Microsoft weighs another about-face on Longhorn

Microsoft Corp. officials say they are again considering shipping a server version of the Longhorn operating system after announcing late last year that it would be released for the desktop only.

In addition, the company also is again considering a desktop version of Blackcomb, the follow-on release to Longhorn, after saying that version of the OS would be a server-only release.

Versions of both operating systems, which will follow Windows Server 2003 slated to ship April 24, are now being re-evaluated, says Brian Valentine, senior vice president of the Windows division at Microsoft.

"It is in flux - that is a fair thing to say," Valentine says. "There is a wave of very interesting things that we are doing in the Longhorn timeframe and we have yet to decide the delivery vehicle for those. The goal is to be non-intrusive, or least non-disruptive, to the customer environment."

The ship dates for Longhorn and Blackcomb have been moving targets for nearly a year, and now version issues are again in play.

Last November, Microsoft said a release of a Longhorn server, which has been under development for some time, did not fit with the deployment cycles and budget constraints of corporate customers. It also nixed plans for a Blackcomb desktop.

While the customer issues haven’t changed, new initiatives at Microsoft are now underfoot, such as this week’s announcement of a management platform to create a self-healing computing environment.

"There were some bold statements made at certain points in time about client-only, server-only, those kinds of things," says Valentine. "But really when you think about it, anytime you do a new client release and that release is either developer/ISV-focused around reinvigorating development on Windows again, or it’s rich-scenario-focused around some of the things we want to achieve in Longhorn - around much more common storage and those kinds of things - you need server support for that if you are going to get it deployed in the enterprise."

Valentine also said one of the big pushes with Longhorn is manageability of the desktop in the enterprise. "So where does the manageability come from? It just can't be a standalone thing."

"There could be a Longhorn server or something that you lay on top of Windows 2003 that looks and smells like a great server for the Longhorn desktop," says Valentine. "There are options that are in front of us now. Do nothing - I don’t think that is actually possible to get to the scenario that we want to achieve. Do service pack-level stuff - but that sort of breaks the rules of service packs which are supposed to be bug fixes and servicing things. Ship add-on overlays on top of the server kernel - when I call it the server kernel I just don’t mean the memory manager and stuff like that, but [also] Active Directory and the core-level server services. Or develop a brand-new release of the server. Overlays sound pretty good to me in the time frame that we are talking about, but we are not set on our plan there yet."

The timeframe for Longhorn calls for a ship date in late 2004.

On Blackcomb, Valentine says a server-only version of the OS makes little sense without client support for the server’s new features. "You have to prove the value in the infrastructure through the end-user scenarios. The rate of adoption of that [infrastructure] stuff without some value on the end-user devices - not just PCs but [also] PDAs, Smart Phones and any device you can name these days - is really slow because customers don’t see the value in it."

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