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Windows Server plan goes modular

Microsoft will ship a number of important Windows Server 2003 components after the product launches next month, a strategy shift that means more updates between major new releases.

When Microsoft launches Windows Server 2003 next month, many additional pieces to the operating system will be works in progress.
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The Redmond, Wash.-based company is taking a more modular approach to shipping the OS compared with earlier Windows Server versions. That could translate into greater flexibility delivering additional components over a longer period of time. The strategy will also let Microsoft release technologies that simply won't be ready in time for Windows Server 2003's April 24 launch.

Previously, Microsoft has released the bulk of features with a major Windows Server version, adding minor enhancements over time. The new approach means enhancements to Windows Server 2003 can be made before the release of the next version of Microsoft's server operating system, code-named Blackcomb, in a few years. One of the most significant updates would likely come after Microsoft ships Windows XP's successor on the desktop, code-named Longhorn, in late 2004 or early 2005.

Analysts praised the new approach as smart business on Microsoft's part and as beneficial to customers, who would see the value of their Windows Server investment increase as new features become available. The strategy shift also could help Microsoft combat the appearance that its software development efforts are lumbering compared with that of Linux and other open-source software.

But delivery of so many pieces after the server software launches also raises a specter of doubt over a product that Microsoft delayed shipping three times over two years. The problem isn't future technologies that are in development but a long list of components announced as part of Windows Server 2003 that will ship over the six months after the product's launch.

The list includes: Greenwich, Microsoft's new business-class instant messaging technology; Group Policy Management Console; collaboration tool Windows Team Services; security enhancement Windows Rights Management Services (RMS); and Windows Systems Resource Manager (WSRM), among others.

Bob O'Brien, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows Server said that the product is complete. "These (non-shipping) capabilities we said from the beginning we would deliver post-delivery of the server platform. The things we're going to release later simply are going to add value to the product."

Michael Cherry, an analyst with market researcher Directions on Microsoft agreed. "I don't look at it as even after the delays Windows Server 2003 isn't ready," he said. "Rather, (Microsoft) is responding to new situations."

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As Microsoft continues to tie more products together through overlapping technologies, the company must deal with developers from different divisions contributing code and technologies for other software. While increased collaboration among product groups can improve efficiencies, the process also increases the likelihood that trouble in one area will have a ripple effect.

"Take Greenwich," Cherry said. "Do you hold up the whole OS to get this in? Likely the work on this came in from other groups." The better strategy is "to keep the rest of the OS on schedule. Otherwise you would never ship; there would always be a feature you could add."

Looked at from this point of view, Microsoft's new approach might have prevented a fourth delay in the shipping date.

Separation of components such as Greenwich and RMS allows Microsoft to better tie their release with dependent products. For example, Microsoft plans to release new applications concurrent with Greenwich's availability. At the same time, Office 2003, which is scheduled for summer release, relies on Windows Server features RMS and Team Services. Timing the release of those components with Office 2003 makes more sense than holding up Windows Server 2003, analysts said.

IDC analyst Al Gillen pointed out other reasons for Microsoft to release new pieces of Windows Server 2003 over time. "I tend to see this is as a trickle-down effect of features and capabilities working their way down from the higher end to the masses," he said. "Many of these features and capabilities were available in some capacity in Datacenter Server 2000 (Microsoft's existing high-end server operating system)."

Moving previously high-end features down into different Windows Server 2003 versions is a complicated process, Gillen explained. At the same time, Microsoft's increased emphasis on better security may have slowed down development on other features the company decided customers would wait for.

"Nobody is going to run out and upgrade to this thing right away, anyway," Gillen said. "Customers will want to take their time evaluating the product, so I don't see a problem with Microsoft shipping some things later."

Weighing the benefits
Even ahead of Windows Server 2003's launch, the shift is causing some confusion. During press briefings at the Microsoft Management Summit last week, confusion arose over statements Brian Valentine, senior vice president over the Windows division, made about Longhorn. Last year, Microsoft scrapped the release of Longhorn Server. But some press reports interpreted Valentine's comments to mean Microsoft would release the product after all.

Valentine's "comments were a real reflection of what he and some other people have been thinking about" getting Longhorn features out to customers "before the next major rev of our server platform," O'Brien said. He emphasized that the next major server release would be Blackcomb.

"I think what they will do when they release Longhorn is to release an update to certain Windows Server 2003 features on which there is a dependency," Cherry said. "For example, suppose they really modify the file system."

Microsoft plans to introduce a new file system with the next version of SQL Server, code-named Yukon, and incorporate that into Longhorn.

Microsoft's modular approach could have other benefits, particularly as the company attempts to divert a growing interest among businesses and governments in Linux. One problem is the perception that open source's cooperative approach delivers product updates faster.

Frequent updates "makes open source--as a community project management process--look like a better development process," Cherry said. "By continuing to release features and slip-streaming them to customers by either CD or download (it makes) Microsoft appear as responsive as the open-source community development process."

One of the biggest changes coming with the component approach will be with delivery. In the past, Microsoft included product enhancements with service packs that contained a collections of bug and security fixes. But many customers have balked at this approach.

"Customers have been telling Microsoft for sometime that they don't want features in service packs," Gillen said. "You don't want all that extra stuff installing on your system. You just want to patch what you need to fix bugs."

Separating features out from service packs also raises the possibility that Microsoft might charge extra for some pieces. But at least for the long list of updates already announced, that will not be the case, Microsoft's O'Brien said.

"At this point in time there are no plans to charge for those components," he explained. "Those things add more capabilities--power tools--for our customers."

Earlier, Microsoft left open the possibility the company could charge extra for either Greenwich or RMS. O'Brien said that won't happen. However, in the case of Greenwich, "We're looking at trying to deliver applications that take advantage of that plumbing, and that will come out of other (product) groups," he said. Microsoft could charge for those applications, which would be delivered about the same time Greenwich ships.

O'Brien would not discuss the release to manufacturing of finished Windows Server 2003 code. "We're close" is as much as he would say. Conceivably, signing off on code even this week could potentially crimp the April 24 launch. But O'Brien dismissed those concerns.

"Our commitment is this product will be in the channel for the 24th," he said. "On the server side of the business, we don't have the same type of constraints as the retail side and getting things into shrink-wrap boxes. In the server business, we have a lot more flexible model for getting (software) out to customers."

Many businesses buy server software on new computers, which PC manufacturers could start shipping immediately. In recent years, Microsoft's practice has been to let computer makers ship systems with a new OS ahead of the official launch date. That was the case with Windows XP and Windows 2000.

O'Brien wouldn't explicitly acknowledge whether this would be the case. But he said, "Technically, once we release this thing to manufacturing, (PC) makers can roll with it."