Which Windows When?

Buying the Microsoft Windows OS used to be akin to buying a Model T Ford – you could have it painted any color you wanted, as long as it was black. You couldn’t buy “Windows 95 Souped-up Version,” or “Windows Me Stripped-down and Less Expensive Version.” Variety was lacking.

Those days are long gone, on both the server and desktop sides. Microsoft’s newest OS, Windows Vista, was released to manufacturing (RTM) on Nov. 8, meaning it should be in the hands of volume customers by the end of November and consumers by Jan. 30, 2007. As always, Microsoft promises the kitchen sink – and the kitchen stove, refrigerator, toaster, et al. – to buyers of its latest and greatest OS. But the catch is that you can now choose some of the appliances you get with your kitchen sink. The same holds true in the data center, with Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 – lots of options to pick and choose from.

To cut down on confusion, ENTmag.com presents this guide to the latest Windows desktop and server OSes. We’ll give the basics on what each version does, and which version you should use in what environment.


  • Windows Server 2003, Web Edition. The Web edition of Windows Server 2003 is mainly aimed at ISPs and Web farms. It’s cheap to buy, at about $400, but for that low a price, don’t expect a great deal of functionality. Although a Windows 2003 Web server can be a member of a domain, it can’t be a domain controller. That means you can’t use it to apply, for instance, Group Policy, Software Restriction Policies, Internet Authentication Policy and other standard management features.

    In fact, you can’t even load a standard version of SQL Server on it (although SQL 2005 Express edition can be used). It can utilize a maximum of 2 GB RAM and supports up to two processors.

  • Windows Server 2003, Standard Edition. Windows Server 2003 is a step up from Web edition. It has middle-of-the-road functionality and capabilities, so it’s a good choice for an environment that needs to get work done, but doesn’t need blazing performance or Swiss Army Knife utility. It’s designed to handle regular workloads, such as a company department or small or midsized business. The latest version is Release 2 (R2) and retails for $999, or $1,199 with 10 client access licenses, or CALs. (Note that all the following versions of Windows Server 2003 are also at R2).

    It’s available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, making it robust enough for medium-duty database work, especially if you’re using SQL Server. It’s the lowest-level server that can be a domain controller and also supports Network Load Balancing clusters, the .NET 2.0 framework and more. Like Web edition, it can support two processors, but can utilize double the RAM, at 4 GB. The 64-bit version, however, can support double the number of processors and up to 32 GB of RAM.

  • Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition. Stepping up in class is the Enterprise Edition, which should be considered by heavy-use environments. It’s also a step up in price: at $3,999 with 25 CALs, it’s more than three times the price of the Standard version.

    So what do you get for that? Start with the ability to use up to eight processors and 64 GB of RAM. Also unlike Standard and Web, Enterprise can be clustered, with support for up to eight nodes. Other notable functionality includes support for Microsoft Identity Integration Server (MIIS) and Active Directory Federation Services, to facilitate single sign-on. Naturally, for a powerful OS like this, you can choose from both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. The 64-bit really ramps up the power, allowing up to 1 TB of RAM.

    Enterprise Edition is a powerful, reliable workhorse for shops that need more scalability than Standard Edition can provide. It should be considered for very large databases, enterprise apps and large Terminal Services deployments.

  • Windows Server 2003, Datacenter Edition. Datacenter is for environments needing extreme speed, with a heavy workload that can have almost no downtime. At $2,999, it seems like a relative bargain, but the hardware requirements are so specific and costly that it’s by far the most expensive, and most powerful, Windows Server 2003 edition.

    Datacenter, in its 32-bit incarnation, supports eight to 32 processors and up to 64 GB of RAM. The steroid-pumped 64-bit version can handle up to 64 processors and 2 TB of RAM. If you have a high-volume website, are doing world-class number crunching, or need a gigantic, fast database, consider Datacenter.

  • Windows Server 2003, Compute Cluster Edition. Compute Cluster is designed for supercomputing environments like engineering, science and financial services. As such, it’s only available with 64-bit processors. It can support up to four processors per server and up to 32 GB of RAM. It’s relatively cheap, at $469 per server. If you’re running a Windows-only cluster, this should be your product, as it simplifies cluster deployment and management, and integrates well with the rest of the Windows infrastructure.

