Upgrading an operating system is never as simple as popping in a CD-ROM and twiddling your thumbs through an automated install. Every OS change requires planning, retraining, and sometimes changes to client systems and custom applications. To make the effort worthwhile, a new OS release must be compelling. In the current corporate climate, with IT budgets and manpower stretched beyond their limits, an upgrade must add significant value to make it onto the schedule.
Microsoft Corp. is betting that Windows .Net Server will get a spot on customers' crowded to-do lists. To make this happen, Microsoft has packed Windows .Net Enterprise Server RC1 (Release Candidate 1) with impressive new features. The vendor has taken the unprecedented step of allowing customers to download the OS for free (or order CDs), and every copy of RC1 comes with a one-year license.
RC1 of .Net Server straddles the line between retail and prerelease software. Microsoft is using this software in-house to run its Web sites, and it has talked several major accounts into using RC1 in production. We'd never recommend taking that kind of risk. But after a thorough evaluation of RC1, we understand why a company would consider it. Microsoft has packed more unique value into an operating system than any vendor to date.
We evaluated .Net Enterprise Server RC1 on a SuperMicro server with dual Xeon CPUs and 1GB of RAM. It is not possible to explore every new feature here; a mere laundry list of enhancements would more than fill this space. We had to limit ourselves to a handful of features added to RC1.
Lower admin overhead
RC1 embodies Microsoft goal of providing multiple rich paths to system management. The MMC (Microsoft Management Console) remains the primary interface for most administrators. A new role-based management interface, Manage Your Server, organizes administrative tasks, documentation, and guidance (for example, "what to do next") by server roles such as Web, domain, e-mail, and media. This facility is simpler and far more helpful than Windows 2000's Configure Your Server interface. If you access management consoles via Manage Your Server, new features such as task shortcuts and functional groupings will appear.
For example, if you ask to manage your file server role, you'll see one-click shortcuts for creating shadow copies and adding a new shared folder. When you ask to manage your Web app server role, the management interfaces for .Net, IIS (Internet Information Server), and COM+ are rolled together. It's also easier to add and remove groups of related services. We enabled DNS, DHCP, and Active Directory by adding Domain Server to our test machine's list of roles.
Other paths to management include browser interfaces, .Net APIs, and command-line tools. The standard .Net run time gives administrators the ability to automate management with custom programs written in C#, Visual Basic, C++, JScript, or any third-party .Net language. Windows 2000's WSH (Windows Scripting Host) is still present, as are previous management APIs. However, .Net's language flexibility, along with the ability to present Web and Windows GUIs, makes it an excellent customization platform for system management. But for basic administrative scripting, Visual Studio .Net is overkill. We recommend using any decent editor with the free .Net command-line compilers. Microsoft offers a free, basic .Net IDE called Web Matrix (http://www.asp.net/webmatrix), which is ideal for quick scripts.
Among RC1's new core features, storage has advanced the most. At a low level, the new OS includes support for SANs and provides a unified management interface (including a new API) for hardware RAID devices. The most significant functional enhancements relate to shadow copies and federated file servers.
Shadow copy takes a snapshot of the state of a working volume. It's not a bit-for-bit copy, but a time-stamped log of changes made since the snapshot was taken. This feature is common among enterprise file servers, but Microsoft implements it with a couple of twists. First, by installing a small client on remote desktops, you can expose shadow copies as read-only shares to network users. If a user accidentally deletes a file or folder, he or she can recover the lost data simply by right-clicking the folder in Windows Explorer and choosing the date and time of the snapshot from a list.
We tested the shadow copy feature from Windows XP clients and found that it worked simply and transparently. The 30GB partition we used for testing took less than a minute to snapshot, and the server remains available during the process. A built-in scheduler kicks off snapshots at regular intervals.
Second, shadow copy extends one capability needed by every administrator: open-file backup. By backing up the snapshot instead of the live file system, all of your files, even frequently modified databases, are copied without file-locking errors. RC1's built-in backup tool triggers a shadow copy automatically upon starting. Microsoft offers a new API to backup software vendors that includes shadow copy controls. Windows 2000 backup software will still work on .Net Server, but existing approaches to open-file backup are inferior to shadow copy.
Terminals and media
RC1 extends the reach of Terminal Services to take advantage of faster networks and larger servers. In deference to Citrix Systems Inc., Microsoft still limits Terminal Services to Windows and Windows Terminal clients. But with RC1, each server can handle about twice as many sessions as Windows 2000, and each session can operate in up to 24-bit color. It's finally possible to connect to a server's graphical console through the network, la PCAnywhere, topping off RC1's remote administration feature set.
The Session Directory feature reconnects users to suspended sessions, without requiring the user to know which server he or she was using. This imposes a network-wide limitation of one session per user, but it's worth it. Reconnecting a session is as easy as logging into the nearest server; the user is automatically redirected to the server hosting the original session.
Microsoft has overhauled Windows Media Services in RC1, giving early adopters a preview of the Corona media technology due out this fall. The new Media Services management interface is slick and concise; both live events and canned server-side playlists are easier to set up, monitor, and change. Companies that use streaming media should take a close look at RC1 before committing to RealNetworks or QuickTime.
Microsoft expects RC2 to be feature-complete. We're looking forward to revamped management interfaces, DFS (distributed file system) fail-over, and other features that didn't make RC1. Still, RC1 is the best Windows server OS Microsoft has released, which explains why companies are willing to risk using it on production servers.
If you decide you can't wait for the retail version of .Net Server, we suggest waiting for RC2 so you can at least see the full feature set and train your administrators on the OS's new approach to management. However, we strongly recommend that RC1 be used as a target for new .Net development. It's stable enough to use for facilities -- such as IIS 6, the more scalable Active Directory and Terminal Services, and streaming media -- that RC1 does so much better than Windows 2000.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Windows .Net Enterprise Server, RC1
Business Case: This prerelease of Microsoft's flagship OS is a good target for new .Net development. A free, one-year license gives companies a chance to try .Net Server before making a commitment.
Technology Case: RC1 enhances all of Windows, but its greatest advances are related to administration, the application server, networked storage, Terminal Services, and Media Services.
+ Administration through GUI console, command line, .Net script
+ Reworked Terminal and Media Services
+ Federation of networked storage
+ Greater scalability in Active Directory
- Terminal Services limited to Windows clients
- Complete features delayed until RC2
Platform(s): Servers with Intel or compatible x86, Itanium, or Itanium 2 CPUs