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Windows .NET Server: A First Look

Meet the new Windows Release

EDITOR'S NOTE: At press time, Microsoft announced a name change for the Windows .NET Server family of products: Windows .NET Server 2003. This article follows the RC1 naming conventions; future articles will incorporate the new names.

Windows .NET Server (Win .NET Server), which at the time of this writing is scheduled for release late this year, will be in customers' hands in early 2003, according to Microsoft. (The product began life in late December 1999, alongside what would become Windows XP. However, after the February 2001 beta 2 releases of Win.NET Server and XP, Microsoft set the two products on separate development paths.) At the summer Windows .NET Server Reviewers' Workshop, I received a technical overview of the product's new features, and one thing was clear: The Windows Server OS has grown up dramatically since Windows NT's early days. First, the Win.NET Server family includes a wider range of products than does the Windows 2000 Server family. Second, Microsoft hopes that improvements in what it terms "abilities"—reliability, availability, scalability, interoperability, security, and manageability—will make the product viable in the data center market. Specifically, Win.NET Server offers new or enhanced components such as Active Directory (AD), Terminal Server (formerly Win2K Server Terminal Services), Windows Media Services (WMS), Microsoft IIS, application services, storage-management services, and communications and networking technologies.

The Win.NET Server Family
Win.NET Server is available in four mainstream 32-bit products:

  • Windows .NET Web Server (Win.NET Web Server)
  • Windows .NET Standard Server (Win.NET Standard Server—formerly Win2K Server)
  • Windows .NET Enterprise Server (Win.NET Enterprise Server—formerly Win2K Advanced Server)
  • Windows .NET Datacenter Server (Win.NET Datacenter Server—formerly Win2K Datacenter Server)

The family also includes two 64-bit editions: Win.NET Enterprise Server 64-Bit Edition and Win.NET Datacenter Server 64-Bit Edition.

Win.NET Web Server. Optimized solely for serving and hosting Web pages, Win.NET Web Server supports two processors and as much as 2GB of RAM. The product supports ASP.NET, Dfs, Encrypting File System (EFS), Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0, IntelliMirror, Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), IP version 6 (IPv6), the Microsoft .NET Framework, Network Load Balancing (NLB), public key infrastructure (PKI), print services for UNIX, RDP, remote OS installation (but not Remote Installation Services—RIS), Resultant Set of Policies (RSoP), Shadow Copy Restore, VPNs, and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) command-line features. Win.NET Web Server can be a member server in an AD domain but can't be a domain controller (DC), and thus lacks much of the other Win.NET Server editions' management infrastructure.

Win.NET Standard Server. The core product for small and midsized businesses, Win.NET Standard Server supports two processors and can handle 4GB of RAM. The product includes all the technologies in Win.NET Web Server. In addition, Win.NET Standard Server includes Certificate Services; Enterprise Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) Services; Fax Service; Internet Authentication Services (IAS); removable and remote storage; RIS; services for Macintosh; smart card support; Terminal Server; and WMS.

Win.NET Enterprise Server. Earmarked as the new high-volume Windows server product, Win.NET Enterprise Server supports as many as eight processors, 32GB of RAM, and two- to eight-node clusters. Win.NET Enterprise Server is a superset of Win.NET Standard Server, adding Metadirectory Services Support (MMS), Terminal Services Session Directory features, clustering support, and support for hot-add memory and Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA). A 64-bit version with different specifications is also available.

Win.NET Datacenter Server. As Microsoft's performance champion, Win.NET Datacenter Server aims at the upper end of the market, with exclusive availability and scalability enhancements. The product supports 8 to 32 microprocessors, 64GB of RAM, and two- to eight-node clusters. Although functionally equivalent to Win.NET Enterprise Server, Win.NET Datacenter Server lacks MMS and ICF features but adds Windows Datacenter Program support. This product also comes in a 64-bit version with different specifications.

