Assessing the 'Extras' in Windows Server 2003

Much of the value offered by Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Server 2003, lies in all the extras, which play a large role in driving purchasing decisions. Here's a look at some of what's offered in W2K3.
Posted December 17, 2003
By

Drew Robb

Drew Robb


Buying a new car isn't about getting the best-engineered engine or the finest-quality steel in the lug nuts. It's about the goodies.

Sure the engine matters, but what really sells are the 16-speaker Bose audio system, the leather-trimmed seats and the GPS navigation system. The buyer can drive out of the showroom with a complete package, rather than then having immediately to pop down to the parts store and pull out the tool kit so it works the way he want it.

Microsoft has long taken a similar approach with its operating systems, especially its more recent ones. It doesn't ship a bare-bones OS. Instead, it offers everything it believes its clients will need to be productive without having to add anything into the mix.

"Linux is a very slim, basic operating system so you have to use it with Apache or as an application server together with SAP or in a cluster with Oracle 9i RAC," says Thomas Bittman, research vice president for Gartner Inc. (Stamford, Conn.). "Windows, on the other hand, is a general-purpose ecosystem that includes management and other software."

Windows Server 2003 (W2K3) is no exception. Sure, there still will be plenty of discussion about whether the Windows core code is faster, more reliable or safer than the competition. But much of the new operating system's value lies in all the extras, and these pay a large role in driving purchasing decisions.

So, what is new with W2K3? Quite a lot, actually. Microsoft took 360 pages to detail all the changes in its Reviewers Guide. You can get a copy of that for more complete information, but here are a few of the highlights.

A More Active Directory

Microsoft called Active Directory (AD) the "crown jewel" of Windows 2000. The latest server operating system release strengthens AD's hold on the throne.

"Active Directory is a real Version 2 with significant improvements," says Bittman.

Among those improvements are:

  • The ability to delete schema extensions. Previously, once you added a column to a schema you were stuck with it from there on out. Now, administrators can add and delete extensions as needed to match organizational or IT changes.
  • Improved replication. Active Directory domain controllers replicate changes to data so that users in all locations are accessing the latest information. Windows 2003 improvements make collisions and data loss less likely to occur when replicating between remote locations.
  • Support for cross-forest trusts. In the original version each forest operated independently.
  • Domain rename - Administrators can now rename domains, rather than having to create a new one from scratch and repopulate it in order to change the name.
  • To take advantage of these new features, however, you have to upgrade all servers to W2K3.

    "It is very useful when the entire domain controller structure is on the new release," says Bittman. "If you slipstream a W2K3 domain controller in with Windows 2000 domain controllers, AD will run in Windows 2000 mode and you cant take advantage of a lot of the new features."

    Microsoft has also addressed one of the biggest barriers to adopting Active Directory -- migration.

    "Microsoft has done a good job of incorporating migration techniques into Windows as a competitive response to what sun has done with iPlanet and Novell has done with eDirectory," says William P. Hurley, senior analyst for the Enterprise Application Group (Portland, Ore). "You had to do a lot on paper before, but now the process is much more visually oriented and it's less finicky as well."

    Despite the improvements, however, he cautions that rolling out AD is still a major undertaking and you should be sure not to underestimate the scope of the project. It may also require spending money to upgrade hardware. But, once you have gone through the steps necessary to deploy AD, you can expect a lowered administrative load in the future since AD makes it easier to then manage the domain objects.

    "The use of AD can bring an enormous amount of efficiency to the organization," says Hurley. "It gives IT the ability to push applications and push data and create an easier to use environment at the desktop."

    A Wilier Web Server

    W2K3 includes Internet Information Server (IIS) 6.0. It comes with enhanced security features and, unlike earlier versions which required administrators to activate the security features, it ships in a locked-down state.

    Administrators can change the defaults if they want to shut down some of the features, but you no longer have the problem of poorly trained admins unwittingly unleashing insecure servers since they don't know what features to turn on. The new IIS architecture is more fault-tolerant, scales better and also comes with support for XML Web services.

    Administrative Advantages

    In addition to the improvements to Active Directory, Windows 2003 contains a number of other new or improved administrative tools.

    "Microsoft has recognized that basic system maintenance and administrative tools are very necessary and can't be farmed out to management tools from Hewlett-Packard, BMC or Computer Associates," says Hurley, "and they have really tried to incorporate some of that technology into Windows 2003 Server."

    Among the new tools are:

  • Windows Services Resource Manager -- Part of the Enterprise and Datacenter Editions, WSRM makes it easier to manage multiple applications running on a server by letting admins allocate CPU, memory and page file usage among different applications or users. Policies can vary according to date and time to accommodate the different business needs throughout the week. For example, the nights and weekends may require very different policies than those that run during the workdays.
  • Automated Deployment Services 1.0 -- A new set of imaging tools that comes with the W2K3 Enterprise Edition for remotely deploying Windows Server 2000 and W2K3. Bittman says that this service is particularly useful in a blade server environment where the servers can be reprovisioned for different purposes at different times of day, say application serving during the day and web serving at night, rather than having to have separate hardware for these different functions.
  • Like most of the tools built into Windows, however, they WSRM and ADS provide a starting point for enterprises that don't have such tools, but they don't always have the full features or scalability that you get with single-purpose, third-party management software.

    "You can manage individual servers using the tools in W2K3 and can create some policies," Hurley continues. "But in a larger enterprise environment with tens or hundreds of servers you will want something that can schedule and manage across the servers."

    Stronger Security

    Finally, there is the matter of security. Security has long been a major complaint regarding Windows and Microsoft is taking those complaints seriously. Among the new features:

  • Common Language Runtime -- Software engine which checks new code before it runs. This includes checking digital signatures, whether the code has been altered and whether it contains programming mistakes which create security holes.
  • Wireless Security -- Supports the IEEE's 802.1x wireless security standard for user authentication.
  • Encryption -- W2K3 allows for encryption of the Offline Files database, something not available with W2K.
  • Back on the Showroom Floor

    This is just a small sampling of the new features that come with Windows 2003 Server. Microsoft will even let you download it and take it for a test drive. But is it good enough to make you drive away with a new operating system? Or should you go ahead and put a few more miles on what you currently have before sending it to the junkyard?

    It depends what you are currently using. If you are on NT 4.0, then it makes a lot of sense to upgrade and get the latest performance and security enhancements. But if you are already using Windows 2000, the improvements won't be as noticeable.

    Our view of Windows Server 2003 is that it is a good release with a lot of useful enhancements but, with the exception of Active Directory and Internet Information Server, it is an incremental release," says Bittman. "Companies are not going to see a return on investment by upgrading to that release outside of the normal hardware refresh cycle."






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