Riding Up to Longhorn

Once again, Microsoft has embarked on the long road toward the development of a new OS, code-named Longhorn this time. Microsoft slated Longhorn as a client-only OS at first in view of the 2003 release of Windows Server 2003. However, the company now says Longhorn will contain at least a server OS refresh. The decision to synchronize client and server OS releases makes sense. Think of the challenges of integrating Windows XP in a Windows 2000 Server network—challenges that are due mostly to the implementation of new code in the server OS without its equivalent components in XP.

Microsoft touts Longhorn as a revolutionary OS. It should include enhanced audio features and graphics capabilities; enhanced manageability; a new, modular installation process that should let other manufacturers integrate their own components into the OS; and a completely new approach to API development and integration. No wonder Microsoft decided to include a server component, despite industry grumblings about the frequent rate of new Windows OS releases.

In fact, Microsoft is trying to alleviate much of this grumbling by publicizing its development efforts and releasing details of the new OS's features and enhancements. On the graphics side, Longhorn should be able to support multiple graphics modes on monitors with resolutions of 120 dots per inch (DPI) (as opposed to 96 DPI today). Higher resolutions often make text unreadable, but Longhorn's new graphics rendering engine—the Desktop Composition Engine (DCE)—will be based on DirectX technology that makes 3-D imaging more realistic and supports multiple resolution levels on the same screen simultaneously. Longhorn's most advanced graphics features will require special 3-D hardware.

On the audiovisual side, Longhorn's new media transport protocol, and a Universal Audio Architecture for the transfer of data and files from PC to audio devices, should make it much easier for users to integrate multiple devices with their PCs. The OS will also integrate fully with Microsoft's new Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB, formerly code-named Palladium) to provide improved security services directly from both the OS and special hardware Microsoft is developing with microchip manufacturers.

Longhorn will also include a new UI that will try to do away with the desktop metaphor, as well as a new file-organizing system, the Windows Future Storage (WinFS), intended to simplify the organization of information on a computer. It's too early to provide a comprehensive list of Longhorn's anticipated features at this stage; more will be known as the development cycle advances.

Microsoft needs third-party developer backing to succeed with Longhorn. Microsoft Office XP introduced powerful new interface features, such as the Task Pane, but Microsoft failed to provide developers with the means to create them. The company has apparently learned its lesson. Windows Server 2003 included a timed release of both the .NET Framework (version 1.1) and VS.NET (version 2003). Similarly, Microsoft is preparing a new VS.NET version, code-named Whidbey, that will include integrated development components for Longhorn. Whidbey should help interested developers produce Longhorn-compatible code, even before the OS's official release in late 2005 or early 2006.

One of the most significant aspects of Longhorn development is its support for a move to a managed-code environment. Previous editions of Windows are all based on Win32 APIs—no fewer than 76,000 of them today. Microsoft hopes to reduce the Windows API set to between 8,000 and 12,000 by moving to managed code based on .NET APIs. For example, a single API forms the basis of the new DCE, and another forms the core of the new UI. All Longhorn APIs will use Microsoft's new XML application markup language (XAML), making code development for Windows much more simple and accessible than ever before. Both the new APIs and the XAML are integrated directly into Whidbey. But for complete integration to the new user interface, you'll have to wait for "Orcas", a Visual Studio .NET release that will come sometime after Whidbey.

The meaning of Microsoft's Longhorn revelations is clear. You'll need Whidbey if you want to start developing applications for the new OS. Microsoft handed out early Whidbey code at the 2003 Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in late October. If you missed the conference, you can get the code from the Microsoft Developers Network. It's not open code, but at least Microsoft is ready and willing to work with developers worldwide to give them early access to the components and tools they need to prepare for Longhorn.

Danielle Ruest and Nelson Ruest (MCSE, MCT) are full-time systems consultants who have written several books and are frequent contributors to Windows Server System Magazine. Their latest book, Windows Server 2003 Pocket Administrator (Osborne McGraw-Hill), aims to help time-pressed system administrators keep their networks up and running everyday. Reach them at [email protected].