Win.NET Server 64-bit editions. Since June 2001, Microsoft has offered a limited distribution Win.NET Server dubbed Windows Advanced Server, Limited Edition. This 64-bit product takes advantage of the first-generation Itanium platform (i.e., IA-64—formerly code-named Merced), which also shipped in summer 2001; in mid-2002, the company shipped a small update that targets Itanium 2. Late this year, Windows Advanced Server, Limited Edition will be superseded by Win.NET Enterprise Server 64-Bit Edition and Win.NET Datacenter Server 64-Bit Edition, both of which will support Itanium 2 and Itanium processors. Win.NET Enterprise Server 64-Bit Edition supports as many as eight processors, as much as 64GB of RAM, and two- to eight-node clusters. Win.NET Datacenter Server 64-Bit Edition supports 8 to 32 processors, 512MB to 256GB of RAM (though initially, most systems will be physically constrained to 128GB), and eight-node clusters. The 32-processor limit is fairly artificial: The 32-way 64-bit machines are only in the planning stages. Microsoft says it could scale Win.NET Datacenter Server 64-Bit Edition beyond 32 processors if the hardware were available.

The 64-bit products, of course, will see fairly limited deployments during the Win.NET Server family lifetime, thanks to the ever-increasing capabilities and performance of the 32-bit Intel architecture (IA-32, or x86) platform and the high prices of 64-bit hardware solutions. But releasing 64-bit products is an important step for Microsoft, which believes that the 64-bit market will someday surpass 32-bit products.

Focus on Abilities
Microsoft hopes that improvements in Windows Server's reliability, availability, scalability, interoperability, security, and manageability will satisfy Win2K and NT customers and help Win.NET Server succeed in the data center market. The company says it focused its efforts on responding to Win2K customer feedback and setting the scene for future enhancements.

Reliability. Microsoft's research of Win2K downtime statistics showed that 76 percent of downtime is planned, according to Jim Livingston, group program manager for Windows Datacenter Server. To improve reliability in these situations—specifically during OS upgrades or reconfigurations, service pack installations, and hotfix or Quick Fix Engineering (QFE) installations—Microsoft changed several core features in Win.NET Server. Most Win.NET Server upgrades, service pack installations, and hotfix or QFE installations will no longer require a server reboot. Furthermore, Win.NET Server supports the ability to chain QFEs so that you can install them in one step.

As far as unplanned downtime goes, Microsoft claims to have dealt with the number-one cause of the so-called blue screen of death on Win2K systems by completely reengineering the driver verifier. New problem-tracking technologies—including a server shutdown tracker—provide proactive help to figure out why a system is rebooting and what you can do to prevent the problem in the future. And Win.NET Server includes Microsoft's optional Reliability Service, which the company previously used only inhouse and which lets customers gather reliability data from their servers, analyze the data, and obtain a reliability and availability report.

Availability. Even the most reliable server is of no use unless clients can access it. Win.NET Server improves availability through clustering and failover technologies and problem-avoidance techniques. The new OS increases clustering capabilities to eight nodes, and clustering is easier to set up, thanks to friendly wizards and proactive tools that sense when a cluster is configured improperly, then correct any problems. Memory-mirroring support ensures that memory failure won't bring down the system. Hot-plug PCI technology lets you add PCI cards without shutting down the server. Hot-add memory lets you add memory on the fly (although a similar feature for removing memory won't be available until the next Windows Server version, code-named Longhorn). To provide support for load-balancing and failover, Win.NET Server offers multipath I/O for storge. Microsoft has improved support for Storage Area Networks (SANs), and you can now implement a SAN-based file system without using drive letters.

Scalability. Microsoft says that Win2K customers want more high-end hardware choices and proof that Windows can scale as high as UNIX can. Therefore, Win.NET Server supports as much as 256GB of RAM as well as technologies such as NUMA and Intel Hyper-Threading, letting you partition Windows servers as you would a mainframe. More important for most Microsoft customers, perhaps, is that the 32-bit Win.NET Server products can work in systems with as many as 32 processors.

A new Windows Resource Manager (WRM), which is available only on Win.NET Datacenter Server, lets you run more than one line of business (LOB) application on a 32-way server, create rules about which services are most important, and give those services processor and RAM priority. By default, WRM evens off processor time between running applications. To determine how much time each application gets, however, you can create policies, schedule them on a calendar (e.g., schedule a daytime policy, create dynamically changing policies), and fire changes according to specified events.

