Last week, Microsoft shipped a near-final Release Candidate 2 (RC2) version of Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which, like RC1, is publicly available for download (see the first URL below). According to my sources at the company, Windows 2003 SP1 should be finalized in March and made widely available shortly thereafter.
I've discussed the particulars of Windows 2003 SP1 previously in Windows IT Pro UPDATE (see "A look at Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1" at the second URL below) and my more complete preview of Windows 2003 SP1 is available on the SuperSite for Windows ( http://www.winsupersite.com ). Today, I focus on evaluation and deployment--specifically, what are you waiting for?
First, Microsoft is making the prerelease code available for public download, letting businesses that already run Windows 2003 more easily evaluate the product before it's released. Why not at least set up a test server or virtual machine (VM) environment (e.g., using VMware's VMware Workstation or Microsoft Virtual PC or Virtual Server) to kick the tires.
You might recall that when Microsoft first released Windows 2003, it was the most secure Windows version to date, largely because of a several-months-long work stoppage during which time the product underwent a massive security code review. Since that time, Microsoft has decided to push some security technologies originally planned for Longhorn into current Windows releases. Microsoft introduced the first batch of these technologies, code-named Springboard, in Windows XP SP2; the second round of Springboard technologies will show up in Windows 2003 SP1.
Specifically, Windows 2003 SP1 will add relevant security features from XP SP2, including Windows Firewall; the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) pop-up blocker, information bar, and Manage Add-ons UI; and Data Execution Prevention (DEP), the technology that helps prevent common memory-based attacks. Many of these features will be tuned differently in SP1 than they were in XP SP2 because of the special needs of server installations. For example, when you upgrade an existing Windows 2003 system to SP1, Windows Firewall won't be enabled because that tool could shut down core server functionality. But Windows Firewall is enabled during setup, preventing your machine from being attacked during an otherwise vulnerable time.
With few exceptions, Windows 2003 SP1 should prove to be an easily deployed, minor update. However, because of the massive security improvements, you shouldn't ignore this release. I realize that you have internal schedules and needs, but vast reams of information and the prerelease code is there for the taking. I recommend that you get up-to-date on Windows 2003 SP1 as soon as possible.
Other RC2 Releases of Interest
In addition to the Windows 2003 SP1 RC2 release, Microsoft also recently shipped RC2 versions of Windows 2003 x64 Edition and XP Professional x64 Edition. Unlike Windows 2003 SP1, however, the RC2 versions aren't yet publicly available. Instead, you must be a beta tester to receive these versions, although I expect that to change soon. The largely similar RC1 releases are, however, still available to the public (see the third and fourth URLs below).
Both the Windows 2003 x64 Editions and XP Pro x64 Edition run on the so-called x64 platform, a 64-bit computing platform based on AMD 64 chips (including the Opteron) and Intel's Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T)-based microprocessors (including newer Xeon and Pentium 4 6XXX-based systems). If you're not familiar with x64, it combines the compatibility and performance of the x86 platform we use today with the advanced memory and resource limits common to true 64-bit platforms such as Itanium--the best of both worlds.
Functionally, Windows XP Pro x64 is nearly identical to the 32-bit version of XP Pro: XP Pro x64 includes 64-bit and 32-bit versions of IE (the 32-bit version is the default because of add-on compatibility reasons) and it drops support for legacy technologies such as MS-DOS and 16-bit applications. XP x64 also drops support for legacy networking protocols such as NetBEUI and AppleTalk.
Windows 2003 x64, both standard and enterprise editions, roughly correspond to their 32-bit counterparts. However, Windows 2003 Standard Edition x64 will support up to four processors and 32GB of RAM. Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition x64 will support up to eight processors and 1TB of RAM. From a functional perspective, both products are based on the Windows 2003 SP1 code base, so they'll include SP1 features such as the Security Configuration Wizard.
Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 Release Candidate 2 (Microsoft)
A look at Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1
Windows XP x64 Edition (Microsoft)
Windows Server 2003 x64 Versions (Microsoft)