In-Depth

A Microsoft Roadmap

2003 saw lots of huge releases from Microsoft. While the coming year will be more subdued, you can be sure there’s still a lot on the way from Redmond.

In recent years, Microsoft has spun out so many products for the enterprise and made so many of them dependent on each other, that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them all. Many of these products are second- and third-tier offerings, with moderate market share after a long life, or they’re too new to have built much market share.

The revenue- and earnings-generating heart of Microsoft’s product set that most enterprise IT departments are concerned with beats out six basic applications: Windows clients, Windows Server, Exchange Server, SQL Server, Office and Visual Studio. Simplified that way, Microsoft’s product roadmap is easy to keep track of. In 2003, Redmond took care of its core business by launching Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and Office 2003. In 2004, Microsoft turns it attention to the Windows clients, SQL Server and Visual Studio.

Windows Clients
Maybe it’s an attempt to butter up a Texan’s Justice Department; whatever the reason, all the client action in 2004 revolves around code-names with ranching themes: “Shorthorn,” “Longhorn,” and “Lonestar.”

Shorthorn
OK, maybe “Shorthhorn” is a stretch. This was a rumored interim client operating system to come out before “Longhorn,” which is currently a 2005 or 2006 release. But it’s appropriate to use “Shorthorn” to refer to a major overhaul of Windows XP that Microsoft is going to deliver in a service pack. (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has referred to XP SP2 as a new release of Windows XP.)

By the time you read this article, the beta version of XP SP2 should be available. Start testing it: This isn’t your older brother’s Windows service pack. Ever since the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack, Microsoft has shied away from delivering new features in conjunction with a service pack. Microsoft is abandoning that policy with a vengeance with XP SP2.

Think of XP SP2 as Trustworthy Computing 2.0. When Microsoft first rolled out its Trustworthy Computing initiative at the beginning of 2002, the focus was on improving development of new products to improve security. The sheer nastiness of the MSBlast worm and the Sobig.F virus over the summer helped Microsoft see that the security of the installed base just can’t be left alone. As the delivery cycle for the next client version of Windows stretches on into infinity, the pressure intensified to do something serious to improve the security of all the Windows clients connected to the Internet through corporate LANs and home broadband connections.

Microsoft’s answer is a robust service pack 2 for XP that adds security features involving network protection, memory protection, safer e-mail and safer browsing. While details hadn’t emerged by press time about the e-mail and browsing technology, the network and memory protection plans were well documented.

The highest-profile change is the default installation of the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), a choice that has the potential to break a lot of applications. ICF is also different from the XP gold code version, blocking network communication earlier in the boot cycle and providing a new “shielded” mode that users can switch to during security crises. Because it will now be more pervasive, ICF must also become more granular. Instead of blocking all Remote Procedure Call (RPC) communication, the firewall now can be configured to support RPC in a controlled way.

Other changes in the area of network protection involve restriction of RPC interfaces and changes to the behavior of the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) that together should close an ongoing avenue for new attacks. In memory protection, XP SP2 will introduce support for new CPUs that block execution of application code in areas designed to accept data—a step to address buffer overrun attacks.

Microsoft says XP SP2 will come out in the first half of 2004. Where Redmond is concerned, this usually means June or July, but these changes are important enough that Microsoft could rush this one out sooner.

Treating SP2 as a normal service pack would be a mistake. Get your IT development team testing the beta of this service pack against all your applications and kick the tires in pilot environments. They’re important and welcome changes, but they could upset your environment.

Longhorn
There won’t be a production release of Longhorn in 2004, but this successor to XP will dominate the headlines all year. What’s more, Microsoft will roll out at least one beta version of the client version of the Longhorn operating system in 2004, giving IT departments and developers a chance to try out the code. Besides, with Microsoft owning 94 percent of client operating system shipments, according to IDC, it’s never bad for your career to spend some time figuring out what the market gorilla is planning.

Changes coming in Longhorn are significant enough to make it worthwhile to invest effort in predicting how the revamped client could affect your environment. Longhorn’s major themes are strengthening operating system fundamentals, overhauling the presentation layer, building in radical enhancements to the file system and embracing Web services in internal and external communications.

Some of those technologies made their debut in a developers’ preview released in late October. They included Windows Future Storage (WinFS), the “Avalon” presentation layer and “Indigo” for communications.

