Windows Server 2003 R2 Draws Near

Time is running out on Microsoft's self-imposed goal of releasing Windows Server 2003 R2 this year. When it does ship, the update to Microsoft's flagship server operating system will offer users improvements in branch office server solutions; identity and access management; and storage setup and management.

Although R2 is a minor update, it makes sense to understand the enhancements because Microsoft's plan is to provide the R2 version with every purchase of a new copy of Windows Server 2003. R2 will ship as two CDs -- one is Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1, and the second CD contains the R2 features. There's no reason to throw out that second CD if one of the new features would help your organization.

In the big picture, the R2 release is part of a year-old Microsoft server roadmap that calls for new full versions of the server OS every four years (Windows Server 2003, Windows Longhorn Server in 2007) with interim releases like R2 coming in between. Such roadmaps should be taken with a grain of salt. If the past is a guide, such roadmaps tend to reflect Microsoft's current circumstances projected into the future, rather than a strategy Microsoft will feel obliged to follow come 2009 or 2010.

R2 Features

One major feature of R2 involves identity and access management across security boundaries. The functionality is being delivered through a feature called Active Directory Federation Services. Through ADFS, Microsoft is advancing the utility of existing Active Directory deployments by allowing business-to-consumer extranet authentication and authorization; multi-forest Active Directory federation; and business-to-business directory federation over the Internet.

Identifying administration of file and print servers in branch offices as a major cause of customer frustration, Microsoft overhauled several technologies and tools in R2 to make it easier to centralize administration of branch office servers. The company rewrote its file replication engine for branch office use. File Replication Services (FRS) is replaced by Distributed File System Replication (DFS-R). DFS-R uses scheduling, throttling and Remote Differential Compression to maximize bandwidth. The technology also stores data for transmission later if a WAN connection fails.

To make it easier to centrally manage branch servers, Microsoft updated the Print Management Console and the Microsoft Management Console to provide more information and power to remote administrators.

Another general area of effort in R2 is storage setup and management. Changes in R2 include detailed storage reports; directory quotas; file screening; and tools for configuring and provisioning storage area networks.

As a design decision in Windows Server 2003, Microsoft offered many of the most compelling features it was working on for Windows server as free add-on packs that users could download and install after the OS shipped.

When Microsoft first started talking about Windows Server 2003 R2, the OS update was partially billed as a way to roll together a supported version of the operating system with many of those feature packs included.

Over time, Microsoft shifted its emphasize from feature pack integration to branch office, storage and identity/access management. Now, although Microsoft offers 14 feature packs as free add-ons for Windows Server customers, only three of them will be included in the R2 release.

And the included feature packs shipping as part of R2 will only be those that are significantly overhauled from the free add-on versions. One feature pack in R2 is Windows SharePoint Services, which is the highest profile feature pack released for Windows Server 2003. Microsoft presents the team collaboration services enhancements as the biggest improvement to its base file server in years.

Microsoft is also building in the Services for Unix 3.5 add-on, that recently became free, by including it in R2 as the "Subsystem for Unix-based Applications." The subsystem allows developers to compile and run custom Unix-based apps on Windows servers. SFU-related tools are also finding their way into the identity federation improvements, where Microsoft is providing tools for managing and updating user accounts and synchronizing passwords across Windows and Unix systems.

Another component graduating from feature pack status to full-fledged OS feature in R2 is Active Directory Application Mode (ADAM). ADAM is a stand-alone directory service for applications. Basically, it allows an application to have access to Active Directory services without connecting to the broader corporate Active Directory. In R2, Microsoft has enhanced ADAM by allowing it to work with ADFS.

The Fine Print

Because R2 is based on Windows Server 2003 SP1, Microsoft says not to expect any problems beyond what you might find with SP1. Currently, Microsoft is publicly acknowledging SP1 compatibility problems for 13 applications from Microsoft, Citrix, CA, NetIQ and others. (Click here for the Microsoft Knowledge Base article on Windows Server 2003 SP1 application compatibility.)

R2 does give you a tangible benefit if you are a Software Assurance or Enterprise Agreement customer. You can update any of your Windows Server 2003 systems to R2 for no charge beyond what you've paid for your SA or EA. Anyone else who wants to upgrade a Windows Server 2003 or older server to R2 must purchase a new server license.

There will not be a specific R2 Client Access License. Existing Windows Server 2003 CALs will work with R2, Microsoft says.

Windows Server 2003 R2 will come in six editions: Standard Edition, Standard x64 Edition, Enterprise Edition, Enterprise x64 Edition, Datacenter Edition and Datacenter x64 Edition. There will not be a Web Edition of Windows Server 2003 R2.

The OS is due any day. It entered a private beta last December but serious polishing couldn't occur until the release of the key precursor, Windows Server 2003 SP1, which occurred in March. The first release candidate came out in August and a second RC hit in October.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.