Windows XP Beta 2 Arrives: Will You Upgrade?

Soon after this issue of Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE arrives in your mailbox, Microsoft will finally issue Windows XP Beta 2, the final beta release of the next version of Win2K. Microsoft will then issue a Release Candidate 1 (RC1) build in about 6 weeks, which it will provide to the public through a Public Preview program. After that, we'll see a second RC release, and then the final "gold" build, currently due in June. So if Microsoft can keep to its schedule (Beta 2 slipped twice, by the way, and is being released at least 3 weeks behind schedule), we'll see Windows XP in retail locations by September, only a year and a half after the release of Win2K. Not bad, considering that Microsoft took more than 3 years to develop Win2K.

But the release of a near feature-complete version of Windows XP raises some interesting questions for the enterprise. The first thing you should know is that Windows XP and Whistler Server aren't on the same release schedule; although Microsoft will be releasing Beta 2 versions of Windows XP (Professional and Home Editions) as well as Whistler Server this week, Whistler Server will take months longer to come to market, and Microsoft has already scheduled a third beta release for this project, which is due in 2 to 3 months. The divergent paths of these two products mean that Windows XP will be available for deployment much more quickly than the next version of Whistler Server will, so we'll probably see many mixed environments for some time to come.

And although Windows XP is a fairly major upgrade for end users, no one should change Win2K deployment plans for that reason. The big changes in Windows XP target consumers—not business users. So if you're already in the throes of an upgrade, I recommend not waiting for Windows XP because it offers few compelling deployment advantages over Win2K. You might have seen the colorful screen shots of Windows XP's new UI, but don't be confused: Any user familiar with Windows 95 or newer will be able to sit down at a Windows XP box and get right to work; end users won't need any special training.

On the server end, things are a bit more complex. Whistler Server isn't a huge upgrade compared to Win2K Server, in that it isn't a major architectural change. But some of the improvements in Whistler Server are tied directly to customer complaints about Win2K Server, with the biggest improvements made to Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy. Whistler Server will also work in a "headless" mode that won't require a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, making this OS more viable in collocations and other remote scenarios.

For many organizations, Whistler Server's AD improvements might be the deciding factor in whether to wait for this release. In Whistler Server, users can log on in a native-mode AD domain without the Global Catalog (GC); in Win2K, remote GCs often caused glacial logon times. Those who upgrade from Windows NT 4.0 domains will find that Whistler Server does a better job of not overloading those domain controllers (DCs) that were formerly PDCs; in Win2K, even though there is supposedly only one kind of DC (i.e., no PDCs and BDCs), the first DC introduced into a domain essentially functions as a PDC and is often overloaded. Whistler Server won't distinguish DCs upgraded from NT 4.0. Incidentally, Microsoft will add this feature to Win2K Service Pack 2 (SP2) as well—although you must apply it to all Win2K clients and servers for the feature to function properly.

You'll find many other improvements in Whistler Server. You can edit multiple user objects simultaneously, easing management. Various types of network synchronization, such as data replication, are much more efficient. Log files can now exceed 1GB. Microsoft has upgraded the Configure Your Server front-end to make it easy to define multiple roles for a single server; for example, you might define one server as a Web, file, and print server. Cluster Services, disaster recovery, and server replication have also been integrated into Configure Your Server. The list goes on and on.

So how do you decide when to upgrade? I recommend looking at Beta 2 if you can get your hands on it; if not, I'm sure Microsoft will open up Whistler Server to a wider audience later this year. One final thing to keep in mind, however: The upgrade from Win2K to Windows XP (or to Whistler Server on the server side) should be very straightforward: If you upgrade now to Win2K, the difficulties you face will be based on the complexities of your existing domain(s). But once you move to Win2K, a later upgrade to Windows XP or Whistler Server should be comparatively painless. Microsoft is designing Whistler (both Windows XP and Whistler Server) to make in-place upgrades as simple as possible.

In the meantime, I'll provide a wide range of Windows XP Beta 2 articles on the SuperSite for Windows, so visit the site after Windows XP Beta 2 is released this week. The coverage includes a review of Windows XP Professional and Home Editions, updated Windows XP and Whistler Server FAQs, and technology showcases dealing with Windows XP software and hardware compatibility, Windows XP deployment, Windows XP management and support, new Windows XP networking features, and much more. I'll review Whistler Server Beta 2 soon as well, which will give you extensive information about that release.

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