Microsoft began private beta testing of Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 last week, with an expected public release in June. While details were few and far between last week, Microsoft spoke up Monday morning and revealed some details about the service pack, which is far more important than previously expected. First of all, Service Pack 4 will encompass all of the previous service packs as well as all of the post-SP3 hot-fixes, such as the Year 2000 fix, and the NetWare file and print services update. This is standard fare for service packs, which are designed by Microsoft to offer bug fixes, not major new features. But Microsoft has diverged from this plan by adding several new features to NT 4.0 through Service Pack 4. First among these is the Security Configuration Editor, a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) plug-in with an easy-to-use graphical Wizard that allows administrators to configure all of NT's security options from one place. SP4 will also include support for Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) usage over HTTP and the Internet Group Management Protocol, which lets users inform a router when they leave a group. Also included is Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM), a feature originally slated for Windows NT 5.0. WBEM provides administrators with a way to manage data from a variety of sources from one console. Internet Explorer 4.01 rounds out the new features, though the soon-to-be released IE 4.01 with Service Pack 1 could be substituted.

Aside from the additions to NT 4.0 itself, Service Pack 4 takes the unprecedented step of updating the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack as well. Released in December 1997, and included with new NT 4.0 packaging, the Option Pack includes Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 (Microsoft's Web server), Transaction Server 2.0, and other new NT features. SP4 fixes numerous bugs in the Option Pack, and adds new Option Pack functionality, such as user profile disk quotas, a new capability to handle Euro currency, and Fibre storage capability.

"The focus of this service pack is on improving reliability," says Jonathan Perera, lead product manager for Windows NT Server at Microsoft. "That's why we're giving it to lots of customer sites and why we'll be beta testing it for about three months."

The best feature in SP4? DCOM on HTTP, says Perera.

"Today, you can do E-Commerce over non-networked protocols. This feature lets components talk over HTTP," Perera said. "So, if you build something like a component-based extranet application, components can work over and through firewalls."

Though Service Pack 4 walks a fine line between standard service packs and options packs, which are supposed to add functionality, not fix bugs, Microsoft says this is the last time it will add features in a service pack. In the future, service packs will only fix bugs and new features will only be added via option packs