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If you haven't been paying attention to Microsoft's product roadmap lately, you might be surprised to see the name "R2" suddenly appearing all over the place. Originally, a code name used to describe only the recently finalized update to Windows Server 2003 (which was originally going to be accompanied by an aborted client release called D2, as in R2-D2), the R2 name has become part of the wider Microsoft nomenclature; it now refers to a second, interim release of any product. So R2, which stands for "Release 2," can appear just about anywhere in Microsoft's product portfolio. And increasingly, it will.

Oddly enough, Windows 2003 R2 isn't the first R2 release to ship, technically speaking. That honor falls to Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, which I discuss a little later. But as far as the wider R2 concept goes--providing a predictable and stable way to introduce features between major product releases--the idea is sound and, I believe, something that businesses of all sizes will embrace with a few exceptions. Consider how Microsoft mucked up the original release of Windows 2003: Over the course of the first 2 years of the product's availability, the company placed on its Web site scores of downloadable Feature Packs for Windows 2003. The problem was that none of the Feature Packs were particularly discoverable. They weren't offered through Windows Update, and you had to know they were available and where to go to get them.

So now we have R2 versions, which don't change the core application (or OS) but do add new features. Because the core code is the same as the previous generation, however, compatibility is guaranteed and you don't have to retest. There's just one little rub: Although Software Assurance (SA) and Enterprise Agreement (EA) customers will likely get R2 releases for free as part of their subscriptions, customers who purchase Windows Server and other products that are later updated to R2 versions will need to purchase the new software version to get the new features. That requirement could cause some bad feelings if you don't know its coming. In any event, let's look at the R2 releases that Microsoft will make available in the weeks and months ahead.

Windows 2003 R2
Windows 2003 R2 is what I (and most of Microsoft) simply call R2 and was the basis for the entire R2 concept because of the aforementioned Feature Pack concerns. Windows 2003 R2 will ship to customers in early 2006 and offers three major new functional changes, all of which are aimed at large businesses. It offers a more efficient (and therefore less costly) way to communicate with remote offices (what Microsoft calls branch offices); it includes Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS--code-named Trustbridge) for authenticating users across corporate boundaries; and it offers dramatically simpler SAN management interfaces. But although these major features receive all the press, R2 is actually loaded with lots of much smaller improvements that truly make this release interesting. These features include an integrated Printer Management Console, the new Common Log File System (CLFS), Subsystem for UNIX-based Applications (SUA), and the new Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 3.0. And if you do roll out R2, fear not: You won't need new CALs.

However, only the non-Web Edition versions of Windows 2003 will be sold in R2 versions because Windows 2003 Web Edition can't take advantage of any unique new R2 features. For all other versions, the R2 variants will replace today's Windows 2003 versions in the channel.

Virtual Server 2005 R2
Although it started life as a service pack, Virtual Server 2005 R2 is, as its new name suggests, far more compelling, with several new features. Virtual Server 2005 R2 includes pervasive clustering support for both hosts and OS guests; native support for x64 versions of Windows 2003 (running on x64 hardware; it doesn't include support for x64 guest OSs, however); dramatic performance improvements for virtualized Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 with Service Pack 2 (SP2) and SQL Server 2005 environments; Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) support for easier deployment, and--get this--support for Linux and other non-Microsoft guest OSs. Some of Virtual Server 2005 R2's best features, however, concern pricing and licensing. Microsoft has reduced the cost of Virtual Server 2005 R2 Standard Edition to $99, and you can get the Enterprise Edition for just $199, when licensed for use on Windows 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition. And in a bid to make these two systems your best bet for virtualization, Microsoft is also allowing Windows 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition to run four additional virtualized instances of the OS for no additional cost. This benefit applies to Virtual Server 2005 R2 as well as competing products such as those that VMware offers.

Windows Storage Server 2003 R2
Microsoft's new NAS solution, Windows Storage Server 2003 R2, will be made available only through server makers in either appliance or rack-mounted form. Essentially a full version of Windows 2003 R2 that's been optimized for file server performance, Windows Storage Server 2005 R2 is a dramatic improvement over the earlier version thanks to three new features. The new single instance storage engine, which previously worked only with Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS), helps reduce disk consumption by transparently copying duplicate files to a single instance storage Common Store and replacing the originals with reparse points. A new full-text search feature leverages the Windows Server indexing engine and the client-search features in Windows XP and Windows 2000, providing instantaneous searching of network shares. And new low-level file server performance optimizations ensure that Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 is the fastest file server available; you can even optionally disable 8.3 file-name generation for even faster performance (although that option requires XP clients).

Small Business Server 2003 R2
Although Microsoft has been quiet about the R2 version of Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 until recently, the following information is now public. First, SBS 2003 R2 will ship by the middle of 2006. It will include an integrated version of Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), providing small businesses with an excellent security patch and software update-management system out of the box. It will include the latest versions of Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 with SP2, along with its new 75GB data store limit, and SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition. And it will run only on 32-bit servers. In mid-2007, Microsoft plans to ship a Longhorn version of SBS, code-named Cougar. This product will run only on x64 hardware.

That's a lot of R2 code, and it's all coming to you by the first half of 2006. Although much of this new technology is of interest only to specific markets, all of it is built to the same release logic. It's a new way of doing things that I think makes sense.

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