WinFS
WinFS, which will be bolted atop NTFS, is designed to schematize data to allow users to dynamically change views of data stored on their systems. Files can be rearranged and collected by different criteria on the fly, busting file storage out of the folder system. Microsoft also positions WinFS as a means to move data more easily among devices without users needing to perform conversions. This is technology that Microsoft’s been working on since its long dead “Cairo” project and was dubbed recently by Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates as his personal “Holy Grail.”

Avalon
The new Avalon presentation layer is billed officially as a declarative, vector-based compositing user interface. Translated, that means developers will have new ways to create attractive user interfaces for Windows applications. Major themes are unifying the presentation of traditional Windows applications and Web applications; combining 2D and 3D video hardware drivers; and a new markup language, XAML, for building Windows applications. There are also new APIs for speech, remote controls and digital ink.

Indigo
Indigo is the next link in the COM/COM+/.NET Framework chain. XP shipped too soon to get the .NET Framework included, and Windows 2003 included the framework. Longhorn is supposed to fully integrate and embrace Web services. The unified programming model and communications infrastructure will also be available for XP and Windows 2003, but only Longhorn is supposed to take full advantage of Indigo.

Longhorn will also include enhancements to its fundamentals, including the “Palladium” or Next Generation Secure Computing Base changes to tie OS and application security to hardware, a new Servicing API to reduce the need for reboots during patch and application installations, a new paging feature called Super Fetch, and a new ClickOnce application installation technology.

The developers’ preview of Longhorn didn’t include the radical new interface Microsoft is planning for Longhorn, called “Aero.” Its features include a “Sidebar” on the side of the desktop that developers can use to present information from their applications. Microsoft is also rumored to be working on a 3D interface. We can probably expect to see parts of Aero in the 2004 beta release.

One last point on the Windows server side: It’s not clear if Microsoft will beta a Longhorn server in 2004. Microsoft currently plans to deliver both client and server versions of Longhorn; but the company’s roadmap to date has been conspicuously specific to the client. Company officials have said they could ship the Longhorn server a year or so later than the client, although they’d prefer to ship them simultaneously. Given that most of the focus so far has been on the client, it seems unlikely that the company would be able to produce a server version—beta or gold code—at the same time.

Lonestar
Many have ignored Tablet PC technology as not ready for prime time. That’s starting to change. Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and its attendant hardware turned the corner on tablet technology. Microsoft furthered the momentum of tablets with the release last fall of its first major Office program targeted primarily at tablets—OneNote 2003.

Microsoft will keep the ball rolling in 2004 with another OS release, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004, formerly code-named “Lonestar.” Enhancements include the “ink to text” experience and better digital-ink integration with the four core Office 2003 programs: Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. If there’s a legitimate business function that a tablet PC could serve in your organization, take a look. The technology is catching up to the hype.

SQL Server
After XP SP2, the biggest gold code release of 2004 should be SQL Server “Yukon.” In development since the September 2000 release of SQL Server 2000, Yukon is a complete overhaul of Microsoft’s flagship database.

While Microsoft steadily improved upon SQL 2000, adding more features and versions to it after its release than probably any product since NT 4.0, there’s no question the database is aging. The software giant wants very badly to deliver Yukon in 2004. But the company will be hard pressed to get it out, even in the fourth quarter. The wide beta release will have to come out early in the year, and Microsoft’s already hinted that it could come late in the first half. In any case, any organization running SQL Server will want to get a look at the public beta.

Ever since Microsoft first began discussing Yukon, the major focus was on the integration of the Common Language Runtime. Pulling the CLR into the database means developers can create database objects using any Microsoft .NET language. Another major feature of the database is a new XML data type, enabling storage of XML fragments or documents in SQL databases. These developer-focused changes represent some of the most important enhancements in Yukon. They potentially widen the number of applications that can leverage a SQL database, and they open SQL development to any developer in your shop who can write code in a .NET language.

On the security side, Yukon will be the first version of SQL Server to be developed under the Trustworthy Computing initiative. If Windows 2003, the first OS released under the secure computing effort, is a guide, that will mean that vulnerabilities will still be found within Yukon, but they’ll generally represent a lower level of risk (i.e. moderate severity rather than critical). Microsoft is creating a new security model for permissions in SQL Server.

