I’ve been working with Windows Server 2003 R2 in its recent preliminary release, and I’m prompted to echo Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi and to ask, “Who ordered that?” Rabi wasn’t talking about a new release of Windows 2003 but rather a newly discovered subatomic particle. Still, the question is valid in both circumstances.

R2, as you might know, is a new version of Windows 2003 that’s supposed to appear this fall. It repackages Windows 2003, Service Pack 1 (SP1), a handful of available-nowhere-else tools, and a bunch of Windows 2003 add-ons that you can currently download for free.

Let me take a moment to stress that last point, because it’s not entirely clear in the literature I’ve read about R2: Yes, much of R2 is nothing more than a collection of stuff that you can currently download for free. But R2 also contains 14 other items that you can acquire only by purchasing R2. (Some of these items are just new versions of old features, but they’re still available nowhere else.)

First there are new UNIX-interoperability tools—an NFS server and client, a tool that lets Active Directory (AD) offer Network Information Service (NIS) features and password synchronization, and a new version of the POSIX subsystem that Windows NT has offered on and off since its inception. These are nice features, certainly, but they’re really just a bit of an upgrade from Services for UNIX (SFU), which has been available for years.

Next are the storage tools. There’s a slightly improved version of the quotas feature, which you can now apply to folders—a nice improvement, but it still leaves quotas far short of being really useful. You can now place a filter on directories to block a user from storing files of a given type, such as video, but the filter works solely on the file’s extension rather than performing any intelligent examination of the file. Perhaps the most significant R2 improvement is a major overhaul of the File Replication Service (FRS), possibly AD’s greatest operational weakness. The new FRS is a good move, but it has no value unless you upgrade all your domain controllers (DCs) to R2. How many firms that have already spent money to put Windows 2003 on all their DCs would purchase an entirely new copy of the OS for each DC?

Then there are the changes to directory services: Active Directory Application Mode (ADAM) makes AD’s schema a bit more flexible and friendly, Microsoft Identity Integration Server 2003 Enterprise Edition (MIIS) simplifies the synchronization of accounts among different and oft-incompatible directory services, and Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) lets you more easily permit people outside your organization into your secured Web sites. All are impressive features, but none do much to simplify AD migration or merging, the two most significant AD problems we face.

There’s a grab bag of smaller items. A new SAN manager lets you manage SAN resources. The Common Logging File System makes it simpler for programmers to write code that logs information to a file even if that file is on another computer, and to share that log amongst several programs. Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 2.1 changes the MMC a bit, not significantly, and Hardware Manager provides a GUI front-end for controlling a class of rack-mounted systems called Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) products.

Finally, there’s a feature that will make almost everyone smile: the Print Management Console. It’s a terrific administrative interface to your enterprise’s printers that simplifies managing printers, as its name suggests, and it uses Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to automate and simplify the problem of configuring printers. It’s a nice touch that will be a crowd pleaser, I’m sure.

But look at that list again and ask the question, What motivated R2? Originally, this release was to include a version of AD that you could stop and start without a reboot—a boon to anyone performing AD maintenance. This release was originally supposed to greatly improve Terminal Services, and it was supposed to include a bunch of other great upgrades. But all those went away. So who is R2 intended for?

It seems that most of the big new features—ADAM, MIIS, ADFS, the UNIX tools, and to some extent the revised FRS—target the really big customers. But, again, will all those customers be willing to buy new copies of Windows 2003 just to get good-but-not-great features?

No, of course not. But they won’t have to, and that’s the key. If you’re a Software Assurance (SA) customer, you’ll be able to download and install R2 at no additional cost. R2’s main job will be to make the SA customers think they’re getting something for their SA dollar. Yes, now it makes sense. This isn’t Windows 2003 R2. It’s Windows 2003 SA.