Windows Server 2003 SP2 Quietly Released

With an absence of fanfare, but otherwise on schedule, Microsoft opened up its download page for Service Pack 2 of Windows Server 2003, both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. Perhaps most importantly, enterprises won't have to wait until Longhorn to be able to utilize Windows Deployment Services, the company's new image-based system for pre-composed, remote Windows installations.

Keeping the little abbreviations after the operating system name straight has been a tricky job for server admins. Two years ago, Microsoft released WS2K3 Service Pack 1, which added the Windows Firewall and Group Policy Management Console for the first time. Using both these tools together, admins could craft policies -- not unlike creating filtering rules in Outlook -- for guiding and filtering both incoming and outgoing traffic.

Admins discovered the new tools to be fairly effective, the way duct tape is more effective than masking tape; but a host of problems, including reductions in overall operating efficiency, slipshod support for virtual environments, and applications breaking left and right, prompted Microsoft to make some course changes.

Thus "Release 2" of WS2K3 was released in December 2005 - not a service pack, but a reassembly of the operating system, and by most assessments, a dramatic improvement. Service Pack 2 is an extension to WS2K3 R2 - thus "WS2K3 R2 SP2" becomes a legitimate abbreviation.

Added to SP2 is Microsoft's vastly improved Management Console 3.0, which many admins had already downloaded and installed, especially if they were using the preview releases of Exchange Server 2007. Among MMC3's goals is to make the group policy creation process introduced in WS2K3 SP1 much more intuitive and manageable. MMC is the basic console through which system services can be examined and managed - a sort of "Explorer" for the system internals.

A Windows server has to run a multitude of services simultaneously - that's its primary job, rather than running applications. So MMC gives the admin who doesn't use a command-line tool (such as PowerShell) categorized and organized views of what services are running and their active states. For example, a DNS server for resolving local domain name addresses, would be one component managed through MMC.

Vista Business users who've been anxious to test their policy-based IPsec security console system-wide will now get that chance. Typically, IPsec (which encrypts IP packets and packages them within new ones) has been used almost entirely for VPNs; but with the advent of Vista, businesses can craft policy-based scenarios where IPsec is used for other communications within their domains or forests. One of the benefits of this is that admins can create entire secure domains - pockets of pristine resources, otherwise unattached to the rest of the world, using as few as two IPsec filters.

Admins will no doubt be prepared for the worst, as SP1 deployments two years ago caused noteworthy problems. If a similar tidal wave of bad news erupts from SP2, Microsoft will probably have a solution in the wings: "Windows Server 2007," which is expected to be released prior to the expiration of the year in its name.

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