While we wait for Longhorn, Microsoft has one more release of Windows 2003 to hold us over.
Windows 2003 R2 contains several important features that Microsoft could not include in Windows 2003, but that it wanted to make available to customers before the release of Longhorn. However, some major features originally planned for release in R2 have been scrapped for now, one of them apparently due to lack of interoperability with another major vendor. Below, I'll go over what's out and what's in Windows 2003 R2 as of this latest beta.
Windows 2003 R2 Public Beta was released on May 9th. Following this second beta, Microsoft will likely put out at least one release candidate before final release, which is expected at the end of 2005.
For existing customers who need the new features in this second release of Windows 2003, R2 will replace their production installations. For new customers, Windows 2003 R2 will simply replace Windows 2003 in the market. Windows 2003 R2 Public Beta currently requires the trial version of Windows 2003 SP1. R2 will not currently install on any other version of Windows 2003. When it is released, Windows 2003 R2 will include Windows 2003 SP1 which was released in March 2005.
For those wishing for certain features in this second release of Windows 2003, Windows 2003 R2 may be an exercise in delayed gratification.
One of the features cut from R2 is called Bear Paw, Microsoft's next release of Windows Terminal Services. This new version of Terminal Services is part of what Microsoft is calling Branch Management Framework, which will consist of a branch/hub setup enabling administrators to more easily configure, serve and troubleshoot applications for branch office users. Instead of training end users about Remote Desktop, administrators can enable those applications to be launched from the Start Menu. Bear Paw will allow users to copy between the remote applications and local applications running on their desktops. However, we apparently won't see this new version of Terminal Services until at least 2007, when Longhorn is expected.
Another nifty feature scrapped from R2 is a fully implemented 'NAP' (Network Access Protection). If you read our recent rundown on Windows 2003 SP1, we mentioned the new VPN quarantine feature Microsoft included with Windows 2003 SP1, which prevents clients from connecting to any Windows 2003 server-based network unless they meet certain patch and security requirements. In Windows 2003 SP1 this feature is a lot of work to configure, and that's still the case in R2. In Longhorn, configuration of NAP will require less work. According to developers, Longhorn's NAP will also run antivirus and other scriptable checks on systems before they are allowed to connect via VPN or DHCP. If a client is quarantined, it will be given access to patches or other inoculations and services to get it to an acceptable state of health before it can connect.
Samm DiStasio, director of the Windows Server Product Management Group, says that Microsoft delayed this feature due to a "hole" in its server roadmap strategy. It seems that of all the vendors the company was to collaborate with on this feature, one important partner that went missing was Cisco. When customers pointed this out to Microsoft, it decided to take time to build a partnership with Cisco around NAP to make its quarantine technologies interoperate with Cisco's NAC (Network Access Control). Thus, fully-implemented NAP, as originally planned for release in R2, will not appear until Longhorn.
There are a three major new features and some minor new ones in R2. If you need better file management and replication capability with branch offices, cross-business identity management, or are in need of better heterogenous storage management functionality in your Windows 2003 environment, you may be in luck with Windows 2003 R2.
R2 features a new DFS (define), called DFS Namespaces which includes DFS Replication (formerly known as FRS or File Replication Service). DFS Namespaces with DFS Replication supports multi-level failover and failback capability, as well as better performance over WANs, and offers improved replication that saves bandwidth and removes the need for backup in branch offices.
To support streamlined collaboration between business entities, R2 offers its own brand of Federated Services called ADFS (Active Directory Federation Services, code-named Trustbridge). Federation Services is a component of Grid computing. A federated service is one that offers access to users from multiple security domains. Microsoft claims that government and some very large international businesses are currently testing this functionality. ADFS is one of the final pieces of Microsoft's identity management platform and the company's first implementation of the WS-Federation protocol.
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R2 will also contain some smaller improvements such as a new Printer Management console and a new Common Logging File System (CLFS). Other notable inclusions are ADAM (Active Directory Application Mode) which is a run-time mode for Active Directory designed for deploying secure, directory-based applications, Windows .NET Framework 2.0, MMC 2.1, Windows SharePoint Services 2.0 and Windows Services for UNIX. These services were previously only available separately as add-ons.
Depending on what your Windows Server 2003 needs are, you may want to have a look at R2 now or when it's released. But if you don't need what's been included in R2, save yourself the trouble and wait for Longhorn.