Longhorn Beta 2 is an impressive package

Improved server OS offers simplified admin, client security boost for Windows enterprises

Enterprise IT folks aren't exactly champing at the bit to get Vista into their shops; many are only now distributing Windows XP Service Pack 2, and there are plenty of copies of Windows 2000 Professional still around. But Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 R2 didn’t need to sell their way into most Windows Enterprise server rooms: They were anticipated and welcomed because they rounded out Windows Servers’ growing strengths in distributed applications, Terminal Services, directory services, centralized administration, collaboration, failure recovery, and networked storage.

In much the same vein, Windows Longhorn Server should be an easy sell in Windows shops. For one thing, it shares none of much-delayed Vista’s very public search for identity. Now in its second beta release, Longhorn Server rolls in the innumerable new features one expects in a major release. But Longhorn Server’s overall emphasis on consolidating and simplifying deployment and administration and on making key features accessible to developers and admins at scales greater and smaller than those offered by Windows 2003 Server, stand out as impressive.

Smaller and Farther Away

I tested the 32- and 64-bit editions of Longhorn Server Beta 2 in a setting incorporating several machines, the primary systems being a quad-core Opteron server and AMD’s newest dual-core Athlon 64 FX-62. The FX-62 system supplied storage services to the test LAN using an Xserve RAID storage array with PCI-Express Fibre Channel card, both provided by Apple.

One enhancement that grabbed me early on was the Longhorn Server Core edition. Longhorn Server Core strips Longhorn down to its skivvies so that much smaller, simpler servers providing file/print, DNS, DHCP, and other essential services can be distributed throughout the network. However, the deployment and administrative overhead of bringing up a new Windows Server system -- although greatly eased by Longhorn -- is still significant.

In operation, I found Server Core to be Microsoft’s answer to the trend of using Linux for the important headless, set-it-and-forget-it servers that IT spreads around large networks and places in branch offices. Longhorn Server Core’s advantage over Linux is its integration with Longhorn’s centralized management scheme, and given Longhorn’s improvements in that area, it’s a major plus.

Along the same lines, Microsoft also equipped Longhorn with a downsized Active Directory set aside for applications’ use only. Perhaps now we can escape the dreaded Registry and (shudder) .INI files, neither of which distributes particularly well.

Here’s one improvement that gets me all charged up: Terminal Services now has the capability to run a remotely hosted application in a window that makes it indistinguishable from an ordinary local app. Instead of having two desktops on each machine -- one local and one hosted by Terminal Services -- or resorting to thin clients for simpler, cheaper remote application access, Microsoft took a page from Softricity’s per-application virtualization approach. IT will find, as I did, that being able to run an application at a client system without first installing it brings user-facing Windows software into the distributed age.

I’m always concerned by any OS or application feature that seems to rely on an infallible network connection. There’s a lot of that in Longhorn Server, but many of my fears are assuaged by cached and transactional connectivity with clients. A client user with a fast connection to the LAN can disconnect from it with greater assurance that essential server-hosted resources, such as applications, will remain available locally.

A dicey situation arises in Web-based applications with regard to the browser’s Back button. What’s the right thing to do when users rely on this to make corrections to already-committed data? If you’re updating a database, it’s easy: Roll back the transaction. But if you’re working with XML or other hierarchical storage, it takes some clever coding. It’ll be easier with Longhorn’s Transactional File System, which lends roll-back facilities to non-database apps.

Easing the Birthing Process

Getting new clients and new servers set up on the network is a primary function of the IT staff. It’s a pain, IT doesn’t like doing it, and consequently it takes a long time and there’s pressure to make every deployed client identical.

Longhorn’s Windows Deployment Services, however, obviates the need for imaged drives and tools such as Ghost. A client or server system taken straight out of its box with a blank hard drive can boot from the network and be configured and loaded remotely.

In a move that had me wishing Redmond an extra day of sunshine, Microsoft placed most system administration and monitoring tasks where they belong: MMC (Microsoft Management Console). Longhorn Server also has an expanded Web-based administrative interface, which I think will suit administrators of heterogeneous networks particularly well -- Linux and OS X have similar platform-agnostic GUI-based remote management facilities.

Longhorn Server expands Windows’ network security policies to NAP (Network Access Protection), an impressive policy-based mechanism that requires local and remote clients to meet certain safety criteria, ranging from activated anti-virus and Windows Service Packs to Registry keys matching supplied values, before they’re permitted to join the network.

With NAP active, it seems almost impossible to sneak into a Windows network with a laptop you brought from home. Likewise, if you disarm anti-virus or otherwise compromise your system’s security to run unauthorized software, NAP can toss you from the LAN, notify the administrator but let you continue to work, or (my favorite) connect you but stick you in a “jail” that restricts your access. Longhorn Server’s Certificate Server role plays a part as well with revocable, in-house signed certificates.

More Than Meets the Eye

The new feature set is almost overwhelming, but the neck pain I associate with the setup and administration of a major OS release is not part of the Longhorn Server experience. I was not only able to duplicate the functionality of my Windows Server 2003 systems with easier administration and stronger protection, but I also invoked new Longhorn Server features while still enjoying an easier system management experience.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Softricity and its plans to make a virtualization hypervisor a standard part of Longhorn Server aren’t fully realized in Beta 2. (I’m especially intrigued by the prospect of a standard hypervisor.) But even without that, Longhorn Server Beta 2 makes it evident that no one will be whining about forced upgrades. This server OS won’t need any pushing from Microsoft to find a place in the enterprise.

In this review, Longhorn Server's ship date should have been the second half of 2007. InfoWorld regrets the error, which has been corrected.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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