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Microsoft's plans cloudy for server OS

The company's stated plans for a server version of Longhorn--the next release of Windows--raise questions about what the software will include and when it will debut.

Read more about Longhorn
Microsoft has laid plans for a server version of Longhorn, the next release of Windows. But it remains unclear what the software will include and when it will debut.

The software giant has said relatively little about Longhorn--the next desktop version of the Windows operating system--and even less about the server version. All Microsoft will confirm is that a server version is indeed back in the software maker's product plans.

The desktop version of Longhorn has been described by company executives as revolutionary and even as a "bet the company" proposition. Microsoft will also link the shipment of new versions of Office, server software and many other products to Longhorn's debut.

Information about Longhorn's server counterpart, however, remains all but nonexistent. Analysts say it's not clear whether Longhorn Server will be a minor upgrade or a major new release.

"If it is the latter, it could prove to be a fairly slow-to-sell OS, just as Windows 2000 (was) in the early days," said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies.

Another potential problem: Just this April, Microsoft launched a new server version of Windows, the thrice-delayed Windows Server 2003. Even if Longhorn Server debuts in 2006, it is unclear how many companies will be willing to once again update their servers with an all-new Windows release.

Some analysts are guessing that the server version of Longhorn might be a more modest improvement over the current iteration of Windows. Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, thinks that the server version will pack just enough changes to keep up with the new features of the Longhorn client, such as the new file system and other advances.

"I'm not expecting major changes in this thing that they are calling Longhorn server," Cherry said. "I call it like a refresh. They'll adjust pieces of the server that need to be adjusted. I still think that the next major release of the server is further out."

Davis said he was surprised that Microsoft even considered forgoing a server version of Longhorn.

"I thought it was odd they got their desktop and server (plans) out of sync after working through most of the '90s to align them," Davis said. Microsoft had originally hoped that Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 would ship closer together.

Not the same old storage
Plans for a new storage system, touted as the centerpiece of Longhorn, have raised old questions about Microsoft's ability to deliver on its promises.

Cherry said that an all-new file system in Longhorn is one of the main reasons Microsoft needs a server counterpart. Some server components, especially storage features like Volume Shadow Copy, would necessarily have to be updated.

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Technically, what will be included in Longhorn is not an entirely new file system, since the files themselves are still stored on the disk using a derivative of Windows' current NTFS file system.

Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for the Windows client division, classified Longhorn's improvements as "a new storage model."

WinFS, as the new storage mechanism is known, is a new way of categorizing information stored to hard drives and other media. WinFS uses relational database technology developed for the Yukon release of SQL Server to assign more information to files, making it easier to sort out calendar information, music files and other data types.

Microsoft has had plans to revamp Windows with a new storage model for more than a decade. For those using Windows, this is intended to deliver easier, faster and more reliable searches for information. Replacing its antiquated file system with modern database technology should also mean a more reliable Windows that's less likely to break and easier to fix when it does.

However, implementing the new storage model within Windows has proven to be an elusive goal for Microsoft. Originally announced in 1992 as part of a Windows NT update code-named Cairo, the new storage system was delayed again and again, and finally shelved in 1996. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, in January of 2002, said the company has resurrected the plan as part of Longhorn.

On again, off again
But, once again, Microsoft's plans for a new server version of Windows are in flux. Last November, Microsoft said it was scrapping the server version and would move straight to the next generation version, code-named Blackcomb, in 2006.

Earlier this year, Microsoft said Longhorn would ship in 2005, but now the company is saying only that Longhorn is a major effort and will ship when it's ready.

Microsoft has promised to offer a time frame as well as more details on all of the Longhorn versions at its Professional Developers Conference in October. The company is also slated to give out a "developer preview" of Longhorn client at that event, with a beta version scheduled for 2004. However, the server version isn't expected to be on that same schedule.

The company is earlier in the planning stages with the server product, still setting out the goals for it and discussing what features will be included, a representative said.

Davis suggests that Microsoft might do better to scrap major server releases altogether and opt instead for more regular, incremental releases. With its new licensing model, the company would be well equipped to make such a move, but Davis said Microsoft has not had much success updating the operating system more frequently.

"It's always found itself stuck in its cycle of major releases, Davis said. "For several years, (they have) talked about a much faster cycle with more incremental improvements which have the advantage of being more absorbable and less disruptive. (Microsoft has) really had a hard time breaking away from its mega-release."