In-Depth

Operation Re-Supply

Microsoft will arm partners with tons of new products to sell in 2008 -- including profitable tools like SQL Server and Windows Server 2008.

Microsoft will start 2008 with a wave of major product launches in February, followed by secondary swells of product releases significant to partners throughout the year. Those all add up to a potentially swift river of riches for partners who are ready to jump in.

Let's start with the big news. The 2008 "Global Launch Wave" on Feb. 27 will see the unveiling of major upgrades to three core server products: Windows Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008 and SQL Server 2008.

"Calendar year '08 is a huge one" for channel partners, says Bob Crissman, a senior director in Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group. "There's a huge upside for solutions that can be built off of those products."

Of those servers, Windows 2008, formerly code-named "Longhorn," is the product that's most different from its predecessor, Windows Server 2003. That might be expected, however; it's also been in development the longest.

Server Releases
Following is a brief rundown of the best new aspects of each new server:

Windows Server 2008
Microsoft hadn't announced a firm ship date for Windows 2008 by press time, but a knowledgeable source inside the company has said that making sure it's available by the February "Launch Wave" date is a top priority. Key features include:

Server Core: This option provides task-specific servers that are smaller, lighter and more secure than a full Windows Server 2008 installation. Examples could include an IIS Web server, DNS server or printer server. Server Core responds to complaints about feature bloat.

PowerShell: This is the command-line shell and scripting language formerly known by the code name "Monad," which covers virtually every aspect of the Windows Server environment.

Network Access Protection: A key security component, NAP will restrict computers that don't meet an organization's security requirements from joining that organization's network.

Windows Server Virtualization. Integrating virtualization into the server operating system is a major focus of the new release. The technology, called Hyper-V, will ship a few months after the rest of the OS.

One important thing to remember about the initial release of Windows 2008: It will be Microsoft's last 32-bit server OS. Beginning with Windows 2008 R2, currently scheduled for release in 2010, the server OS will be available only as a 64-bit configuration.

Major Microsoft Product Releases for 2008 (Approximate Order)
Visual Studio 2008
Windows Server 2008
Windows Vista SP1
SQL Server 2008
Windows XP SP3
Microsoft CRM Live
Hyper-V
Windows Essential Business Server
Windows Small Business Server, Code-Named "Cougar"

Visual Studio 2008
VS 2008 is the first major update since VS 2005. VS 2008 was released to manufacturing on Nov. 19 and was available immediately through the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN). Key features include:

LINQ: Language Integrated Query (LINQ) is the most-anticipated new feature of Microsoft's next Integrated Development Environment (IDE). LINQ will make access to databases and XML faster and more efficient.

.NET Framework 3.5: The .NET Framework runtime system is currently at release 3.0; its inclusion in VS 2008 will be the debut of 3.5.

Tools for Microsoft Office: Programming for Office 2007 will be enhanced with new capabilities.

SQL Server 2008
Like VS 2008, SQL 2008 is the first new version in three years. The latest release for SQL, which is Microsoft's flagship database server, is the July community technology preview. This will be the last of the trio to be released, and the only one likely to be unavailable on the February Global Launch date; as of November, Microsoft had targeted a Q2 timeframe for getting the product in the channel. Key features include:

IntelliSense: This technology auto-completes program elements and source code such as T-SQL into an application, rather than requiring developers to recall or find the various attributes. It's been expected for years; in fact, it was supposed to appear in SQL 2005, but missed that product completely.

Charting: This function natively adds charts to the reporting-services component of the database.

Automatic Page Repair: Constantly monitors consistency of primary and mirrored database, enhancing mission-critical availability.

Rob Helm, director of research for independent analyst company Directions on Microsoft, says that it's a "reasonably solid" bet that Windows 2008 will join VS 2008 in being generally available for the February launch date. He's less sure about SQL 2008, which could be released as late as next June.

With such disparate commercial release dates, why did Microsoft pick a seemingly random date like Feb. 27 for the announcement party?

"Microsoft is trying to save on marketing costs by launching products in waves," Helm says. That's a model that Microsoft's business division pioneered when the company launched Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Exchange Server 2007 on the same day in January 2007, he says, adding that such launch events actually "have nothing to do with when products are available or when they're available for deployment."

A less hailed, but still important, server product expected to debut in 2008 is Windows Essential Business Server. Designed for midsize organizations that need more than Small Business Server offers, but aren't large enough to bear the cost and complexities of full-blown Windows Server deployments, this product is aimed at companies with 75 to 250 desktops. (For more details on Windows Essential Business Server, see "Microsoft 'Centro' Redubbed Windows Essential Business Server.")

General availability of Essential Business Server, formerly code-named "Centro," is expected for the second half of 2008. For partners focused on small and midsized businesses, there will also be a new version of Small Business Server built atop the Longhorn code base and scheduled to ship several months after Windows Server 2008.