Interoperability. Historically, interoperability hasn't been Microsoft's strong suit. With this new batch of servers, however, the company seems to be embracing the notion that heterogeneous platforms will interoperate using open standards such as XML Web services and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). Furthermore, the 32-bit and 64-bit Win.NET Server products are completely interoperable: The systems appear similarly on your network, with no discernable way to distinguish the 32-bit servers from the 64-bit servers.

Security. Win.NET Server will be the first major Microsoft OS release in the wake of the company's Trustworthy Computing code review, which occurred in February and March of this year. Win.NET Server includes a secure VPN gateway, the new IEEE 802.1x secure wireless standard, and a standards-based TCP/IP infrastructure that includes support for DNS, DHCP, Network Address Translation (NAT), and IPv6. By default, Win.NET Server disables IIS 6.0 and turns off more than 20 other services; Microsoft reduced the privileges for some services, such as the NetworkService and LocalService. Win.NET Server includes stronger default ACL and policy settings and refuses network authentication for accounts with blank passwords.

To protect systems after deployment, the new Software Restriction Policies (SRP) feature lets you determine which applications can—and can't—execute in their environment. Win.NET Server also supports smart card technologies so that you can log on with a nonadministrative account, then swipe a smart card when you need to perform secure administrative tasks and access administrative privileges.

Manageability. In Win.NET Server, Microsoft identified and concentrated on several manageability "pillars." To ease deployment and configuration, all Win.NET Server versions except Win.NET Web Server support RIS for the rapid installation of servers. (This feature was previously available only on Windows desktop systems.) The OS's new Manage Your Server wizard, which Figure 1 shows, and Configure Your Server Wizard, which Figure 2 shows, simplify the process of assigning server roles (e.g., file server, print server, Web server); you can easily assign multiple roles where appropriate. To keep Win.NET Server up- to-date and secure, the OS supports Microsoft Software Update Services (SUS), and Auto Update, as Figure 3 shows. The new SRP feature also helps prevent unau- thorized code execution. To help you consolidate management of many systems, the OS will support a new Microsoft Man-agement Console (MMC) Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) snap-in, which will provide a scriptable interface for managing Group Policy. One nice feature of this tool is its integration with RSoP, which lets you generate reports that show which policies apply to specific users and machines. However, Microsoft says that GPMC probably won't make the final Win.NET Server release to manufacturing (RTM); the snap-in will ship soon thereafter as a separate, free download. Finally, Microsoft aimed to enable richer administrative control and flexibility through command-line and task-based administration tools, command-line access to WMI, headless server mode, and emergency server access.

New and Improved
Microsoft has made some changes to several key Win2K components. The biggest enhancements are apparent in AD, Terminal Server, WMS, Win.NET Server application services, IIS 6.0, the file system and storage subsystem, and the OS's communications and networking features.

AD. In Win.NET Server, the goal for AD is refinement. Win.NET Server includes several tools to simplify AD deployment. Upgrading to Win.NET Server AD from Win2K AD is a simple in-place upgrade, and upgrading from NT 4.0 can be just as straightforward as long as you've cleaned up your NT 4.0 domain. If you haven't yet started that project, Win.NET Server includes the Active Directory Migration Tool (ADMT) 2.0 to ease the process.

New cross-forest-trust, domain-rename, and schema-reversal features address common complaints about Win2K AD. From a management standpoint, AD includes numerous UI improvements, including drag-and-drop capabilities, multiple-object selection and editing, and the ability to save queries. A full suite of AD-based command-line tools is also available.

Terminal Server. To improve Terminal Server, Win.NET Server will ship with RDP 5.2 (an upgrade to RDP 5.1, which shipped in XP). Win.NET Server also supports XP's Remote Assistance functionality. New to this release are file redirection, high-color support, resolutions of as much as 1600 * 1200, a cleaner UI, enhanced management through WMI and Group Policy, better scalability, and a new Remote Desktop client that supports execution of remote desktops within a window, a Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) browser, or an MMC console. XP users working with a Win.NET Server­based Terminal Server will also get a handy auto-reconnect feature.

