Windows Server 2008 or SP1: Which is it?

To CIOs and IT executives used to waiting for the first “bug fix” release before adopting new server operating systems, Microsoft’s announcement that Windows Server 2008 will begin shipping in a few weeks as Service Pack 1 (SP1) may induce surprise and confusion.

Releasing Windows Server 2008 as SP1 is completely different methodology than you would ordinarily anticipate, says John Enck, vice president at Gartner. “My feeling is that Microsoft will be confusing the market.”

Microsoft obviously expects CIOs will see things differently. “You don’t have to wait for [the traditional] SP1 for it to be right like people have before,” wrote Ian McDonald, Microsoft’s director of Windows Server program management, in his blog last Friday. (The first traditional service pack for Windows Server 2008 will be SP2.)

But both McDonald and Enck point out, the goal of an SP1 release isn’t to create confusion; it’s to converge the paths of Windows Server 2008 with Windows Vista. “This means the that the Service Packs are shared, that patches get released at the same time, etc etc.,” wrote McDonald.

Microsoft Server 2008 and Windows Vista share the same code base and were developed in tandem-at least initially. But due to a push to get Vista out to market faster, the two products’ development diverged. For McDonald, that was a repeat experience; he’d dealt with the continuing divergence with Windows XP and Windows 2003, an experience he’d like not to repeat. When Window XP and Windows Server 2003 diverged, he wrote, “[T]he matrix of releases became a nightmare.”

That’s why the company risked a move-releasing Windows Server 2008 as SP1-that will likely confuse customers. Microsoft decided “to take this onetime hit in confusion to get everything reintegrated,” says Enck.

So should you wait for Windows Server 2008 SP2?

Not according to Gartner. For client computing, a main reason to wait for Vista’s SP1 is to allow time for the third-party application ecosystem to develop, according to Enck. That’s not the case for server operating systems, which have a smaller set of software and partners. “After Windows 2000, Microsoft did major work on their development practices,” he says. “They brought in very impressive testing and integration” that leads to a stable release, so Enck believes there’s no need to wait for SP2.

That said, “Windows Server 2008 is not so compelling to say ‘upgrade everything you have,'” says Enck. Instead, Gartner recommends replacing servers as they age. Look for selective improvements, he says, and adopt Windows Server 2008 for just those needs.

Here’s a few improvements that might be worth the fast track:

Internet Information Services 7.0 (IIS 7.0): Added security features and an easy-to-manage platform for hosting Web applications and services. According to Microsoft, “IIS 7.0 includes a componentized architecture for greater flexibility and control. IIS 7.0 also provides simplified management, powerful diagnostic and troubleshooting capabilities that save time, and comprehensive extensibility.”

Read-Only Domain Controller: RODC is a new type of domain controller that improves security, especially important in physically insecure locations. The RODC protects passwords, prevents Active Directory database manipulation, and prevents tampering with DNS data, according to Microsoft.

Terminal Services RemoteApp and Web Access: Users can quickly access an application from a Web page, even if the application is not installed on the client computer. The current version is heavy-handed, says Enck, but with the Windows Server 2008 version, you can now expose an individual application without a whole other desktop.

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