Rip-Curl Redmond: Microsoft's Plans for the Future

Microsoft rules when it comes to monitoring conditions in tech. Yet, to surf the same waters, you need to read wave action—and Microsoft’s next moves—accurately, too.

FOLLOWING MICROSOFT PRODUCT planning is gnarly fun. Few companies put so much information in front of their users and developers about plans. And few companies’ product plans inspire such passionate argument and conspiracy theorizing as Microsoft’s. But as you know, following Redmond action is more than a simple pastime. For IT pros, noting Microsoft’s moves is vital to your career. If you have a realistic idea where Microsoft’s heading, you can base corporate buying decisions and spend professional training time on technologies that are going to be around for a while.

Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t provide one easy-to-find page on its Web site where it collects all its public statements on product plans. Even if Microsoft did, it wouldn’t catalog all the side comments made to reporters or individual groups of developers or high-level customers by the mid-level Microsoft managers most knowledgeable about the actual direction of individual products. This article fills that gap.

We focus primarily on the business software that provides the infrastructure backbone of many organizations: the server and client operating systems, the .NET Enterprise Servers and the developer tools. We’ll look as far out as 2007, but the focus will be on the most tangible elements of Microsoft’s plans, stretching into early 2004.

Big-Picture Forecasting

By the time you read this, Microsoft should be close to delivering a few products that weren’t out at press time. Redmond was slated to ship Content Management Server 2002 and finish Visual Studio .NET “Everett,” along with an incremental revision of the .NET Framework, by the end of calendar year 2002. A Content Management Server 2002 is an overhaul of a content publishing system called NCompass Resolution that Microsoft bought and rebranded as Content Management Server 2001. Visual Studio .NET Everett supports the .NET platform and an incremental upgrade of the Microsoft .NET Framework.

Microsoft Plans
Microsoft Plans

Sometime in the first half of 2003, Microsoft is supposed to ship Windows .NET Server 2003. .NET may be a minor release compared to the Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 transition, but it’s by far the biggest product launch in Microsoft’s arsenal for 2003. It’s primarily an enhancement, a 5.2 version if you will, of Win2K Server and effectively a 2.0 release of Active Directory—but it breaks new ground for Microsoft in two main areas. Simultaneous with the 32-bit releases are 64-bit versions of .NET Enterprise Edition and .NET Datacenter Edition. These are Microsoft’s first generally available 64-bit server OSs. The other new area for Microsoft with .NET—the Web Edition—is an attempt to compete more effectively with Linux in the market for low-cost, high-volume Web farm, rack-’em and stack-’em servers.

The database team is working to meet a simultaneous delivery schedule on a 64-bit edition of SQL Server 2000, so that potential 64-bit .NET users have something to run on their servers. The Exchange team will follow the release of .NET with a 32-bit version of the e-mail server that leverages the new features of the server OS. That mid-year release of Exchange, code-named “Titanium,” will be similar to .NET in that it’s an incremental release built atop the major work done in the Exchange 2000 generation. Microsoft is attempting to synchronize the release of Office 11, currently in early beta testing, with the Titanium release. The long-awaited Systems Management Server 2003 is also on tap for a mid-2003 release.

Lawsuit Settlement Eases Uncertainty

One major source of uncertainty across Microsoft future plans seems to be out of the way. In November 2002, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly conditionally approved the antitrust settlement agreement between Microsoft and the U.S. Dept. of Justice. At the same time, Judge Kollar-Kotelly threw out the more radical antitrust remedies put forward by the non-settling states.

While the approved settlement doesn’t end Microsoft’s legal troubles, it greatly reduces the potential for the case to influence its product plans. Most of the product changes directly related to the antitrust case have already gone into effect in Win2K SP3 and XP SP1. Microsoft introduced the settlement-required utility in those two SPs that allows users to hide court-defined middleware such as Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger and the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine and Outlook Express.

Cross-Product Directions
Several significant company initiatives cut across Microsoft’s business-oriented products and represent recurring themes throughout Microsoft’s near future. They include product line consolidation, security and XML-enablement.