WMS. For those people who work with online training or conferencing, one of the more exciting advances in Win.NET Server is its integration of WMS, which offers a new Fast Streaming feature and dynamic content programming. WMS will work with earlier Windows Media Player (WMP) versions but works best with the upcoming Windows Media 9 Series (formerly code-named Corona) player. Win.NET Enterprise Server and Win.NET Datacenter Server include unique WMS features such as cache/proxy server support and multicast content delivery. (WMS won't be part of Win.NET Web Server.)

Application services. Essentially, Win.NET Server application services let the OS act as the middle tier of a multi-tier application and services infrastructure, handling the services that COM+, Microsoft Message Queue Services (MSMQ), and IIS have handled historically. The application services include the .NET Framework and its support for ASP.NET, ADO.NET, and related technologies. Win.NET Server ships with .NET Framework 1.1, SOAP 1.2, COM+ 1.5, and MSMQ 3.0 (which now supports SOAP messages).

IIS 6.0. By default, Win.NET Server ships with IIS disabled and reduces default privileges upon manual installation. The coolest new feature is IIS's new XML-based metabase, which you can edit live so that changes take place immediately without requiring you to restart the server. And you can use any text editor or XML-based tool to make the edits.

IIS 6.0 performance also improves dramatically. Based on pre—Release Candidate 1 (RC1) figures, IIS 6.0 offers 1.5 times the performance of IIS 5.0 on identical two-processor hardware, and 2.5 times the performance on identical four-processor hardware.

New to this release is the concept of Web gardens, which are collections of small, single-purpose Web servers. To scale up the garden, simply add new machines.

File system and storage. Win.NET Server includes various improvements to NTFS and the storage subsystem. Volume Shadow Copies, which is essentially a network-based system-restore feature, creates a volume that represents a snapshot of an existing volume, letting you access earlier versions of network files that were changed or deleted after the snapshot. The feature's required Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) represents Microsoft's first creation of a backup framework, one that third parties can extend.

Other file system and storage improvements include deep SAN support, Virtual Disk Service (VDS—for abstracting RAID systems), Automated System Recovery (ASR—which debuted in XP), and command-line disk defragmentation for any cluster size (Win2K supported only four-node clusters). Win.NET Server also provides an enhanced Chkdsk utility and improvements in NTFS scalability.

Communications and networking. Even Microsoft's earliest server products offered various communications and networking technologies. But to meet the ever-increasing importance of the Internet and interoperability, Win.NET Server supports the most recent communications technologies, including IPv6, network bridging and Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), IP Security (IPSec), NAT transversal, and IP over FireWire.

Looking Forward
Microsoft delivered Win.NET Server RC1 in late July and expects to ship Release Candidate 2 (RC2) sometime this fall. The company plans to complete product development by the end of this year and ship the product to customers in first quarter 2003. The completion of Win.NET Server will trigger a new round of Microsoft .NET Enterprise Servers, all of which the company plans to infuse with support for XML Web services. Barry Goffe, group product manager for Enterprise Marketing Strategy, said that Microsoft plans to rework future versions of the Windows Server family, the .NET Enterprise Servers, Windows desktop versions, and even Microsoft Office around the concept of XML Web services.

The upcoming Longhorn release will include support for Intel's 64-bit Itanium family and will support two to four other 64-bit platforms, including the AMD Opteron, said Brian Valentine, senior vice president of Microsoft's Windows Division. Valentine wouldn't elaborate on which other 64-bit platforms the company is evaluating but did say that the supported platforms would be only high-volume, alluding to problems Microsoft had supporting alternative architectures, such as MIPS and PowerPC, on NT 4.0. Longhorn will also feature more managed code in both client and server versions.

The Bottom Line
Win.NET Server is a surprisingly full-featured release. Building on WinK Server, the new OS will be a simple in-place upgrade for Win2K customers. And thanks to its new upgrade features, Win.NET Server should prove to be a simpler upgrade than Win2K for NT Server 4.0 holdouts, though we'll have to test that functionality before passing final judgment.

My recommendation for this release depends largely on your requirements. Existing Win2K Server customers should skip Win.NET Server unless it provides some important, specific functionality that Win2K doesn't. (For example, merging companies might want to take advantage of the new cross-forest-trust and domain-renaming features to avoid time-consuming and costly domain rebuilding.) NT Server 4.0 users should carefully evaluate this release and seriously consider upgrading to Win.NET Server.

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