Microsoft on Thursday plans to release a second test version of its Windows .Net Server 2003 operating system, another step in its slow march to the general public.
The near-final testing version of the software comes days after Microsoft revised licensing for the product. Starting with Windows .Net Server 2003, customers will have two options for obtaining client-access licenses, or CALs. Under the new plan, businesses will be able to obtain CALs on a per-user or per-machine basis.
The availability of release candidate two marks an important milestone on Microsoft's march to launch .Net Server on schedule. So far, the company has delayed delivery of the product three times. The operating system is a cornerstone of Microsoft's .Net Web services strategy.
In October 2000, the software giant said the product would ship in the second half of 2001. But in April 2001, Microsoft pushed back delivery of the server software to early 2002. In March of this year, the Redmond, Wash.-based company again delayed delivery, this time until the second half of 2002.
Last month, Microsoft yet again delayed .Net Server--until April. Days earlier, the company scrapped Longhorn Server, the successor to .Net Server, essentially pushing back the next release to 2006 or later.
Microsoft has good reason for taking its time honing Windows .Net Server 2003, say analysts. Many companies are just now installing Windows 2000 Server throughout their organizations and won't be ready for the new version anytime soon. Still, Microsoft estimates that about 15 percent of its customers run Windows NT 4 Server and are candidates for the new product.
"A gun to the head"
Until Longhorn Server was canceled, many analysts failed to share Microsoft's enthusiasm for winning over NT 4 holdouts. Because of delays, many customers might have been more likely to move to Windows 2000 Server instead.
But the cancellation, coupled with other changes Microsoft is making, has put "a gun to the head" of the Windows NT 4 Server holdouts, said Tom Bittman, an analyst at research firm Gartner.
"The NT 4 phenomenon is real," he emphasized. "There are a lot of (companies) out there still on NT 4. I think it's somewhat foolish to go to Windows 2000 Server now."
Windows NT 4 Server support, which ends at the close of 2003, is a major reason. Windows .Net Server "is out in April, and eight months later, NT 4 code's dead," Bittman said.
By dropping Longhorn Server, Microsoft also may have prevented a large number of Windows 2000 Server holdouts, who might have skipped .Net Server. Gartner had recommended customers on Windows 2000 Server do just that and wait for Longhorn.
"The fact that they decided Longhorn (is) a client-only release makes a big difference," Bittman said. "A lot of companies running Windows 2000 Server now see .Net Server in their future."
When available, .Net Server 2003 will come in four editions: standard, enterprise, data center and Web. The standard version, which is geared for file and print services, supports up to four 32-bit processors. Enterprise Edition will run on servers with as many as eight 64-bit processors. The product supports up to eight-node clusters, a way of combining multiple servers to act as a single computer.
The data center version, which is intended for use supporting high-end databases, enterprise resource planning software and transaction processing, is Microsoft's play for "big iron" servers running many processors. The server software supports up to 64 processors clustered in up to eight nodes.
Web Edition, a new product, is primarily designed to be an Internet Information 6 Web Server. That product is included with Windows .Net Server 2003. Microsoft has not released pricing on the versions of .Net Server.
Microsoft plans to give those companies moving to .Net Server bonus updates that will not be available for Windows 2000 Server, as "another carrot to make the switch," Bittman said.
For example, Microsoft plans to ship a corporate-level instant-messaging technology, code-named Greenwich, after .Net Server's release. Greenwich is expected to be available only for .Net Server.
Bittman said to expect at least two "function packs" in the year or so after Windows .Net Server becomes available.
"There's a lot of stuff that just didn't make the release," he said. "There's a lot of stuff they can't get done until 2003 or 2004, but there's no (new product) release there."
So Microsoft will issue major updates to the operating system. "These will not be available for Windows 2000 Server, which will be another incentive for companies to move to .Net Server," Bittman added.
Gartner expects that at least one update will address the partitioning of big iron IBM and Unisys servers; another will focus on Active Directory, Microsoft's software for managing network users and resources.
The updates also would be important for companies that signed up for Microsoft's Licensing 6 program. Under that program, which went into effect in August, customers must sign up for two- or three-year "Software Assurance" maintenance contracts to receive upgrades. Gartner estimates that the new program raised the majority of businesses' licensing fees anywhere from 33 percent to 107 percent.
Businesses that signed up for the program essentially paid ahead for upgrades and the promise that Microsoft would deliver them within the contract period.
"With all that Software Assurance out there, there is a need to deliver these function packs," Bittman said.