A major trend is to compress the back-end server products proliferating in recent years. The formerly modest collection of servers known as the BackOffice Suite grew into about a dozen .NET Enterprise Servers. Over the last few years, Microsoft has added Content Management Server, BizTalk Server, Application Center, SharePoint Portal Server, Microsoft Operations Manager and Internet Security & Acceleration Server. While Microsoft is still rolling out new servers in the area of specific enterprise applications, such as modules for CRM and ERP software, basic infrastructure software is on a downward trend again.

The functionality isn’t going away, but the number of infrastructure servers is. Early in 2002, Microsoft previewed the trend by announcing that a new version of the new Mobile Information Server would be the last. The functionality is being subsumed into Titanium and ISA Server.

In October, Microsoft unveiled its whopper of a product consolidation, appropriately called Jupiter. By 2004, the Jupiter e-business server will combine all the functionality of three minor products: BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server. More on that shortly.

For the next step in the reduction of the product line, look to Microsoft’s management software. Microsoft previewed that broadly last spring by letting customers in on two internal projects to develop management software for servers and clients. If carried through, it would represent a realignment of Systems Management Server, MOM and Application Center. At MEC 2002, where the Jupiter project was first unveiled, Microsoft senior vice president for .NET Enterprise Servers Paul Flessner confirmed that those very management products are being looked at hard.

Security Focus
Any look at major initiatives cutting across Microsoft product lines would be incomplete without mentioning Trustworthy Computing. As security, always a simmering issue in Redmond, exploded in the company’s face with the blended threats of Code Red and Nimda in 2001, Bill Gates acknowledged the issue with his Trustworthy Computing memo in January 2002. The facts of Microsoft’s response are well known. Microsoft initiated code reviews of existing products for potentially insecure code and sent its developers to security training sessions.

The steps led to quick fixes for multiple problems in existing products. The initiative contributed to the Security Operations Guide for Win2K and a later one for Exchange 2000. The Trustworthy Computing review was cited by Microsoft as a source of delay in the release of .NET, which will be installed in a secure configuration by default. Meanwhile, the “Longhorn” release of Windows should theoretically benefit from a more secure development process starting early in its development lifecycle, rather than tacked on at the tail end, as with .NET.

Microsoft recently achieved the Common Criteria EAL4 certification for Win2K, a joint security evaluation process created and recognized by a consortium of 15 national governments and a pre-requisite for some government contracts. Microsoft also took the unusual step of having its hotfix process evaluated and rated. XP and .NET are on tap for the next round of Common Criteria evaluations. Paralleling those security efforts is a lower profile but pervasive push to create “prescriptive guidance” documents on best practices across the products, including documents for data center and Internet data center implementations that involve multiple products and partner software and hardware.

Web Services—Wave of the Future or Pipe Dream?
Maybe the only thing Microsoft officials talk about more than security these days is XML, the highest profile standard underlying Web services efforts such as .NET. Office 11 and Yukon are two of the product sets with high-profile XML integration efforts in progress. Microsoft isn’t letting up on the XML drumbeat, although analysts are split on how pervasive Web services are. Gartner says Web services are everywhere and you’re falling behind if you don’t have a plan. IDC contends that there’s a lack of consensus for how Web services will manifest in real-world implementations, and outside the firewall, they may not truly take off for 10 years.

Partly, it’s a difference in definitions between the two respected analyst firms, but in any case the bottom line is kind of like an old chess tactic: Study the board and don’t make a move until you can truly see the right move. Translated to the IT world, it means look at XML and Web services technology through the lens of your company’s business model. Get ahead by visualizing how the technology can streamline your infrastructure for cost saving or revolutionize the way you do business.

Epic Waves
At a financial analysts meeting in 2002, Bill Gates detailed three waves of enterprise software coming out of Microsoft. It’s a good way to walk through Microsoft’s plans for the next few years. The first is a "Now Wave" consisting of everything coming before June 2003 and anchored by .NET. The second is a "Yukon Wave" built on the next version of SQL Server; Yukon, in turn, forms the foundation upon which the final "Longhorn Wave" is built. We’ll take a more detailed look at each of the major enterprise products Microsoft has positioned publicly in the Now Wave, as these are in the least flux.

