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Windows Server 2003 Review (Part Two)

Note: This review has been updated for the final release of Windows Server 2003.

As I mentioned in part one of my Windows Server 2003 review, the newest generation of Microsoft's family of server operating systems offers myriad small improvements over the previous generation, Windows 2000 Server. And like its predecessor, Windows Server 2003 brings with it some important choices for IT administrators, corporate decision makers, and anyone else with a stake in purchasing, deploying and supporting Microsoft server solutions. This time around, the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. One might ask whether Windows Server 2003 is an impressive upgrade. Of course it is. But a better question, perhaps, is whether Windows Server 2003 offers enough improvements to justify the cost and time of upgrading.

The answer, of course, depends on your situation. In this second part of my review, I will examine how Windows Server 2003 works in the real world, and compare the product with previous Windows Server versions. In my hands-on analysis of various Windows Server 2003 builds throughout late 2002 and early 2003, I grew to appreciate the work Microsoft has done refining its server OS offerings, which now neatly cover virtually every back-end server requirement any company, large or small, might have.

Part two of this review is based on hands-on experience with Windows Server 2003 Web Edition, Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition, and Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition, using standard 32-bit PC hardware in various configurations. I also created a test Active Directory domain using virtual servers running under Connectix Virtual PC, a software application that lets you run virtual machines in a window. Microsoft requested that reviewers not carry out any performance testing during the Windows Server 2003 beta, but I'm not equipped for that particular task anyway, which I'll leave to the more technical folk at Windows & .NET Magazine and elsewhere. However, I can say that Windows Server 2003 performs no worse than Windows 2000 Server on the hardware I tested. This is a welcome, if unscientific, development. You might recall that Windows 2000 has much heavier hardware requirements than its predecessor, Windows NT which further raised upgrade costs. But if you can run Windows 2000 Server on your current hardware, Windows Server 2003 will likely run fine as well.

OK, let's take a look at some new and improved Windows Server 2003 features.

Installing Windows Server 2003

If you choose to set up Windows Server 2003 using the standard interactive Setup routine, you'll find the process to be immediately familiar. Windows Server 2003 Setup looks like a gray scale version of the Windows XP Setup routine, but the steps you perform are almost identical to that of Windows 2000. And like Windows XP, the Windows Server 2003 CD-ROM pops-up a friendly AutoPlay window (Figure), offering various options, including checking system compatibility, setting up Remote Desktop connections, and so on. It's basically just a lot friendlier.

But Windows Server 2003 offers deployment improvements over Windows 2000 Server. All editions but Web Edition support Remote Installation Services (RIS), which lets you create server images and then roll them out remotely across an enterprise. In Windows 2000, this feature is available only for rolling out client systems using Win2K Professional. Now, it's possible to quickly and easily roll out identical servers, a feature that's ideal for Web server and Web application farms, domain controllers, or any other server that might need to be replicated quickly or regularly.

Windows Server 2003 at a glance

When you first logon to Windows Server 2003, you'll notice some subtle changes. In NT 4.0, you're pretty much left to your own devices, with no visual cues how to proceed, though that situation was improved somewhat in Win2K. Now, Microsoft has taken steps to expose large amounts of previously hidden functionality. The most obvious example is the Manage Your Server application, which runs every time you logon, by default (Figure). Administrators I've spoken to have almost universally panned any wizard-based niceties, and I'm sure that many of these people will immediately shut off this application. That would be a huge mistake: Manage Your Server presents a compelling view of the roles your server fulfills, and in my opinion it should be left running. The roles concept is new to Windows Server 2003, and it greatly simplifies the underlying complexities and dependencies of configuring a server for specific tasks. For example, Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition can be configured for the following roles:

File server
Print server
Application server (IIS, ASP.NET)
Mail server (POP3, SMTP)
Terminal server
Remote access/VPN server
Domain controller (Active Directory)
DNS server
DHCP server
Streaming media server
WINS server

Most of these capabilities were available in Windows 2000 Server, but required a far greater understanding of the underlying system to set up and configure. The Win2K version of Manage Your Server--which was confusingly called Configure Your Server, given that this name is used in Windows Server 2003 for a wizard--divided tasks into technology names (Active Directory) rather than roles (Domain controller). It provided the same sort of to-do checklist, but didn't go much beyond that.

Also note that you can mix and match roles, and a single server can be any combination of roles. So you might set up Windows Server 2003 as a file, print, and application server, for example. Once you set up a role, Manage Your Server provides links for managing that role, finding out next steps for that role, and other related tasks. It's logical and well-done.

The Manage Your Server application also gives you easy access to adding and removing roles, and links to tools, updates, and other information. It's an excellent and logical front-end to the management tasks that real world administrator face every day. Repeat after me: Don't turn this off. If and when you do interactively logon to a server, this application presents a nice aggregation of the tasks you're mostly likely to perform, which will make you more efficient because you won't need to mindlessly navigate around the UI, looking for particular applications.

However, in day-to-day use, Windows Server 2003, naturally, greatly resembles Win2K Server, without any dramatic changes. You get the improved Start Menu from Windows XP (Figure), much better and more extensive online help (Figure) and various much-needed niceties, such as an Automatic Updates feature that lets you automatically download and install critical security updates (Figure). In a server environment, this last feature is a must, assuming you're running test environments as you should. But from a day-to-day perspective, Windows Server 2003 isn't so much about new features as it is about making existing features easier and more accessible, and in that way, it resembles Office XP, when compared to Office 2000. You're going to set up Win.NET as an Active Directory domain controller, a Web server, or whatever, just as you did before. It's just much simpler now and, in many cases, more robust. And that, of course, is a good thing.

