Recently, Microsoft publicly announced the Windows .NET server family beta 3. Many months have passed since beta 2's release, and technologists around the world have eagerly anticipated the beta 3 servers. The .NET server family contains four products: Windows .NET Datacenter Server, Windows .NET Enterprise Server, Windows .NET Standard Server, and Windows .NET Web Server.

Microsoft boldly proclaims that .NET Datacenter Server is the most powerful and functional server OS the company has ever offered, and I don't think anyone will disagree with that statement. .NET Datacenter Server supports 32-way SMP and provides eight-node clustering and load-balancing services as standard features. A 64-bit version of the server is also available.

Microsoft positions .NET Enterprise Server as the "server of choice for medium to large businesses" that delivers the "functionality needed for enterprise infrastructure, line-of-business applications, and e-commerce transactions." .NET Enterprise Server supports as many as eight processors and provides enterprise-class features such as four-node clustering and up to 32GB of memory. The OS is also available in a 64-bit version.

.NET Standard Server is the network OS that Microsoft recommends for small-business environments. The company says that the product provides "an ideal solution for the basic file, print, and collaboration needs of departments and small organizations." .NET Standard Server supports two-way SMP and up to 4GB of memory.

Microsoft introduced .NET Web Server—a "function-focused" Web server—as a new product in the Windows server family. This release is one of the most exciting and long-awaited servers for IIS administrators who constantly fight for increased Web-server budgets. Many analysts and customers have harshly criticized Microsoft for its Windows 2000 licensing policies for Web servers. They argue that customers shouldn't have to pay for full Win2K server licenses when they're using only IIS. Microsoft seems to have heard that message loud and clear, and although the company hasn't released pricing information (and won't for quite a while), you can assume that Microsoft will appropriately price this member of the .NET server family for those companies with Web farms and whose sole reason for purchasing .NET server is to acquire IIS 6.0.

If you've gone through the time-consuming burden of installing build after build of the .NET Framework for your developers, you'll be happy to learn that the .NET Framework is built into the beta 3 .NET servers. In addition, you'll particularly enjoy the 20 or so new command-line tools specifically designed to automate administration. I think beta 3's most exciting feature is its integration of Microsoft Passport as a supported authentication mechanism for IIS 6.0. You can map a Windows account in Active Directory (AD) to a Passport account. After the system verifies Passport authentication, it maps Passport users to AD users through their Passport identifications (if such a mapping exists). The Local Security Authority (LSA) creates a token for the user, which IIS sets for the HTTP request. In addition to authentication, you can use this security model for AD and ACL user authorization on servers running IIS 6.0; it's a very powerful feature!

I've been running the .NET Advanced Server beta 2 in production for more than 6 months and have found it extremely stable and reliable. Some of its features are broken or missing, and Help is nonexistent, but you almost expect these problems in an early beta. My beta 2 servers haven't crashed, which is encouraging. The beta 3 .NET servers appear to be feature complete, and a Help system is now available. And the .NET servers are fully interoperable with Win2K-based servers. In fact, I use Network Load Balancing (NLB) in a mixed cluster of Win2K Advanced Servers and beta 2 .NET Advanced Servers.

Not only can you expect beta 3 .NET servers to be extremely reliable and available, you can expect them to interoperate nicely with Win2K servers. If you're looking to upgrade, this is good news.