A Microsoft Corp. executive this week cleared up the heretofore cloudy road map for its Windows Server line -- nailing down 2005 for a product update code-named R2 and 2007 for the next major operating system release, known as Longhorn.
Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Windows Server division, said the company wants to be consistent with the product's cycle. Plans call for a major release of Windows Server roughly every four years and an incremental update two to two and a half years after, he said. Muglia earlier this year told Computerworld only that Longhorn would emerge no sooner than 2006.
Windows Server 2003, the last major server operating system release, shipped in April of that year. Microsoft has pledged the first service pack -- an update that typically includes bug and security fixes -- in the second half of this year. That service pack, known as SP1, also will form the basis for a new platform release of Windows Server 2003 designed to run on 64-bit Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Xeon EM64T processors from Intel Corp.
The follow-on R2 product is targeted for the second half of 2005, according to Muglia. R2 will bundle in various feature packs that Microsoft has put out since Windows Server 2003, such as Windows Rights Management Services and SharePoint Services. R2 will also include support for the next release of Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net development environment, code-named Whidbey, and new features to help companies deploy servers in branch offices and allow users to access intranet-based services from the Internet without having to go through a VPN, Muglia said.
Muglia noted that R2 is being built on the same code base as Windows Server 2003 SP1, a fact that will be important to customers who want to deploy R2 "without fear" of breaking any applications. He said Microsoft isn't seeing much application breakage with SP1, and in cases where an application doesn't work, it's typically because of a changed default setting or because Microsoft closed down a bug due to a potential security vulnerability.
Unlike service packs that are freely available to customers, R2 is considered a new release, and companies that bought individual licenses for earlier Windows Server products will have to buy a new license for R2, Muglia confirmed. But customers who either purchased Microsoft's Software Assurance maintenance and upgrade program or hold an Enterprise Agreement will be able to get R2 free of charge, according to Muglia.
Muglia acknowledged that one reason Microsoft is putting out the R2 update is for its Software Assurance customers, many of whom signed three-year contracts and may have expected an upgrade during that time. "If you decide your major releases are four years apart on average and your Software Assurance customers are on three-year cycles, it's probably a good idea to have something to deliver value in between," he said.
Muglia said that, while he expects many customers to use R2, he expects only a small number of existing servers to be upgraded to R2.
"The typical pattern for customers is they have a new application, a new solution, they buy a new server for it," he said. "They don't do as much upgrading of existing servers."
But it remains unclear whether the R2 update will be sufficient to drive renewals or new sales of Software Assurance or to appease customers who may have been expecting a major release during the duration of their contracts.
Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc., noted that Microsoft last year enhanced Software Assurance by adding support and training options, and he said R2 is an important step in helping Microsoft to bridge the long gap between releases. But he added that he's not sure R2 will be enough, on its own, to cause people "to rush over and sign Software Assurance agreements."
"Microsoft will continually tweak the Software Assurance program to create higher perceived value until they get to the point where they cross the magic threshold and customers find it appealing," he said. "I don't think they've crossed it yet. But each customer will have a different threshold."
"The reality is a lot of people bought into Software Assurance thinking they were getting Longhorn in that time frame," said Tom Bittman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "That's how they made their decision. This isn't Longhorn."
Bittman said R2 will "add value" by pulling together features and functionality released since Windows Server 2003. In particular, customers should benefit from the "network defense" feature that will allow administrators to quarantine remote computers entering the network to ensure they're properly patched, he said.
But, Bittman added, if Microsoft is now saying major releases are about four years apart, customers should expect Software Assurance contracts of four years rather than three. Gartner, in fact, is predicting that Longhorn server will emerge in 2008 -- not 2007, as Microsoft is now saying.
Discussion has swirled about the potential for features being cut from Longhorn in order for Microsoft to ship the product. But Muglia said Microsoft won't be "taking massive pieces of functionality out of the system."
"There is a set of scenarios at a very, very high level that people have been thinking about for Longhorn server," he said. "If you looked at the way people would use Longhorn server, some of the scenarios have been cut back."
Muglia said Microsoft will probably constrain branch-office scenarios "to being a fairly minimal set of things on top of what we do in R2." He said that the new WinFS storage subsystem may not be at a state where it can be used for collaboration by hundreds of users.
"There may be some cases where thinking about the scale aspects of a server and the scale aspects of a file system, some of those things might need to wait until post-Longhorn for it to happen," he said. "But one of the great things about this regular release cycle is we have another opportunity to get that value to customers even after Longhorn ships."
Major new features due in Longhorn in addition to WinFS include a communications infrastructure and programming model, code-named Indigo, for building advanced service-oriented applications, dynamic partitioning capabilities and a new engine to improve the way an administrator can create scripts that pass information from one command to another.
The setting of the Longhorn server target date also shed some light on Microsoft's plans for its client operating system. Windows Server typically will ship six to 12 months after the client operating system release, according to Muglia. With Longhorn server pegged for 2007, that means the Longhorn client could be released any time from the beginning of 2006 to the first half of 2007.
"You could potentially squeak it into 2005, but I think it's a tight squeeze to get in that time frame," Muglia said, noting that he doesn't drive the client schedules. He added, "The expectation is that it would not be later than 2006."