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PDC 2005: Microsoft Holds a Coming Out Party for Longhorn Server

At its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005 event earlier this month, Microsoft showed off a bunch of interesting features in Windows Vista (previously code-named Longhorn) as expected. But Vista wasn't the biggest news from PDC 2005, at least not from my perspective. The biggest news involved major changes coming in Microsoft Office 12, the next version of Office, and in Longhorn Server, the major Windows Server version that will follow Windows Server 2003 R2 (for Release 2). I'll report on Office 12 at a later time. This week, I look at Longhorn Server.

In mid-July, I received a very hush-hush briefing about Longhorn Server, along with several other representatives from Windows IT Pro Magazine. Microsoft had one curious condition for this briefing: Our nondisclosure agreement (NDA) regarding the product was "permanent," and Microsoft promised it would notify us when it was OK to write about Longhorn Server. The problem, we were told, was that Longhorn Server Beta 1 (released in late July) included just a tiny subset of the features that the company is planning for the final release. The company didn't want to disappoint us, noting that the beta 1 release was more of an alpha-quality build and not a true beta.

The Microsoft people then proceeded to blow our minds. Despite the lowering of expectations, even in beta 1 form, Longhorn Server is clearly going to be a monumental release. I've been pining away, waiting to write about it ever since.

At PDC 2005, Microsoft shipped an interim build of Longhorn Server and publicly discussed the product's feature set for the first time. I'm in the midst of a lengthy review of the Longhorn Server beta, but I thought you'd be interested in hearing about the major new features we now know about. With the understanding that Longhorn Server won't ship until early 2007, and we're probably going to see at least two more major beta releases between now and then, here are some of the more interesting changes you can expect in the next release.

A Deeply Componentized Design
In earlier Windows Server versions, Microsoft espoused a roles-based administration system that let you configure servers to handle specific tasks or scenarios. The system had one problem: Because Windows Server wasn't designed to be componentized (or "modular" as Microsoft calls it), servers based on this system today are often overloaded with features and functionality that aren't needed to satisfy the requirements of the roles they're performing. The problem isn't just bloat: Each unneeded technology is also an avenue of attack for malicious hackers.

The Longhorn Server system is completely componentized. A core part of the server, logically named Server Core, will form the basis for all Longhorn Server installations. You can add other roles--such as remote access, Windows Terminal Services, storage (file, portal), print, Web server, and so on--to Server Core to create highly specialized servers, each with only the minimal amount of code required to satisfy their roles.

The best part about the new system is that you can roll out a server that has just Server Core. Such a server offers no GUI at all, and you can locally administer it only via a command line. (although you can graphically administer these servers remotely using the Microsoft Management Console--MMC--based tools you know and love). Server Core-based servers will be able to handle only infrastructure tasks, such as DHCP, DNS, and the like.

Major New IIS Version
Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0, which will be built into Longhorn Server, will also offer a fully componentized design that ensures that the server is loading only those technologies required for the Web sites and applications you're hosting. IIS 7.0 is exciting enough to warrant a separate article: I'll look at it much more closely in the future.

Major New Terminal Services Version
Originally planned for Windows 2003 R2, the new Terminal Services version in Longhorn Server will let enterprises publish applications to remote users, not just to complete computing environments. This feature, called Terminal Services Remote Programs, will dramatically enhance how enterprise users access server-based applications. Now, you can deploy remote applications, which open like local applications, in a fairly seamless fashion.

Transactional File System
In Longhorn Server, the NTFS file system (and registry) will be upgraded--finally--to support transactions. That's right: NTFS will be transactional in Longhorn Server, letting you roll back file operations or gracefully back out of error conditions. Developers cheered this feature when Microsoft Corporate Vice President Jim Allchin announced this incredible and much-needed functionality at PDC 2005.

Overhauled Event Logs
Microsoft will replace the event logs in Longhorn Server with new XML-based logs that have a new API set that will let third-party developers plug into events and notifications much easier. We were told that any third-party management tool will be able to use those APIs to look at the logs, subscribe to events, and aggregate them however they need. The new event logs are completely open and can bubble up system health information much more easily. These capabilities are proactive as well: You can choose to be warned when a hard disk is about to fail or a volume is reaching a certain percentage of its capacity or quotas.

Both 32-bit and 64-bit
Although Microsoft hasn't yet revealed which product editions it will ship in the Longhorn Server time frame, most of them will be available in both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) versions. The x86 and x64 versions of each Longhorn Server version will be functionally identical, although Microsoft says that the x64 versions will offer better performance and scalability and will support more RAM. The company expects x64 to be the mainstream server platform for Longhorn Server.

There's a lot more to Longhorn Server, of course, but I'm out of space. Given the lengthy amount of time between now and the release of Longhorn Server, it's clear we'll be discussing this product a lot more in the coming months. I hope this has whet your appetite for more.

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