Microsoft dangles .Net Server in front of customers

Microsoft called on some of its top software executives Wednesday at a developer gathering here as it prepares to release the next version of its server operating system, which is expected to ease some server management and security headaches for customers.

Here at Microsoft's Windows .Net Server DevCon, the theme is evangelism, and the company is aiming to convince some of its largest customers to adopt the new server operating system in parts of the organization that historically have chosen systems known to be better suited for running large applications, such as Unix.

Microsoft shipped Release Candidate 1, a near complete version of Windows .Net Server, in late July. With one more test version planned for distribution, the final version is due to reach manufacturers by the end of the year and will trickle down to most customers in early 2003, Microsoft has said. The company has failed to meet some of its earlier release date goals, and a recent product name change was seen by some as an indication of that, as Microsoft last week renamed the server Windows .Net Server 2003.

Advantages of the operating system over its predecessor will include expanded support for 64-bit systems, including those running Intel Corp.'s Itanium family of processors. The Redmond, Washington, software maker is demonstrating here a data center version of the operating system running a beta version of its SQL Server 2000 database software on 64-bit servers from Unisys Corp. There are also more advanced capabilities for clustering, which allows users to run applications on a number of linked servers.

"Security is probably the single biggest focus over the past year," said Dave Thompson, vice president of Microsoft's Windows server development team, who delivered a presentation here Wednesday.

All the added features shipped with the operating system are turned off by default, which will make the system less vulnerable, he said. Many of the security vulnerabilities that historically have plagued Microsoft users are the result of hackers taking advantage of little-known features in the operating system that are turned on without the user's knowledge.

Most notable in the planned release, many attendees here say, are the changes to Microsoft's IIS (Internet Information Server). IIS version 6.0 will be integrated into the server operating system, and it will include new features that are designed to prevent the exploitation of Web sites that run on the software.

"My impression is that IIS 6.0 is definitely going to solve a lot of the problems from the past," said Chris Dickey, an independent software consultant in San Diego. "I'm converted."

Microsoft has redesigned IIS to allow applications that run on the Web server to run independent of other applications. If one application is attacked or goes down, other applications will continue running and a user won't have to reboot the entire Web server to fix the problem. Applications are also assigned fewer privileges in IIS 6.0, so that if an attacker does take control of a system through a vulnerable application, he will be less able to corrupt the system, Thompson said.

Additionally, Web pages built with Microsoft's new ASP.Net (Active Server Pages) technology can be better managed in IIS 6.0 with Web page caching so that pages are delivered to users faster, he said.

George Dover, a developer with the Bonneville Power Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, noted that IIS 6 is the most attractive aspect of .Net server. However, the Portland, Oregon, agency has no immediate plans to move to the new platform.

"We're not planning on moving to .Net Server for at least another year," Dover said, noting that the organization is one year into moving from Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000. "Our goal is to take everything off Windows NT 4 first."

The Bonneville Power Administration says it is taking a slow approach to the migration due to some concerns over new technology in the server software that allows Microsoft to automatically identify problems in a system and recommend updates and bug fixes. Dover said his organization worries about the privacy of its data under this scenario.

"We realize you can turn this feature off, but you can imagine that it's a major concern for a government agency," he said.

About 90 percent of the companies that deploy Windows in the back end run Windows 2000, according to an estimate by Bill Veghte, vice president of Microsoft's Windows .Net Server division, who spoke during the Wednesday presentation.

Michael Cherry, lead operating systems analyst with the independent research company Directions on Microsoft, in Kirkland, Washington, said Microsoft's user base estimate for Windows 2000 may be a bit misleading, as he estimated that many of those customers probably still use Windows NT in critical areas of an organization's computer system.

The switch to Windows .Net Server 2003 may take a similar path. Wayne Berry, president and chief executive officer of software development company XCache Technologies Inc., in Bellingham, Washington, said his company doesn't plan to release a .Net version of its software until Windows .Net Server 2003 has been on the market for at least three months.

"The release candidate is still unstable, so we have a lot of work to do," Berry said. "It's not to a point where our products will work flawlessly."

When organizations do begin migrating to the new platform, they will notice new enhancements that improve the operating system for use in more critical aspects of an organization, according to Cherry, who has followed the development of the server operating system for Directions on Microsoft.

"A lot of what they've done in the .Net server is about removing the barriers to adoption," he said, adding that users trying to roll out Active Directory will have an easier time of it. "They've made deployment easier."

Additionally, he said, Microsoft is making it easy to migrate from Windows NT 4 to Windows .Net Server 2003, skipping Windows 2000 altogether.

It is unclear how and when the bulk of Microsoft customers will choose to make the switch, and Cherry said he's still unsure what immediate value the new server operating system will offer customers. Many of the .Net technologies that will be integrated into that release are available as add-ons for Windows 2000.

"You really have to ask, how is Windows .Net Server any better than taking Windows 2000 and installing the .Net Framework?" he said.

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