In all the excitement over Windows Vista Beta 2 and Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2--both of which are, or will be, made available to the public--another important Microsoft beta release hasn't gotten the press it deserves. That release is Windows Server "Longhorn," or Longhorn Server, as I call it. Last week, Microsoft also shipped the Beta 2 release of Longhorn Server, and though it won't be made widely available to the public (that will need to wait for Beta 3 in 2007), my experience with this server OS over the past few weeks suggests Microsoft has a hit on its hands.

What I love most about Longhorn Server is that it doesn't come saddled with any of Vista's baggage. That is, rather than continually over-promise and under-deliver, with Longhorn Server, Microsoft has continued the slow and steady development cycle that marked previous Windows Server releases. Sure, Longhorn Server is late--it's now due in late 2007, or about 6 months later than previously promised--but part of the reason must be attributed to Vista, as the two OSs were developed in tandem through Beta 2. Now, however, the Windows Server team is splitting from Vista and adopting its own schedule. My guess is that the server team can't wait for a little break from Vista. Sure, Microsoft may market the two OSs as "better together," but absence makes the heart grow fonder too. A little time apart might be good for everyone.

Since Beta 1, Longhorn Server has matured and improved dramatically. Server Core, an innovative and excellent installation option, lets Longhorn Server customers install a bare-bones version of the server that includes no GUI and support for only basic services such as DHCP and DNS. Combined with other new Longhorn Server technologies, such as Read-Only Domain Controller (DC) and BitLocker (whole disk encryption), Server Core forms the basis for a super-secure DC that can survive both electronic attacks and physical theft.

Server Core is possible because of the new modular architecture that graces both Longhorn Server and its major sub-components, such as Microsoft IIS. Put simply, you install only the components you need for the roles you intend each server to perform. Each component has been designed for minimum dependencies and the system's deployment and setup tools are savvy about these dependencies and won't let you create a system that doesn't include only the components you need. In a related vein, Microsoft has reduced dramatically the number of services running by default when compared with Windows Server 2003, and each service has been hardened to run under the least possible security privileges and with the fewest possible dependencies. These are fundamental improvements, and my guess is that they'll positively affect Longhorn Server's performance, security, and reliability.

Also new in Beta 2 is the new Server Manager console that jumps beyond the dashboards and wizards of previous releases to provide an interactive "cockpit" that Microsoft feels most administrators will simply live in day in and day out. Server Manger handles all your server configuration needs and provides you with actionable information.

"You had to go to a lot of places to be successful before," Windows Server Senior Product Manager Ward Ralston told me during a recent briefing. "We removed all that complexity. All of the potential roles this server can hold understand the constraints and dependencies on other roles, and what it means to be healthy and bubble that info up to the administrator. That information is all presented in Server Manager."

Longhorn Server also looks like the culmination of an administrative wish list. It includes long-awaited technologies such as Network Access Protection (NAP), which lets you quarantine out-of-date PCs using a variety of techniques, and Terminal Services Remote Programs, which lets you deploy individual applications via Terminal Services. Another new terminal services feature--Terminal Services Gateway--provides terminal services over HTTPS, for the simplest possible connection experience. And Longhorn Server includes numerous new Group Policy-based improvements, including a way to restrict which USB devices users can connect to client PCs (that functionality requires Vista on the client, however). So you can configure your clients to work with any USB keyboards and mice, but no USB-based storage devices, if you're worried about employees walking off with critical corporate data.

Aside from the schedule and lack of availability of Beta 2, there's precious little downside to Longhorn Server. In an environment in which Vista sometimes can't seem to get out of its own way, it's refreshing to see a Windows beta that's simply moving ahead in measured steps, adding valuable new functionality as it goes.