Virtual Delays
One product that will ship with Windows Server 2008 -- but won't be in its final form -- is Hyper-V, the next-generation virtualization technology. Hyper-V, which replaces Virtual Server 2005, is available with the Windows 2008 RC but will still be in beta form with the shipping version of Windows Server 2008.

Microsoft has stated repeatedly that the final form of Hyper-V, formerly code-named "Viridian," will ship within 180 days of Windows 2008's release, which would put it out no later than August.

Year of the Service Pack
On the client side, 2008 could be called "The Year of the Service Pack." No major client releases are scheduled, but major upgrades are coming via service packs for Microsoft's two dominant desktop operating systems, Windows Vista and Windows XP.

For Vista, SP1 should be out about the same time as Windows Server 2008, although that timetable isn't firm. During the summer of 2007, Product Manager Nick White wrote on the Vista team's blog that "... we're first and foremost focused on delivering a high-quality release, so we'll determine the exact release date of SP1 after we have reached that quality bar." The first beta release of SP1 was posted on Sept. 24; the final version is expected to be about 1GB.

SP1 is a key milestone for businesses and may help Vista's slower-than-expected adoption. Many corporations won't start migrating to a new Microsoft OS before the first service pack. In the case of Vista, however, Helm says that companies may hold off even longer than normal, given Vista's complexity and added features.

"Vista SP1 is more than a minor service pack. There's a new version of the kernel from [Windows 2008] and new features at a low level, like 64-bit ... which will have a new set of APIs for extending the kernel," Helm explains. "That may make companies wait for SP2." Still, Helm predicts that SP1 will get the ball rolling for Vista adoption: "There are some valuable fixes in it, and for some organizations, it will start the clock for deploying Vista."

SP1 will also feature revamped search technology that makes its version of desktop search, called Instant Search, just one choice among a number of competitors. That change, which may have caused a substantial delay in SP1's development, resulted from a legal challenge from Google Inc.

Ironically, Vista's struggles in the marketplace may be what prompted Microsoft to develop SP3 for XP. Vista's forerunner has continued to show remarkable strength in sales channels, even to the point that some large OEMs such as Dell Inc. have kept it as an option on new computers long after they would normally have dropped it in favor of the new OS.

Microsoft had been planning XP SP3 for years, but news about it seemed to have dried up for awhile as Vista approached completion. Now SP3 appears to be well along in development, and Microsoft anticipates a ship date in the first half of 2008, although no more specific date information was available at press time.

As things stand currently, OEMs and retailers will be able to sell XP until June 30, 2008; systems builders will be able to install XP on their machines until Jan. 31, 2009. Those deadlines have already been extended once and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them extended again if demand for XP remains strong.

The Partner Outlook
The product releases should mean a plentiful harvest for channel partners. OEMs have a spate of new servers to load onto their hardware, and while virtualization has had an impact on the total number of physical servers going out the door (because server consolidation is a main benefit of virtualization), there could be an opportunity to build bigger, more powerful and more expensive servers.

"There's $52 billion in OEM upside," Microsoft's Crissman says. "There are lots of new boxes to be sold. OEMs need to fulfill that. With blades [servers] and whatnot, there are huge upsides with virtualization."

For ISVs, "it's going to be all about the new and enhanced Software plus Services [S+S] model," he says. "ISVs need to come out with new solutions, basically, and upgrade legacy solutions."

That's where VS 2008 comes in. "There's a whole new toolset to build off of. There are very robust platforms with Windows and SQL Server," Crissman says. Not only that, but three major new servers mean lots of platforms upon which to build.

Systems integrators are sitting pretty, too. Predicts Crissman: "It's really going to be about re-platforming and migrating core workloads. There are a lot of new solutions customers will be looking for. With virtualization, extending core client workloads allows that to happen."

In addition, if 2008 is the year that Vista gains significant traction, systems integrators need to be ready because Vista is much different from XP and its use requires many changes to a company's network.

Helm sees a big year for channel partners as well, noting that a big part of Microsoft's business is what partners and ISVs build on top of the new servers. "Major systems integrators and software vendors will see this as a time to refresh their solutions," he says.

One concern for partners in the online sector is Microsoft's increasing move into online product hosting, the key element of the S+S thrust. Redmond already offers hosted versions of SharePoint and Exchange, and brings more services online seemingly weekly.

Its next big push is into the Salesforce.com Inc. space with Dynamics Live CRM, expected some time in the first half of the year. Helm calls the move into hosted CRM a "big broadening. Overall, 2008 will see a major expansion of what Microsoft is willing to host for corporate customers." Most partners don't need to be told what happens when Microsoft targets a new market, so they should be ready for another giant to enter the battle.

In all, Microsoft plans to deliver enough new releases in 2008 to keep its partners profitably busy for the next several years.