You have probably used Windows Server 2008 already, if only on the internet. In late June, Microsoft started rolling out Server 2008 and Internet Information Server (IIS) 7.0 on Microsoft.com. And according to Netcraft, which monitors the web, Server 2008 is now hosting more than 2,600 sites, most of which are not at Microsoft.
Server 2008 has, of course, been a long time coming. The first beta was released two years ago, in July 2005, under the Longhorn codename. We have now reached beta 3, the first public beta, which is feature-complete and doubles as RC1 (Release Candidate 1).
It is not dramatically different from Windows Server 2003 running IIS 6, except in one respect: it is the first version of Windows where the windows are optional. If you do not need a graphical user interface, you can install a "core system" and run it from the new Powershell command shell. The core system takes up less space and offers more performance, and removing the browser must also make it more secure.
The other key feature is what Microsoft calls "role-based deployment". Microsoft says most companies set up servers for particular functions, and Server 2008 provides you with at least 17 typical installations. All installations offer a variety of choices, and there is also a set-up wizard if you want to create your own.
Role-based deployment makes it obvious that you do not need to take a big bang approach. You can start with one or two low-risk installations and see how it goes.
Microsoft says Server 2008 has also benefited from the work it has done to increase security - as seen in Windows Vista - and that installations are now designed to be "secure by default" instead of open.
Further security is provided by Network Access Protection, which is operated via group policies. This prevents staff from connecting to the network if their PCs do not meet certain conditions, such as having a firewall turned on.
Server 2008 also has the new IPv6 and rewritten TCP/IP stack installed as the default. This is used to talk to any Vista PCs connected to the network.
It is not clear when Server 2008 will appear. Microsoft says release to manufacturing will be in "the second half of the year," but it seems most likely to be at the end of the year. Iain McDonald, director of the Windows Server programme, says the aim is to ship a system that will not need a service pack "for a couple of years".
Anyone who wants to try to prove him wrong can download Server 2008 free.
● Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian
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