On Wednesday, Microsoft shipped its long-awaited final major beta milestone for Windows Server "Longhorn," the next version of Windows Server. Due at the end of 2007, Longhorn Server delivers major improvements over existing Windows Server versions and the Beta 3 version, available publicly, shows big gains since the previous beta release. But then, it should: Beta 2 shipped almost a year ago.

Longhorn Server, like its Vista stable mate, has been on a slow burn. Microsoft shipped Longhorn Server Beta 1 back in mid-2005 alongside Vista Beta 1, and then shipped Beta 2 in May 2006. Today, Beta 3 shows a level of maturity that was missing in previous betas, along with a slew of new features. Unfortunately, excitement over Beta 3 is somewhat dimmed by a recent announcement that the first beta for Windows Server Virtualization, a feature add-on for Longhorn Server, will now ship about six months later than previously scheduled, in late 2007.

Longhorn Server Beta 3 is the first pre-release version of this product that Microsoft has made available to the public. "Our customers and partners will find we made some vast improvements in Windows Server 'Longhorn' to help them reduce costs and adapt to changing business needs," says Microsoft general manager Bill Laing. "Between early adopter customers and Microsoft IT, we have hundreds of servers running in production environments today. If there's one message we want to send today, it is get ready, download and evaluate."

Customers who do so will see many improvements. Longhorn Server's roles-based management approach is now mature, more finely-grained, and intelligently integrated into the core architecture of the system. Windows PowerShell, a new .NET-based scripting and command line environment, is now included. Windows Firewall is now enabled by default and automatically configured properly as various server roles and features are enabled and changed. Security features like BitLocker, Read-Only Domain Controller (RODC), EFS (Encrypting File System), and Server Core can now be used in tandem to full secure remote servers at branch offices. And Terminal Services has been improved dramatically, with simpler printing, remote application deployment, and VPN-less secure remote access.

There's a lot more, of course: Longhorn Server is a deep product. I'll be publishing an article on the SuperSite for Windows today describing all the important new features in Beta 3, and will review Beta 3 next week.

In the meantime, you can get started with Longhorn Server Beta 3 by visiting the Microsoft Web site.