  • Windows Small Business Server 2003. If you’re a small business or department with one or two servers, and you need one server to handle multiple tasks, consider SBS as a potential “one-stop shop”. It has all the capabilities of Windows Server 2003, as well as SharePoint and Exchange servers, and the Outlook e-mail client. SBS Standard Edition is $599 with five CALs, and the Premium version is $1,299 with five CALs. The Premium Edition includes all the features and capabilities of Standard Edition, while adding ISA Server 2004, SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition and FrontPage 2003.

    SBS 2003 is aimed at a business or department with 75 or fewer users; beyond that, you’ll want to look at the other Windows Server 2003 versions. If you’re approaching that limit or think you might in the near future, look elsewhere. If you’ve already got it, Microsoft offers an SBS Transition Pack, which allows you to move to standalone versions of the software.


    Windows Vista, like Windows Server 2003, has multiple versions for multiple uses. The much-ballyhooed, and just as much delayed, next-generation desktop operating system is on schedule for delivery to volume customers on Nov. 30, with consumer availability on Jan. 30, 2007. Like Server 2003, all standard versions of Vista come in 32- and 64-bit flavors.

  • Windows Vista Home Basic. Why are we including the Home versions of Vista here? Because your organization may have to support it. Batting first in the Vista order is Home Basic, which is $199. Home Basic, while it will get the job done on a very limited basis, is lacking some major upgrades that appear in the next step up, Home Premium. Since Home Premium is just $40 more, it's hard to make a compelling case for Home Basic under any conditions other than being at the topmost limit of a budget.

    Home Basic can't support more than a single processor. The 32-bit version supports up to 4 GB of RAM, while the 64-bit version doubles that amount. It lacks Windows Media Center, Windows Movie Maker and the Encrypting File System among other omissions. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect is that it doesn't have the Aero interface at all.

  • Windows Vista Home Premium. Home Premium is $239, but adds substantially upgraded functionality over Home Basic. It supports two processors and adds the multimedia features absent from Home Basic, along with the ability to do scheduled backups. It’s also better for laptops, with Windows Mobility Center and Tablet PC support built in.

    Neither of the Home versions can join a domain, the same limitation found in Windows XP Home.

  • Windows Vista Business. The $299 Business edition is the entry-level offering for corporations, but it packs a punch. It’s significantly easier to deploy, given that the installation images are now hardware-independent. Once installed, it’s also the most secure desktop OS Microsoft has ever released. Most important is User Account Control, which gives users lower-level access than previously. It’s the same principle that contributes to the security of the Apple Macintosh. Added to that are Network Access Protection, making sure a computer joining a network meets security standards, and Windows Service Hardening, which prevents an attacker from mucking around in, among other places, the Registry.

    Vista Business can support up to two processors and 4 GB of RAM in its 32-bit version, and supports up to 128 GB in its 64-bit incarnation. These standards are the same for Vista Enterprise and Vista Ultimate.

  • Windows Vista Enterprise. The key differentiator between Business and Enterprise is Windows BitLocker Full Drive Encryption. BitLocker enhances security by encrypting an entire hard drive, rather than just selected files or folders. It’s a welcome technology in these days of HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley and seemingly weekly reports of laptops with sensitive or top-secret information being lost or stolen. Enterprise is only available through a volume license.

  • Windows Vista Ultimate. Ultimate, at $399 a pop, aims for the user who wants it all — all the business functionality and security, and all the media goodies and fun stuff. It includes everything in both the home and business versions of Vista. The question for your enterprise is, Is it too much? Do your users need to author DVDs on the same machine that holds your crucial CRM app?

    There’s a lot to choose from on both the server and desktop side of things. Keep in mind that Windows Server 2003 is mature, proven technology, and Vista is brand-spanking-new, with the associated risks of a product that, while widely tested, hasn’t been widely used in production environments. Look before you leap.

  • About the Author

    Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.