written to take advantage of it, and so it was of dubious value. The main exploiter of the 3GB address space was, as far as I know, the enterprise version of Microsoft SQL Server.) Second, Win2K Enterprise allowed Microsoft Cluster Server and the Network Load Balancing (NLB) module. If you needed those things, and most folks didn’t, then it was probably worth the extra 300 percent price hike. (Don't forget that you'd be paying a lot more for the Enterprise—3GB-enabled—versions of applications.) Oh, and third, Win2K Enterprise supported more processors than the Standard version did. If you wanted to support more than four processors, then it was Enterprise for you.

Windows 2003 loosened things up in one aspect: The NLB module moved to Standard and was dubbed the NLB cluster. In other respects, Enterprise got more enticing. First, it supported some nifty hardware options, such as non-uniform memory architecture (NUMA), hot-pluggable PCI cards, and—again—more than four processors. (But, again, don’t ask me about any of those things, because I couldn’t afford them.) Windows 2003 Enterprise introduced a neat-looking tool called Windows System Resource Manager (WSRM) that delights some and leaves others unimpressed, but I’d sure be happy to see WSRM ship with Standard. My Enterprise envy rose further as I discovered that an annoying DFS limitation—the inability to host more than one DFS root on one server—was removed, but only for Enterprise. Anyone wanting to use Microsoft’s Certificate Services to create a PKI infrastructure would soon want to create his or her own custom certificate templates—but her or she would need Enterprise to go beyond the built-in templates.

Hey! I started thinking. What’s going on here? What does the ability to customize certificate templates—or the ability to host more than one DFS root—have to do with being an "enterprise"?

And now we have Enterprise and Standard versions of R2. R2 is, most would agree, a pretty minor upgrade as Windows Server goes, and I count only about 14 new items in R2—and I think I’m being generous. What Enterprise centrism do we find here? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

First there’s the Active Directory Federation Service (ADFS). It’s a tool that lets you create a new kind of relationship between two completely different forests, a relationship that makes it much easier for creators of secured Web sites created in the first forest to grant access to members of the second forest. Although it might sound small, it's the first salvo in a series of interesting, forthcoming tools that will make it possible to (in Microsoft’s phrase) “federate” two or more forests. Folks in Redmond tell me that this is the single most-requested feature in R2. And you get it only in Enterprise. Hmmm.

Then there’s Active Directory Metadirectory Services (ADMS). Oh, you’ve never heard of ADMS? That’s because it was called the Identity Integration Feature Pack (IIFP) until mid-February, when Bill Gates announced its name change. In case you've never heard of it, this is an extremely useful tool for federating (there’s that word again) two or more forests in cases in which you want them more, shall we say, closely federated than ADFS can handle. Neat tool, free download—but it runs only on Enterprise R2. Again, hmmm.

Finally, there’s Microsoft’s announcement of more liberal licensing for R2. Ever created a virtual machine on VMWare, Virtual PC, or Virtual Server? And did you ever put a copy of Windows Server on that machine? Did you have a separate license for that copy? Oh, I’m sorry, did I ask an embarrassing question? Microsoft does indeed want you to buy a separate copy of Windows Server for every virtual machine, but it decided to make doing so easier with a change to R2’s software license. With R2, you’re allowed to create as many as four virtual machines with just one R2 license. One Enterprise R2 license, that is.

I’m starting to worry that Longhorn Server in its Standard edition will ship without such “enterprise” features as IIS, or DCPROMO, or—heck, maybe the file server software? Although I'm typing with tongue in cheek, I'd like to make a plea to Microsoft: Please don’t make Standard useless!