The Now Wave: Windows .NET Server 2003
This server would be one of the best-understood products Microsoft’s released in years, if not for the .NET name in the middle of it and the four names the server’s gone through—from its code name of “Whistler,” to the short-lived Windows 2002 Server, to Windows .NET Server and finally to Windows .NET Server 2003. Meanwhile, the .NET part of the name immediately introduces confusion into any conversation about whether someone is talking about the Web services and development framework, the server OS or the enterprise server middleware products. The reason .NET should be well understood is that it’s been around for so long. Using one name or another, Microsoft has been talking about .NET intensively since immediately after releasing Win2K. Repeated delivery delays meant the talk has gone on and on.

Built on the Win2K codebase, the hardware requirements of the new server software won’t be significantly different from its predecessor—a relief for organizations after the bracing increase in hardware requirements from NT to Win2K that necessitated all new servers in most cases. The incremental nature of the release, however, makes it an unappealing upgrade for users who have already gone through the pain of a Win2K migration. Users who have stuck with NT have a second generation of Win2K, built upon feedback and security enhancements, to ease the migrations they’re under pressure to make since the end of regular support for NT on Dec. 31, 2002.

But some of the changes will be helpful in specific situations, and the ability of .NET to play nice with Win2K will make it a logical choice for new machines in Win2K networks. The ability to rename AD forests was a customer-demanded improvement over Win2K. The upgrade makes it possible to update AD domains to reflect mergers and internal organizational changes or to fix AD structures that just didn’t work or needed fine-tuning. Microsoft CIO Rick Devenuti says Microsoft itself has renamed 90 percent of its domain controllers since flipping the switch to a .NET AD.

Another interesting area of change in the .NET generation of AD is a feature known as the Active Directory in Application Mode. It’s a standalone version of AD that runs as an independent service instead of an OS service. It doesn’t require deployment on a domain controller, and it can be run in multiple instances on a single server. Suddenly AD becomes manageable for application-specific directory scenarios, extranet access management scenarios and migration scenarios.

.NET will ship in four main versions: .NET Standard Edition; .NET Enterprise Edition; .NET Datacenter Edition; and .NET Web Edition.

64-bit Technologies With .NET
Technically, Microsoft has offered 64-bit technologies for more than a year in the form of two releases of Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition. Those Limited Edition OSs were actually created from .NET pre-release code and have been sold in the same way as Win2K Datacenter Server—users had to buy the OS as part of a complete server hardware and OS package.

But the .NET generation of OSs represents the first time Microsoft is offering general release versions of 64-bit OSs. Both the Enterprise Edition and the Datacenter Edition of .NET will ship immediately in 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

A 64-bit version of SQL Server 2000 is in beta testers’ hands and should be generally available around the same time as the OSs. The most visible benefit of the 64-bit OS is the immediate boost in supported memory. Officially, Microsoft will support 64 GB of RAM in the Enterprise Edition and 128 GB of RAM in the Datacenter Edition. NEC Corp. already used pre-release versions of 64-bit Datacenter and SQL Server 2000 in 2002 to set a single-server record for a Windows system on the Transaction Processing Performance Council’s TPC-C benchmark, showing the code is already remarkably mature.

Greenwich Server
An aside to the .NET release is a new server code-named “Greenwich” that will handle real-time communications, popularly known as instant messaging. This server bucks the trend of functional consolidation evident through the rest of Microsoft’s product line, but only by default. The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) technologies were supposed to be a major feature of .NET, but were pulled from the server OS in the second half of 2002. The Greenwich feature set is supposed to include presence notification, server-side contact lists, voice-over-IP support, roaming settings, alerts and notifications and encrypted authentication.

Visual Studio Everett
The Visual Studio team at Microsoft disclosed plans to synchronize its next three major product releases to the three main elements of Microsoft waves—.NET, Yukon and Longhorn. The approach is different from the past when Microsoft released Win2K in early 2000, announced the .NET initiative later that year and came out with Visual Studio .NET 2002 two years later.

