'Big bang' to jolt Microsoft users

Microsoft might be hyping its next-generation Longhorn software as a "big bang" event, but the company is being quiet about the fact that the products will require corporate customers to perform multiple, carefully planned upgrades reminiscent of the difficult migration from Windows NT to 2000.

The Longhorn lineup also will wreak havoc with the hardware and software plans of corporate executives, especially those now running Windows 2000 Server, which could reach its early 2007 end-of-support life cycle before the Longhorn server is released.

Longhorn is an umbrella term that Microsoft uses to define its collection of infrastructure software. It's the first step toward integrating all that software around .Net and Web services and requires overhauling the client and server operating systems, Office and everything that runs on top. The integration effort to create a "software stack" aligns with similar efforts by competitors such as IBM Corp. with WebSphere and Sun Microsystems Inc. with Project Orion.

"All the desktop products will have Longhorn dependencies," says Peter Pawlak, an analyst with Directions of Microsoft, an independent research firm. It's akin to the Active Directory upgrade, "Microsoft didn't think it would be smooth and it wasn't. With Longhorn, it is going to be one of those unavoidable things. It will make people stop, but to move the technology forward they have to do it."

The Longhorn "wave" (as Microsoft calls the set of products) will include a dramatically new client, with integrated universal data storage called WinFS. It also will include a chip-based security model formerly called Palladium; a user interface overhaul; a new application model built around an API called Avalon that supersedes Win32; and improved communication and collaboration features based on a Web services framework code-named Indigo.

Longhorn also will have a corresponding server to support WinFS and new management capabilities, among other features. It will include an Office upgrade built to take advantage of the new API; upgrades to Microsoft's CRM and ERP applications; new versions of Visual Studio .Net development tools, code-named Orcas; and a range of server software from collaboration to electronic commerce, Microsoft says.

Details about those products are sketchy because Microsoft is still trying to define their feature sets.

However, sources say Longhorn will include a full-scale, identity management infrastructure, which Microsoft started to preview in July and is expected to expand upon in October at its Professional Developers Conference.

Also expected is integrated peer-to-peer technology in the client and server that will support patch- and virus-update distribution, and real-time project tracking. It is also expected that Longhorn will enable collaboration and secure document sharing outside the firewall. Integration of IPv6 to enhance security also is planned.

Early efforts with peer to peer and IPv6 are being bolted onto Windows XP and offer a glimpse of the type of feature packs and piecemeal upgrades that Microsoft plans, before and during the Longhorn upgrade to jump-start migration. Microsoft did a similar jump-start with Windows Server 2003 by releasing early public-key infrastructure and Exchange 2003 schema changes that were needed in Active Directory.

In a forthcoming report, Gartner says it expects Microsoft to deliver at least three, and possibly five or more, "server feature packs" and limited-edition offerings between Windows Server 2003 and the Longhorn server.

Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, chief software architect and steward of Longhorn, said recently that "Longhorn should drive a whole range of upgrades." And foreshadowing the technological shifts brought on by Longhorn, he said, "virtually everything at Microsoft is synchronized to build on this platform."

Sources close to Microsoft describe the transition to Longhorn only by saying that something major is going to happen. Microsoft officials declined to comment.

It's a grandiose scenario Windows users know all too well.

"It's what you get used to," says Jeff Allred, manager of network services at Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. "But I'd like for things to stay stable for a while. I won't worry about this now, but I'll be thinking about it."

Corporate users won't see the Longhorn client until 2005 at the earliest, when it is expected to ship. A developer preview is scheduled to be available in October and the first beta late next year.

A time frame has not been set for delivery of the rest of the "wave" of Longhorn products.

The vagueness regarding the timing fuels migration questions for users. While the Longhorn client is expected in 2005, Gartner predicts that the server will be released sometime between mid-2006 and 2007. That means users who upgrade the client would be without features such as WinFS that rely on the server.

"You don't get all the goodness until you have deployed the Longhorn client, server and Office upgrade," says John Enck, an analyst with Gartner Inc. He says Microsoft might look to one of three options: a Longhorn server beta that can be used in test environments; a limited edition of the server that supports WinFS; or retrofitting WinFS support into Windows Server 2003. He says the final option is highly unlikely.

"You won't see Microsoft over-commit on Longhorn server features," Enck says. "This will not be another huge upgrade. They need to stay conservative so they can hit the dates."

Hitting the dates, if they are within Gartner's prediction, is the reason corporate executives should be mapping out future plans.

Win 2000 will hit its end-of-support life cycle in 2005. Extended support, which costs extra, would stretch support to March 2007. If the Longhorn server ships before that 2007 deadline, it would be a natural upgrade path.

Anything later, however, will leave Win 2000 customers in the same boat Windows NT users are in today with an outdated and soon-to-be unsupported operating system.

"Planning is tough," Enck says. "It's good that Microsoft has published the life-cycle road map, but the bad thing is that they have had trouble delivering."

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