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Microsoft polishing .Net Server software

The company is putting finishing touches on the second release candidate, or near-final testing version, of Windows .Net Server 2003, sources say.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Microsoft is putting the finishing touches on the second release candidate, or near-final testing version, of Windows .Net Server 2003, sources said.

The clock is ticking for Windows .Net Server 2003,

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an operating system that is used to run high-end computers that manage everything from checking passwords to keeping track of a corporate payroll. The new system is also the foundation of Microsoft's .Net Web services initiative, geared to power advanced Internet operations.

"I would not be overly surprised if Microsoft released something (soon) and called it the second release candidate," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry. But Cherry, who used to work with the Windows group at Microsoft, questioned whether the company could get the final product to customers this year.

A Microsoft representative said that a second release candidate is expected "this fall," that the software will be final by Dec. 31, and that customers will have the software "early next year."

There are many reasons Microsoft needs to place a second version of the operating system in testers' hands. Most importantly in the short term, the company needs ample time for testing before its year-end deadline.

And in the long term, programmers have to wrap up the thrice-delayed operating system so they can get to work on the company's next project, a possible second update to Windows XP.

Still, the work has crawled. The Redmond Wash.-based company has cautiously said Windows .Net Server 2003 would be released this year, but analysts have taken that to mean the company would simply complete the code for the operating system. Analysts do not expect customers to get the new server software until the first quarter of next year.

"No work gets done between Thanksgiving and the end of the year," Cherry said, adding that there could yet be a third release candidate. "They have to get out at least one more release candidate (after the second). I'm not convinced they're going to ship before the end of the year."

In the past, Microsoft has issued three release candidates for server operating systems. A Microsoft representative said, however, there will only be two release candidates (RCs) for .Net Server 2003. "There are no plans for an RC3," the representative said.

IDC analyst Al Gillen agreed that customers won't see the software this year, but said ultimately the late delivery might not be a concern, as earlier delays compelled many customers to adopt Windows 2000 Server instead.

"Will there be boxed sets on store shelves by the end of the year? The answer is no," Gillen said. "Plus there is no end-of-the-year buying push. There's no Christmas rush on .Net Server."

.Net Server's promise
Forrester Research says the software
is ready for customers to use.

Customers are also increasingly wary about the readiness of new Microsoft technologies. "Nobody is going to rush out and start deploying .Net Server," Gillen said. "They'll want to do some testing first."

Microsoft has been hard at work on higher-level software that's part of the Windows ecosystem. The company bolstered its .Net software collection Monday with the official release of Content Management Server 2002.

In another important .Net-related announcement, Microsoft on Tuesday plans to reveal new details about the next versions of Outlook and Exchange.

Four versions coming
Microsoft plans to release four versions of Windows .Net Server 2003: Datacenter, for top-end machines with dozens of processors and high reliability requirements; Enterprise Server, for more mainstream multiprocessor servers; Standard Server, for low-end servers; and the new Web Server for low-end machines used to send Web pages to Internet browsers.

Microsoft added the low-priced Web Server version in part because of competition from the Linux operating system, which often is paired with Apache software on Web servers. The Linux-Apache combination, even when grouped with more sophisticated packages such as Tomcat and PHP software, is available for free.

Microsoft has been expanding its territory in the operating system world. Hardware companies such as Dell Computer and IBM have begun use a special version of system software called the Server Appliance Kit that lets the Windows operating system be customized to a particular task. An embedded version of the Windows operating system is used for computing devices such as slot machines and factory floor robots. Additionally, Microsoft is adding support for Intel's new Itanium processor into its systems.

In an unusual move, Microsoft plans to release all four versions of Windows .Net Server 2003 at the same time. When Windows 2000 arrived, the top-end Datacenter edition emerged months later than the Server and Advanced Server versions. This time, all the editions of .Net Server 2003 will ship simultaneously, a Microsoft representative said.