Microsoft is turning around and releasing Visual Studio .NET “Everett” early in 2003. Because it’s less than a year old, the product isn’t supposed to include much in the way of new functionality. It will consist of an incremental update of the Microsoft .NET Framework, officially called version 1.1, which will also ship directly in .NET. Developers will be able to use Everett to write applications for both the 1.0 and 1.1 versions of the .NET framework. Everett will also package some of the free add-ons Microsoft released since the initial release of Visual Studio .NET 2002. They include the J# .NET development language, the .NET Compact Framework and Smart Device Extensions. One new element in Everett should help IT administrators responsible for maintaining homegrown applications and third-party software: an API and configuration layer called the Enterprise Instrumentation Framework. It will enable developers to publish audits, errors, warnings and events that can be monitored and analyzed by support and operations teams.

Content Management Server 2002
By the time you read this article, Microsoft should have already released another item in the Now Wave called Content Management Server 2002. It’s the second version to come out in a year and the last distinct version of the product, which is being rolled into Jupiter. Content Management Server is one of Microsoft’s less familiar products, owing to its newness. It’s Microsoft’s middleware for building, deploying and maintaining content-rich business Web sites. Microsoft acquired the product by purchasing the COM-based Resolution content management system from nCompass Solutions, and the 2001 version was largely a rebranded version of the nCompass product. Microsoft officials say that this time it significantly rewrote the templating system and the development side. New features include direct publishing from Microsoft Word, deep integration with Visual Studio .NET and the .NET Framework, native support for XML Web services and integration with Application Center for faster deployment.

SMS 2003
Another product that’s slipped substantially from its original release date is Systems Management Server 2003, once slotted for a 2001 release. The product, formerly code-named “Topaz,” is an update to SMS 2.0, used mainly for software distribution, asset management and remote troubleshooting of Windows-based systems. The focus of the SMS 2003 upgrade is mobile support for laptop users and, later, for non-PC devices through a download that will follow the general release by three months. The product will also deliver integration with AD—an indication of how old SMS 2.0 is—and more scalable software metering and reporting with fewer superfluous, whiz-bang features than the original metering and reporting components from SMS 2.0.

Exchange Titanium/Outlook 11
Technically, Exchange Titanium and Outlook 11 may not qualify for the Now Wave, as the mid-2003 ship target could easily occur after June 2003. Still, the interim nature of this Exchange release makes it more of a logical fit with the Now Wave than the Yukon Wave.

Microsoft is concentrating on reducing Exchange’s total cost of ownership by enhancing Titanium’s ability to support larger numbers of users and reducing its bandwidth requirements. Don’t look for the same delta in users per server enabled by the Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 step, product officials say; instead, it’s more of an incremental increase in users per server. For example, within Microsoft’s internal IT organization, the major consolidation of e-mail servers occurred with the move to Exchange 2000. With the smoother offline and interrupted functionality of the Outlook 11/Exchange Titanium combination, the more bandwidth-efficient version of the Mail Application Programming Interface (MAPI) and support within Titanium for the snapshot restore capabilities in .NET, Microsoft CIO Rick Devenuti expects to be able to consolidate the local Exchange servers in remote offices into fewer machines at regional data centers.

Office 11, meanwhile, will support XML file formats across the suite, an implementation to watch closely given the way Microsoft’s proprietary Office file formats have traditionally helped the market-share-leading product block competitors from gaining traction. The Outlook client in Office 11, meanwhile, will have a whole new interface for users to get used to. At previews in late 2002, however, the changes looked very positive in terms of potential for end user enthusiasm. A vertical reading pane on the right side of the screen shows more of a message while a middle pane presents a longer list of e-mail subject lines than it was possible to see when the traditional horizontal preview pane was enabled. But even before Office 11 reached widespread beta, it was already embroiled in controversy. The first beta release only loads on Win2K and XP clients, leaving the large user base of Windows 9x clients out of luck. That means even customers who bought Windows Me, which shipped after Win2K Professional, can’t run Office 11. Microsoft indicated the decision wasn’t final, but the thinking in Redmond appears weighted toward cutting out 9x clients.

Broadly, Jupiter will be a combined version of BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server. Specifically, it will roll out in two stages. The first stage is supposed to occur in the second half of 2003 with the delivery of process automation, workflow, integration technologies, an integrated developer experience and support for the Business Process Execution Language for Web services (BPEL4WS), an industry-standard replacement for Microsoft’s XLANG. Most of the technologies in the first stage come from BizTalk Server. In the first half of 2004, the functionality of the other two .NET Enterprise Servers will get sucked into Jupiter’s gravity well. Those technologies include content management, site management, site analytics, targeting, personalization and an integrated information worker experience.

