A headless option in 32-bit server editions of the next version of Windows 2000 (code-named Whistler and currently scheduled for second quarter 2001) will let the product compete more closely with embedded and UNIX-based solutions. A headless server "doesn't require a keyboard, a monitor, or a mouse," explained Microsoft Program Manager Pasquale DeMaio at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) earlier this year. "You can remove the keyboard controller and the video controller as long as your BIOS supports use without the video card present." Microsoft is working with hardware makers to create BIOS support for headless Whistler servers, and although the first generation of Whistler will require at least one COM port for headless operation, a future version will work with devices using a more modern USB port instead.

Microsoft will fully implement headless support over at least two product life cycles. Although Whistler Personal Edition (the upcoming Win2K consumer desktop version) and Whistler Professional Edition (the upcoming business desktop version) won't support headless operation, all 32-bit Whistler Server products will. However, Microsoft won't offer a 64-bit headless server version—a surprising omission. (The company says a future Win2K release, code-named Blackcomb, will offer this feature.) Otherwise, 64-bit versions of Whistler Server, Whistler Advanced Server, and Whistler Datacenter Server will be functionally identical to their 32-bit equivalents.

You manage Whistler servers remotely over a network, so in addition to specific hardware requirements, the servers will need a physically secure environment. Headless Whistler servers will offer two system management modes: in-band management and out-of-band (OOB) management. You'll perform in-band management when the system is fully functioning and running Windows; in-band management will typically occur over a network and will utilize Windows' TCP/IP stack. You'll perform OOB management when Windows isn't running (e.g., because the system is being loaded or has crashed) and the network stack isn't available, so this mode requires certain services to be available even when the OS isn't running. With Whistler's headless feature, you'll be able to remotely restart the system, change BIOS settings, choose OS options, and even view blue screen messages.

To make the headless option work, Microsoft is significantly changing Win2K's architecture—removing local console I/O dependencies and tweaking Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) support to work without a legacy keyboard controller. A special NULL VGA adapter will let the system boot without a display card or monitor. And Microsoft is upgrading all kernel components (including the loader, setup, and recovery console) to support OOB management.

With the Whistler release, Microsoft will once again move Windows into a new area of functionality. Combined with the addition of Win2K Server Terminal Services to the Whistler Professional Edition, the headless capability will make Whistler the most remotely accessible Microsoft OS yet.