It’s taken five years, but it looks like the successor to Windows Server 2003, until recently known as Longhorn Server, is just about ready for release. A public beta (Beta 3) came out in April and it now has an official name — Windows Server 2008 — the addition of a date being a sure sign of its imminent launch.
But don’t hold your breath. Officially, the product will ship in the second half of 2007, but, given Microsoft’s record in such matters, the end of the year seems a good bet. Moreover the long-awaited Server Virtualisation technology (previously known by the codename Viridian) won’t be included at launch, and could be delayed by anything up to 180 days. Neither will it deliver everything originally promised — something we’ll look at in more detail in the second part of this preview. In the meantime, the feature set of the main operating system is complete, so little will change from the Beta 3 we’ve been testing.
We also know quite a bit about the packaging, with Windows Server 2008 set to be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit implementations, just like Windows Server 2003. The 64-bit products will, similarly, work with industry-standard x86-derived Intel and AMD processors; a separate Itanium version is also due.
The same Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter editions are planned, along with a cut-down Web server package. Likewise, you can expect the usual small business bundle, which will include Exchange, SQL Server and, optionally, ISA servers, although this won’t be available immediately. Indeed, the small business server is unlikely to put in an appearance until well into 2008, and will only be available in 64-bit format.
A completely new implementation for medium-sized companies, codenamed Centro, is also set to be introduced next year — think small-business server but rejigged for deployment on larger, multiple, servers.
The three pillars
According to Microsoft, Windows Server 2008 has three main aims, or 'pillars'. The first is to improve server control — allowing customers to cut the time they spend on everyday tasks. The second is greater flexibility — to enable companies to respond quicker to changing business needs. And the third is increased protection against ever-present security threats.
How well Server 2008 measures up against these aims only time will tell, and inevitably there’s a lot of functionality that's designed to address more than just one area. So let's press on and look at what’s new in Windows Server 2008 and discover what benefits the new features might deliver.
Ready, set, go
One of the first things we noticed was that it’s a lot easier and quicker to configure a Windows Server using the new software. As in previous releases, Microsoft has hacked away at the underlying code to make it much more modular; as a result, only the code required to support a chosen server role, and nothing else, gets installed. This time, however, the number of different roles you can choose from has gone up substantially — to eighteen in fact, with five Active Directory roles plus separate application and Web server roles. File and print server roles have also been separated, with other roles dedicated to SharePoint Services and Windows deployment services.
The idea is clearly to reduce the potential attack surface presented to would-be hackers and virus writers. However, it also reduces the amount of code that has to be installed when configuring a new server for the first time, and the amount of operator input required during that process. In most cases, all you have to do is choose your country settings, specify the product code for the type of install (standard, enterprise, datacentre and so on) and leave the installer to get on with it. You’re then presented with a new Initial Configuration Tasks tool, from which you configure the server and decide which roles you need.
There are lots of changes here, too. It’s no longer a case, for example, of adding a new role then spending hours tweaking the supporting software. Instead, wizard-driven setup routines do as much as possible for you, from making sure the required components are copied to hard disk, to setting firewall ports (enabled by default in Windows Server 2008) and ensuring that any dependent services are up and running.
You’re also advised of potential conflicts and possible security issues, plus you can choose to add optional features — another innovation in Windows Server 2008. Some 35 of these new add-ons are available in the Beta 3 product, including BitLocker whole disk encryption (similar to that provided in Windows Vista) and a new command-line and scripting interface called PowerShell.