Windows Server 2008 moves to RC1 status

The second release candidate (thus the number "1") for Windows Server 2008 is slated for availability this afternoon, and this version will finally include a new tool that Microsoft took an interest in back in 2005.

The latest RC1 for Windows Server 2008 will finally incorporate a tool Microsoft has had in its stable by way of acquisition for well over a year: What was once sold separately as PolicyMaker Standard Edition -- a tool for extending the range and function of group policy objects -- will now be incorporated into Windows Server, as Group Policy Preferences.

Microsoft started actively investing in productivity tools company DesktopStandard back in the spring of 2005, and acquired the company outright in October 2006. Now, Microsoft feels the time is finally ripe to deploy a radical extension to GPO functionality that DesktopStandard had created, as a built-in feature of Windows.

If you've administered a modern Windows Server for any length of time, you know that GPOs typically set permissions and restrictions that are enforced for designated users or groups of users, or for groups of systems -- resources that are identifiable and securable by way of Active Directory. They're the rules of the network, essentially -- those which let you say that users in one group have access by default to one set of printers and are closed off to another, or that certain users can't add their own macros to Office applications.

Up to now, those GPOs are either enforced or they're not; they're turned on or turned off. Enforcement takes place at the System Registry level, and if the Registry Editor is closed off to a user (again, by way of a GPO), there's little he or she can do about a rule she doesn't like...outside of some serious hacking.

But under the system of Group Policy Preferences that will now become a regular part of Windows, a new class of GPO is created that will give both the admin and the user limited sets of options. They may be enforced or may not be, depending on preference settings that are directly reflected in each user's Control Panel. So whatever the user is enabled to change, shows up in Control Panel through an available dialog box.

A newly released white paper on the topic from Microsoft, with all the references to DesktopStandard preferences properly adjusted, explains the new setup in complete -- and certainly confusing -- detail. If you read it late at night, you could cure your insomnia.

But one example from that white paper does illustrate the differences with the new system: With Group Policy Preferences, you can give your users options regarding the power settings on their computers. Maybe your users would like the option of turning hibernation capability off on their laptops (for some systems, it can still drain the battery too fast), though for your company's own purposes, you'd like for hibernation settings to be on by default. Preferences creates an in-between state, not so black-and-white, on-or-off. You can set things up so that your users have some freedom to do what they have the skill and privilege to do on their systems...without them having to bother you to change their settings for them.

This morning on the Windows Server team blog, newly appointed marketing member Tina Couch pointed out one significant side-benefit of this new arrangement: In setting up a Windows Server installation that can be deployed throughout an enterprise, using Group Policy Preferences, you can create fewer installation images that are deployed to more clients, because Preferences enables you to leave many options open. If you had to write those options in stone (certain users want this, others need that, for instance), you'd need to create different installation images in order to deploy GPOs that carry out those options.

Our FileForum has a link to WS2K8 RC1 here.

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