Analysis: Windows 2003: What's next?

Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 has barely poked its head out of the box, but users say it's vital to know what's next. That's because the operating system is the gateway to a new generation of products and introduces a new formula for operating system upgrades.

During the launch of the server last month, Microsoft touted the performance and security gains made with Win 2003 and stressed its ability to anchor server consolidation projects.

The other side of the story, however, is that Win 2003 is the foundation for an entire wave of next-generation Microsoft products and feature upgrades that are coupled with the new platform. Without an upgrade, corporations can expect to be in a holding pattern.

Last month, Microsoft dubbed the new operating system and 13 application servers its Windows Server System. Win 2003 is the linchpin for forthcoming products and services, including an advanced file system, collaboration environments, identity management infrastructure, digital rights management and a platformwide self-healing management system. These will be followed by advanced conferencing services based on Microsoft's US$200 million acquisition of PlaceWare Inc.; support for System Definition Model, an XML-based glue to hold together Microsoft's emerging management platform; and Virtual Server technology that recently went out for its first customer review.

"I do believe that this (operating system) is the springboard for a whole new generation of Microsoft products," says Bob O'Brien, group product manager for Windows server. "It gives us the ability to deliver products that provide a broader platform and one that scales out and up."

In the coming months, new products and features that rely on Win 2003 will include Office 2003, Exchange Server 2003, Real-Time Communications Server, Windows SharePoint Services, Rights Management Services, Automated Deployment Services and System Center management tools.

Microsoft also is playing catch-up with existing products that won't currently run on Win 2003 such as BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server. These and 16 other products have forthcoming service packs that will make them compatible with the new operating system, Microsoft says.

While corporations are moving to Win 2003, they see bumps in the road ahead.

"We're not really focused on the future. We are looking now at specific features (of Win 2003)," says Rob Sullivan, vice president of technical operations for Universal Network Exchange (UNX) in New York, which provides electronic trading solutions for institutional investors. Sullivan cites load balancing, the .Net Framework and clustering features in Win 2003 as his immediate needs.

"But we are concerned what this new (operating system) will mean for the future," he says. "What will Exchange look like when they integrate messaging into the core (operating system)? Microsoft is preparing the (operating system) for the rollout of smaller upgrades, and it will affect servers such as SQL and Exchange. We know it will, but we don't know how that will play out."

One major change is that piecemeal upgrades, in addition to their regular patching work, will be the norm instead of monolithic refreshes of the entire operating "system.

"To be competitive today, Microsoft has to do feature improvements between revisions of the (operating system) because it takes too long to produce one major revision," says John Enck, an analyst with Gartner. "If those upgrades are for standalone features, that will be OK. But if those new features rely on having other new features installed, then it could get ugly." He says users will have to do regression testing as they begin to add features.

"We don't think customers will embrace all the new features that create upgrades to the infrastructure. Hopefully we will see them being very careful with the features they do embrace," he says.

Microsoft is putting a positive spin on the fact that it can't keep pace with competitors if it plods along in improving its platform, especially in the areas of Web services and distributed computing.

"We know in this new phase that as technology emerges, customers don't want to wait three years to get it," Microsoft's O'Brien says. That three-year cycle is typical for new operating system revisions. Windows 2000 shipped in February 2000, while Win 2003 shipped less than three weeks ago.

"I have mixed feelings about piecemeal upgrades," UNX's Sullivan says. "It's nice to know that you are getting this stuff earlier, but it could be argued that it would boost my (total cost of ownership) now that I have to do Q&A testing, etc. It's now almost a constant source of keeping up."

Others say the idea of incremental upgrades ensures them the latest and greatest technology.

"I'd rather be closer to the bleeding edge than on the tail end," says Tim Seymour, network administrator for the Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army. " I don't mind piecemeal. I don't think you have to wait for major releases. The one criticism might be that you are always waiting to get the carrot."

Microsoft has devised three scenarios for delivering upgrades to the platform. The first will be new features that can be downloaded and installed for free. The second will be add-on features that will be part of the company's Licensing 6.0 and Software Assurance package. And third will be products that are separate and run on top of Win 2003.

The second option is important for Microsoft, experts say, because the company needs something in the pipeline to show value in Software Assurance, a maintenance program that amounts to a subscription service to software upgrades.

Without add-ons and interim releases, Microsoft won't have anything to subscribe to until the next major operating system release - code-named Blackcomb - which is not expected until 2007 at the earliest. Microsoft is mulling an incremental upgrade to the server operating system sometime in 2005 with the release of the next version of the client operating system, code-named Longhorn.

The point is users with two- and three-year Software Assurance contracts on the operating system will want to see value in their investments.

Whether incremental upgrades is that value is a question that might be answered in the near future.

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