Users pragmatic as Windows Server readies for launch

Microsoft on Thursday will throw a party to officially launch Windows Server 2003, but once the noise dies down corporate users aren’t likely to hear the sound of footsteps scurrying to purchase the operating system.

While Windows Server 2003 provides security and performance gains, 64-bit support and the foundation for real-time communication and a management platform, a down economy and lingering Windows 2000 upgrades are causing some users to think twice about a migration.

"I like what I see in Windows 2003," says Tim Matthews, associate director of technology for the University of Texas School of Business, who admits to running the operating system on his home network. "But we are very happy with Windows 2000, which we have worked into a nice and stable platform. I don’t want to go through that headache again, so I see no need to jump on the bleeding edge." Matthews, who is involved with the early-adopters Joint Development Program for Exchange Server 2003, says he didn’t want to bite off more than he could chew.

There is not a significant amount to chew on in Windows Server 2003, say critics, but what is there is fairly important to the overall evolution of the platform.

This is the first operating system developed under Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative, which in theory should reduce the number of patches. The OS also has many features turned off by default, which should help users avoid inadvertently opening themselves up to attacks.

"You are going to see a dramatically improved security profile for servers," says Jim Herbert, general manager of Windows enterprise servers at Microsoft.

Hebert says Microsoft also has juiced the performance of the OS over Windows 2000 by a factor of two. It also will help users consolidate many small servers onto fewer, more powerful servers. And with the addition of 64-bit support, Windows Server 2003 is adding to its claim that it is ready to run critical applications and databases.

Also, improvements in Active Directory should solve some management, replication and configuration headaches for large enterprises, and the addition of Active Directory Application Mode will provide deployment options for Web-based and other applications.

Microsoft for the first time is including natively in the base OS its .Net Framework, which supports the execution of Web services applications.

"If you are on NT 4.0 you will see the largest differential [in features and performance]," says Michael Cherry, an analyst with consulting firm Directions on Microsoft. "If you are on Windows 2000 it depends on if you deployed Active Directory or not. Those with AD deployed will see the least differential," says Cherry. "The thing that Microsoft customers will struggle with is that there is no single big feature."

That is certainly one of the factors weighing on IT decisions.

"We are still determining if we will go to Windows 2000 or 2003," says Carol Fee, network administrator for voice application vendor Artisoft. Fee now runs an NT network that also includes an abundance of Windows 2000 servers. "Windows 2003 has some nifty improvements, but it is only gold code and hasn’t been tested," she says. Fee may wait for a few service packs to see how the server performs. "It’s just too soon for me."

Like most upgrades, users will have to evaluate the migration in relationship to long-term plans, says Chris Burry, technology infrastructure practice director and technology fellow for Avanade, a systems integrator. "You have to look at what you are trying to accomplish with your infrastructure. How are you building that infrastructure for the applications that you want to use in the future? What is your IT strategy?"

That evaluation process is causing some to set their sights on Windows 2003.

"We’ve already seen development areas where .Net has been advantageous, especially with Web applications," says Tim Seymour, network administrator for the Office of The Surgeon General, U.S. Army. Seymour says .Net and Web services are things he’d like to take advantage of in the future and he knows Windows Server 2003 is the foundation to start building toward that goal.

"We’d rather be closer to the bleeding edge than the tail end. We have some NT 4.0 domain controllers, and that is ludicrous," he says.

Seymour, who currently runs Windows 2000 but does not have Active Directory deployed, plans to start testing the server in the next 30 days and roll it into deployments starting in the last few months of the year.

"We’ll target Windows 2003 for specialty applications but not as the OS for the entire platform," says Seymour. "We won’t run critical applications on it but maybe some administrative functions so we can test its stability." He also said he will look to take advantage of the print services improvements. "As simple as that sounds, there are some challenges."

Others also are looking to solve other challenges - especially security, which has dogged the Microsoft OS for years.

"I am looking at adopting it because hopefully it is more secure out of the box, will require less patches and will provide us some new management features," says Doug Spindler, project coordinator for Active Directory at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Spindler recently shut down his Windows 2000 deployment and went back to NT 4.0, saying there had been too many cooks in the rollout of Windows 2000 Server, and the results we not looking favorable.

"But the No. 1 reason to look at Windows Server 2003 over Windows 2000 is that is already has all the Windows 2000 security fixes applied," he said. Spindler also said at this point Windows Server 2003 has a longer shelf life, and if he were to go to Windows 2000 first then upgrade to 2003, the Active Directory migration could be a major issue in that it requires he touch all his domain controllers.

But he says that, regardless, management is leaning toward Windows 2000 because it is proven. "It’s the typical new-vs.-old argument," he says.

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