Longhorn reels in remote yardage

There’s no shortage of hype around Microsoft’s “Longhorn” Windows Server, recently released in Beta 2 and set to ship next year. Longhorn may help virtualization and 64-bit processing power become more mainstream, but neither technology will mean much to most businesses still struggling to cope with existing IT operations.

One area where Longhorn can help immediately though is in managing IT systems and infrastructure at branch offices. Remote locations must rely on whatever bandwidth is available and, with limited IT resources, end users at branch offices are often left to their own devices.

Among the operational challenges for branch offices is making sure end users are connected to head office all the time. Beyond that, they also need access to the right information at the right time.

It’s all about synchronicity, says Marc Perrella, technology group vice-president for research firm IDC Canada Ltd. Branch offices have to be connected in real-time to the business’s main office, making sure they have the same information and they’re not out of synch.

“With the right management tools in place to help simplify IT operations, the IT folks can focus on deploying and leveraging new technology to make people and processes more efficient in different and innovative ways,” says Perrella.

“That’s when you’ll start getting an impact on business performance, both from a strategic and financial perspective.”

With the Beta 2 release of Longhorn, Microsoft has continued to add new functionality and enhance existing technologies to tweak the server’s operating system. Remote end users may find easier access to information, faster file sharing and tighter security.

Improvements to Terminal Services mean end users will no longer need to establish a virtual private network (VPN) to connect securely to head office. As well, they won’t need the application they’re working with to be installed on their laptops or remote desktops, but instead can access central programs directly from the remote site.

Terminal Services Gateway is one of the biggest improvements for remote end users, according to Hilary Wittman, senior product manager, Windows Server line, for Microsoft Canada Co.

Instead of the VPN, the gateway establishes a secure link to corporate headquarters via an encrypted SSL connection. “Baking the security directly in removes that bottleneck,” says Wittman.

Terminal Services Remote Programs then uses RPC (remote procedure call) over HTTP to deliver the application remotely. Wittman says Microsoft has been working with Citrix Systems to develop the model, based on the idea of a thin client.

Perrella says Microsoft is making IT more user-friendly with a number of features and upgrades in Longhorn. Improved productivity means better business performance, he says, adding: “There are a lot of things [Microsoft] do here that will feed into that. They’re trying to make IT easier for not only the IT people but also for end users.

“At the end of the day, it should make the end user more productive and reduce or remove some of those mundane, regular IT things that businesses have to do.”

Read-Only Domain Controller may sound complicated, but its net result is easier, faster log-on times. Domain Controller is a security setting that deals with authenticating users with the Active Directory database of users.

Building a read-only version of Domain Controller creates a replica of Active Directory that’s faster to pull up at branch offices, giving users more efficient access to the authentication mechanism.

“Having Active Directory more readily accessible makes it easier to manage and implement the authentication, which makes logging in easier,” says Perrella. “That’s going to help people get online, get going to what they’ve got to do, and get over the necessary evils of the whole sign-on and authentication process.”

With the Windows Deployment Services feature, systems administrators can install and update both Longhorn and Vista or XP remotely. “This means you no longer need a technician to go out there [to the branch offices]; you can take care of those low-level, irritating things remotely,” says Perrella. “It also helps businesses respond quicker to changes in IT, so there’s no downtime for those end users at the branch office.

“It’s really some common sense in trying to look at how you can simplify IT and make sure you maintain the integrity of your entire operation.”

Wittman says the focus of Longhorn Beta 2 has been on the IT infrastructure. A third beta early next year will address the application platform, with improvements to Web apps, for example, before the final product ships at the end of 2007.

“With Longhorn, the improvements are aimed at automating IT processes so they’ll be faster and businesses can spend less time managing IT operations,” says Wittman. “We’re also making the platform more secure and enhancing end-user productivity by removing barriers, for example the need to VPN in.”

New security features in Longhorn include Network Access Protection (NAP) and the Server Core functionality, as well as the BitLocker encryption capabilities of the Vista operating system.

NAP is essentially Microsoft’s version of network access control, a scanning mechanism that monitors the security levels of devices trying to connect to the corporate network.

Server Core allows the server to be stripped down to its core functions, shutting off features that won’t be used and thereby reducing the number of attack points.

“We’ve introduced roles,” says Wittman. “You can now keep the core roles that you need to run your network, and strip out everything else to make it more secure.”

Longhorn will also carry the improvements introduced in Release 2 of Windows Server 2003 last December. Microsoft’s Distributed File System with Remote Differential Compression was designed specifically to optimize data transfers over the wide-area network (WAN).

At Microsoft’s Tech-Ed conference in Boston last month, the Redmond, Wash.-based company also announced the launch of ISA Server 2006, which features significant improvements in Internet security and acceleration.

For Web access protection, ISA Server 2006 performs deep packet inspection at the application layer, according to Derick Wong, senior product manager, security and management, for Micro

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