The Next Wave: Yukon, Ho!
Any talk beyond 2003 becomes sketchy, even when the source is the highest official at Microsoft. Market conditions change, Microsoft discovers there’s an Internet—you name it; but let’s press on just for fun. The biggest item on the to-do list for 2004 is the “Yukon” release of SQL Server. Technically, Microsoft says this could come as early as the second half of 2003, but it’s the first major overhaul of the company’s flagship database platform since SQL Server 7.0 in 1999, so count on it slipping into 2004. Major features of Yukon include the integration of the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR) in the database engine and the addition of XML and streaming files as native types. Integration of the CLR means stored procedures written in any CLR-supported language will run in Yukon, making the database much easier to program and integrate with a wide variety of applications without database-specific coding. Yukon will release simultaneously with another version of Visual Studio and a major 2.0 overhaul of the .NET Framework. Yukon is significant as well because it’s a platform on which successive Microsoft products will be built. Bill Gates has talked about a unified file store/file system for years. Having knocked off his goal of getting consumer OSs on the NT codebase with Windows XP in 2001, this bugbear is next.

The Third Wave: Long-Time-From-Now-Horn
Did we mention that after 2003, the roadmap gets sketchy? Case in point: One of Bill Gates’ major waves, the Longhorn Wave, has morphed radically since his speech. The bulk of this far-off wave, according to Gates, was a simultaneous client and server Windows release code-named “Longhorn” and accompanied by a Longhorn version of Visual Studio .NET. But in mid-November, Microsoft officials changed the plan and split up the client and server halves of the project. Longhorn now refers to the client OS, “Blackcomb” to a further off server version. As of now, the decision to break Longhorn in two is so new that Microsoft hasn’t clarified much beyond the names of the projects. For example, will Yukon’s file system be included in the client, the server or neither? Simiarly, will the Visual Studio Longhorn edition now ship with the Longhorn client or the Blackcomb server? Expect real details to emerge only after .NET is out the door. Microsoft also intends to integrate the Yukon file store as the back-end of the next Exchange server release, known as “Kodiak.” Microsoft isn’t discussing dates for a Kodiak release.

Microsoft recently offered 2005 as a likely delivery date for Longhorn, but that was before turning it into Longhorn-Blackcomb. The company isn’t saying precisely how the timetable will change, but the move opens interesting possibilities. Without the extra engineering required to complete a server project, the Longhorn client could ship by sometime in 2004. That would ease pressure that Microsoft put on itself by pushing its customers to Licensing 6.0, which implies new products at least every three years. (Windows XP will be three years old in late 2004.) At the same time, the decision to make Blackcomb the next server and deliver it later than Longhorn relieves the pressure to turn around a new server release in less than three years. At this point, look for Blackcomb in 2006 or even 2007.

Cowabunga, Dude!
The 2003 checklist for shops with a heavy Microsoft infrastructure is clear from Microsoft’s public pronouncements.

  • Evaluate how .NET fits into your existing or pending infrastructure, if at all. Do the same for the 64-bit versions of Windows and SQL: Would throwing substantially more memory at an application in your network eliminate a bottleneck?
  • Take a close look at Exchange Titanium and Office 11 to see if there’s a tangible benefit there. Watch the development of XML file format types in Office 11 to see if it gives your organization any wiggle room to standardize on a less expensive product suite than Office in the next few years.
  • If you’re currently using BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Content Management Server or Mobile Information Server, keep an eye on how the functionality on which your organization relies is affected by the feature shifts into Jupiter, Exchange and ISA Server.
  • Monitor Microsoft for new prescriptive guidelines on scenarios from security to configuring infrastructure. Useful new documents are cropping up at an accelerating rate; you never know when one might apply directly to you.
  • Keep an eye on Microsoft’s plans for management software, remembering that the solution stack will probably look dramatically different in the next few years.

Take a long view on XML, spending some time thinking strategically about how your organization might use it to maximum advantage. Do this even if you’re not the CIO now. You never know how much authority or influence you might find yourself with in a few years when Web services take off.


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