Cherry said he's not surprised Microsoft would release all four products simultaneously, as "the differences between the versions should be minimized at this point." But the Directions on Microsoft analyst doubted customers would get the Datacenter edition as quick as the others.

"In this case you're putting the OEM (original-equipment manufacturer) between Microsoft and the customer," Cherry said. "There's a second level of testing that goes on with Datacenter. I see Microsoft giving Datacenter to OEMs on the same day as everything else, but I can't see it going straight to customers."

Improving security
One of the biggest changes to Windows .Net Server 2003 affects security. In January, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sent a memo to employees making security the company's No. 1 priority. Microsoft then stopped all product development while software developers underwent additional training and conducted security audits of the Windows code. That project contributed to Microsoft again delaying the delivery date for .Net Server 2003.

Microsoft also has battled problems not necessarily of its own making, as companies have improperly configured server software or left open unnecessary services through which hackers might attack. Microsoft is trying to address this social challenge with a new feature called Secure Server Roles (SSR).

Secure Server Roles is a series of questions during installation that determines what the jobs the server will perform, said Mike Nash, vice president of Microsoft's Security Business Unit. SSR then determines and installs only the minimum necessary software to reduce the number of potential pathways for attack.

That philosophy is a change for Microsoft, Nash said. Previously, the company would set the software to install everything, on the chance that an administrator might need the services at some point.

Microsoft also is including in .Net Server 2003 its Software Update Service feature, available currently as a free but separate download for Windows 2000. The software lets corporate customers set up a Windows server as a middleman in the Windows update service for sending software patches to desktop computers and servers. The software lets administrators control which systems receive software updates and when.

In addition, Microsoft increased the number of levels of administrative access that users have over the server. Currently, there are only three levels--user, power user, and administrator--but .Net Server 2003 will have finer shades of control so people can have just the amount of privileges required.

XP Second Edition
As Microsoft winds down development on .Net Server 2003, the company has started to look ahead to future versions of Windows. At issue is the release date for the successor to Windows XP, and the company's decision to realign its desktop and server products on the same release schedule.

"Why do they have to get this .Net Server release out of the way?" Cherry asked. "Because until they get this .Net Server product out of their way, no really heavy focus can be done on the next version of Windows."

But what the next Windows will look like is uncertain. Until now, Microsoft has said the next version would be "Longhorn," which had been scheduled for 2004 but now has been informally pushed back to 2005. The company also has said there would be no new version of Windows XP in the meantime.

In September, Jim Allchin, the executive responsible for Windows, acknowledged the "majority of my time is being spent on Longhorn, which we're many, many years away from shipping."

Microsoft now apparently is looking at combining the features of Longhorn into yet another planned version of Windows, code-named Blackcomb, sources said. That would push delivery back until late 2005 or 2006.

But Microsoft probably can't wait that long to deliver a new version of Windows, because of the company's new Licensing 6 program that allows businesses to buy upgrades at a discount. Under the plan, customers pay ahead for their upgrades on an annual basis, under two- or three-year contracts. This also assumes Microsoft will release new versions of its products during the contract periods.

"I don't think Microsoft customers would react favorably if they paid for the upgrade, but Microsoft didn't deliver," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "Licensing 6 puts more pressure on Microsoft to get products out on time."

Many analysts now expect Microsoft will release an interim version of Windows XP in late 2003 or 2004 that would satisfy volume licensing customers and allow the company to line up some operating system features with the next version of SQL Sever, code-named Yukon.

Such a shift in timetable might also make it easier to synchronize base features and release times for the desktop and server versions of Windows. Microsoft, for example, shipped the desktop and server versions of Windows NT 4 and 2000 around the same time. But with Windows XP, Microsoft had to embark on a separation strategy, in part because of the amount of work required bringing the consumer and business desktop operating systems onto a single code base.

Aligning the desktop and server code bases "is a hot button with Allchin right now," Cherry said.

"It would not surprise me to see an interim release of Windows XP within about 18 months," he added.