Steady does it: Improvements to old favorites

Most of the features in Windows Server 2003 are improvements and updates to the tools and features in Win2K Server, and some of these changes are quite welcome. Corporations that have rolled out Active Directory will find a number of improvements that might justify the cost of upgrading, and if you haven't upgraded from an NT 4.0 domain yet because of complexity issues, Windows Server 2003 might just answer your problems. However, I haven't yet tested any NT 4.0-to-Windows Server 2003 upgrades.

Many of Windows Server 2003's improvements--such as directory rename and cross-domain and cross-forest management--get a lot of press, but let's face it; those are two useful but infrequently used features. To my mind, some of the smaller features are going to have bigger ramifications in a typical admin's daily life. For example, you can now edit multiple User objects in Active Directory Users and Computers (Figure), letting you use familiar CTRL-click skills to change attributes for a group of users in a single step.

Another improved feature that's likely to get some traction with enterprises is Group Policies (GPs). An integral part of Active Directory, GPs were available but often hard to use in Win2K Server. In Windows Server 2003, there are over 160 new policy settings in a wide range of categories, including My Documents redirection. But the big change is a new tool, the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), which will actually ship separately from Windows Server 2003 as a free download. I discuss this tool in the next section.

One of the biggest changes in Windows Server 2003 regards IIS 6.0, which is no longer installed by default. Furthermore, IIS 6.0 will not secretly install, as it did in the past, if you install another service or feature that requires it. And if you do choose to install IIS, it ships in locked-down mode, able only to serve static Web pages, although you can choose to enable FrontPage Server Extensions and ASP .NET up-front if you'd like (Figure). One thing I don't particularly like is that IIS is listed under "Application server" rather than "Web server" in the Configure Your Server Wizard, which is sure to confuse some people. By enabling Windows Server 2003's application server, you'll also install COM+ and other related services, which aren't necessarily required for basic Web serving. So if you want a basic Web server, installing IIS through Add or Remove Programs is you're only option. That's silly, and it subverts the usefulness of the Manage Your Server user interface.

In any event, once IIS is installed, management very closely resembles IIS 5. This is somewhat amazing, of course, because the underlying configuration information is now stored in a standard XML file rather than the old proprietary metabase used by earlier versions. You can edit this file directly, though you have to turn on that feature first.

Windows Media Services (WMS) 9 Series has also been significantly enhanced in this release, and this feature is, in my mind, one of the most underrated parts of the product. WMS 9 ships only as part of Windows Server 2003, and it offers a friendly new user interface (Figure) as well as excellent new features such as dynamic playlists. You can find out more in my Windows Media Series 9 review. Note that WMS 9 Series is not available on Web Edition.

Terminal Server (TS) has been enhanced with increased stability and scalability: Microsoft tells me that the product can serve twice as many remote users on the same hardware as Windows 2000, and using the new RDP 5.1 client, those users gain access to new functionality, such as 24-bit color support and redirected resources. I did test TS but did not attempt to substantiate the performance claims.

Some cool new functionality

Some features in Windows Server 2003, however, are quite new to this release. Windows Server 2003 ships with the .NET Framework 1.1 as an integrated component, the first for any Windows version. The jury is still out as to whether the .NET environment is valuable to customers in the short term, but I think it's fair to say that .NET--and its supporting technologies, such as XML and SOAP--are here to stay. By making this technology a core part of the OS, Microsoft is, for the first time, elevating .NET beyond the curiosity stage. That said, I didn't attempt to create, install or manage any .NET applications or services during testing.

Some of Windows Server 2003's best new feature are storage related. The product now includes a Volume Shadow Copies feature that is basically a point-in-time backup of data. To enable Volume Shadow Copies, grab the Properties for a drive volume and select the Shadow Copies tab (Figure), and then click Enable. Volume Shadow Copies are enabled only in shared folders, however, since the feature is designed primarily for documents, which are often overwritten accidentally with other versions. It also requires WinXP on the client.

Volume Shadow Copies also works with the integrated Backup application to provide "live backups" that work properly while users are accessing files.

Speaking of Backup, Automated System Recovery (ASR) actually debuted in WinXP, but it's new to Windows Server in Windows Server 2003. ASR lets you backup operating system, system state, and hardware configuration so that it can be recovered in the event of a system emergency. This is valuable stuff, and a great addition.

The new Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) provides two previously missing bits of GP functionality: Group Policy Modeling (Figure), which lets you stage, or simulate, changes to GP and see what the effects will be without actually making them, and Group Policy Results, a logging mode that lets you see exactly which GP caused certain behavior. In the past, implementing GPs required admins to set up a test domain (always a good idea anyway), apply new GPs, and then test whether they had the desired effect. If they didn't, you'd have to go back and figure out why, and the exiting tool at the time--the Group Policy Object Editor--wasn't much help.

As good as the GPMC is, there are still some problems. There's still no way to automate policy settings inside a Group Policy Object (GPO), for example. But the GPMC is fully scriptable, so any feature exposed by this tool can be automated.


It's already clear that Windows Server 2003 is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary upgrade over Win2K Server, and I suspect that most Win2K users will see little benefit in upgrading, unless they require a specific feature or change that's been addressed by Windows Server 2003.

But that's not a complaint. Windows Server 2003 is an excellent product, the best server OS that's ever come out of Redmond. But Windows 2000 Server was no slouch either. By supplying key feature requests and keeping to a modest development cycle, Microsoft is delivering exactly the sort of upgrade its customers demand, and the product certainly supplies enough incentive for any remaining NT 4.0 hold-outs to make the leap. It's not glitzy or exciting like Windows XP, but then it's not supposed to be.

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