Longhorn: Serving up more than hype

Microsoft has been managing our expectations of Longhorn like a barker for Barnum & Bailey. What it has lacked in loud music and snarling 500-pound felines, it has made up for with lavish trade events, platform unveilings and the occasional banana-snarfing, 800-pound-gorilla technology.

At last month's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), the company let loose a herd of Longhorn attractions including support for upcoming quad-core CPUs from Intel and AMD and a five-star menu of internal features and tools, such as BitLocker drive encryption.

The updated release of Group Policy Manager is not only easier, it's also far more granular in what administrators can control. For example, Group Policy (GP) can now control responses for different severity levels of perceived attacks; it can manage the new Background Intelligent Transfer Service Neighbour Casting feature to basically enable peer-to-peer file sharing inside the safe environment of a domain; and it has far deeper hooks into controlling the end-user experience, even whether users can install specific hardware on their laptops or desktops. Add all that up, and Longhorn allows an administrator to serve up entirely new capabilities to users, while maintaining even more control of how those features are used.

Management moves

But wait, there's more. Microsoft also has completely redesigned its TCP/IP stack, now including integrated support for TCP/IPv6 and a rich layer of support APIs for more intelligent network packet management.

This redesign enabled a number of new Windows management capabilities. For one, remote server management and deployment has been significantly improved. Monitoring and patching off-site is backed by better security, improved automation, and updated diagnostics. User management is made easier across remote sites, with updated support for roaming user profiles and even smaller things such as automatically deployed printer settings. Remote users can even make easier use of Terminal Services because that feature can now be accessed via a secure HTTP call.

Digging a little deeper into application management, Longhorn is the first Windows operating system to offer what amounts to Layer 7 quality of service (QoS) capabilities. This feature is still in its early stages, but Microsoft has taken the right tack, making sure that Longhorn's QoS profiles can filter down through third-party network infrastructure. Don't think application protection; think high-definition voice and video protection, because that's where this feature is really heading.

And we haven't yet waved our barker's hat at security. In the past, we'd have been pointing at the clown car, but Microsoft has gone to great and obvious lengths to transform a mini-Beetle full of rubber noses into the lion tamer with the flaming hoop. Redmond has cranked up Longhorn's security features at every turn, beginning with its initial deployment lockdown, moving through its design of core server roles and especially its user management. Longhorn now uses a Unix-like user management scheme that can dictate permissions for a huge variety of user functions via the Group Policy Manager. This not only keeps users in check, it can block any number of Trojans and viruses.

Protection play

Microsoft's Network Access Protection (NAP) feature is also working in Beta 2. Essentially, the GPM Server communicates with Longhorn's DHCP server. Whenever a new client logs on, GP dictates that a slew of information is conveyed from client to server concerning a number of system states about the client machines. These are compared with policies set in the GP. If the client comes up wanting, it's quarantined. Only when the client's various system states have come into compliance, does Longhorn allow appropriate network access.

NAP represents the first of several entirely new features that Microsoft has added to Longhorn. A Unix-style Server Manager is another example, and Microsoft's inclusion of basic virtualisation services as part of the core operating system can have all kinds of new benefits for administrators looking for more flexibility.

Finally, Microsoft has clearly shown that Longhorn represents the basis for a whole new generation of Microsoft server products. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, for example, is a big step up from what SharePoint Portal Server is today. Microsoft has increased not only the depth of what administrators can accomplish with this platform, it also has increased the speed with which they can accomplish it.

True, pieces of Longhorn may have slipped. A vivisected WinFS may lie gurgling in a back room somewhere, Vista's PC Sync may have suddenly keeled over dead, and Vista itself may slip again due to its ultra-slick, I'm-as-cool-as-OS X display technology. But you've got to give it to Redmond: Longhorn is a slam dunk, a must-have upgrade for practically every Windows systems administrator.

Longhorn's three-ring circus really is a great show. Ring 1 covers loads of new collaboration and features options; Ring 2 closes vast numbers of security holes; and Ring 3 eases the day-to-day management burden with a lot of attention paid to administration tools. Your customers should step right up and upgrade because there's nothing to fear.

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