SQL Server, like most Microsoft server products, has a reputation for being easier to use than competitive products, and Microsoft will push to widen this advantage in the Yukon generation. New management technologies include an integrated suite of management tools and management APIs for manageability and to support operation of large-scale SQL Server deployments. Microsoft will also enhance its database-mirroring capabilities for making critical applications more available and will add support for new replication scenarios.

Business intelligence capabilities of the database are also being improved, with an overhaul of Data Transformation Services to make Microsoft’s data warehousing technology more scalable, integrated Reporting Services and new data mining algorithms.

Users of SQL 2000 could also see a patch bringing enhanced security sometime in 2004. Microsoft hadn’t decided on a timetable by late 2003, but the “Springboard” initiative that is leading to XP SP2 will also affect other products. SQL 2000 is a likely candidate for a major service pack that combines new security features with changes to default settings to harden systems.

Visual Studio
Whenever Yukon ships, Microsoft’s Visual Studio team expects to be ready with a new version of Visual Studio .NET, code-named “Whidbey,” to help developers take advantage of the new Yukon features. Whidbey will enable developers to write stored procedures for Yukon using managed code, with all the development and debugging tools available in Visual Studio.

Whidbey will be more than a dust-up release for Yukon, however. Microsoft is improving support for developing applications for the Microsoft Office System, which includes several servers in addition to the desktop Office programs. Microsoft also plans to build on the class libraries, Common Language Runtime, programming languages and the integrated development environment.

Some of the interesting new features to come in Whidbey include a developer implementation of the ClickOnce deployment technology slated to hit the OS in Longhorn, features to “radically reduce coding effort,” and improved support for architects and enterprise developers, such as tools for project analysis and design, software configuration management, deployment and application lifecycle management.

Other 2004 Releases
The Microsoft product set has a huge cast of characters. Many other products will say “Hello world” in 2004.

Microsoft Longhorn Roadmap
2004 will be a big year for beta code and service packs from Microsoft. (Click image to view larger version.)

Windows 2003 SP1
Windows 2003 SP 1 is due out sometime next year. This emanates from the same Springboard initiative as XP SP2 and the possible SQL 2000 security pack. Exchange 2000 is another likely candidate for Springboard treatment. SP1 for Windows 2003 isn’t as big a deal as XP SP2, partly because there are fewer machines on which it will need to be deployed, partly because Windows 2003 came out after the Trustworthy Computing initiative. The code doesn’t have as many glaring holes as XP. Changes coming in Windows 2003 SP1 include quarantining functionality to ensure that laptops and other occasionally connected systems meet network security standards, and a security configuration wizard. Possibly around the same time as SP1 for Windows 2003 will be a new set of SKUs for 64-bit processors. The versions will be Windows 2003, Enterprise Edition for 64-bit Extended Systems (as in AMD Opteron); Windows 2003, Standard Edition for 64-bit Extended Systems; and Windows 2003, Standard Edition for 64-bit Itanium 2 Systems.

Microsoft Virtual Server
Also coming sometime in 2004 is Microsoft Virtual Server, the server component of the virtualization software Microsoft acquired from Connectix Corp. Microsoft churned out the client piece, Microsoft Virtual PC 2004, in late 2003. Microsoft Virtual Server is a major element of Microsoft’s strategy for supporting NT. Redmond hopes to get customers who depend on NT applications to create virtual servers within Windows 2003 boxes to run those applications.

SUS, BizTalk, MOM and ISA Server
Some other high-profile releases expected in the first half of 2004 include Software Update Services 2.0, a major component of Microsoft’s patch strategy; and BizTalk Server 2004, the first part of Microsoft’s “Jupiter” super-server that will eventually combine BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server. Also, expect the 2004 edition of Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Internet Security & Acceleration Server (ISA) 2004, which will enter beta testing early in the year.

Final Destination
All in all, it’s looking like a pretty slow year for Microsoft. Other than by releasing Windows XP SP2 and Yukon, Redmond won’t be speeding up your treadmill of new infrastructure projects in 2004. That should give you time to catch up on rolling out old infrastructure projects, like Windows/ Exchange 2000 or Windows/Exchange 2003. Or it could mean taking time out to get security or spam under control. It could mean getting ahead by examining beta code in Longhorn. Or—gasp!—it could mean you spend your time working with applications that run on your Windows infrastructure to improve your business or organization. What a novel idea.

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