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Ballmer Delivers on Windows Server Well, Mostly

Calling it the most significant launch in the company's 30-plus-year history, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer officially rolled out the company's latest -- and long-awaited -- server products at a gala event in Los Angeles this morning.

"Today, we get to launch three of the most significant products in Microsoft's history," Ballmer told the crowd gathered to hear his keynote speech in the city's Nokia Theatre.

Those products, of course, are Windows Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008 and SQL Server 2008.

"Our dynamic IT strategy focuses in on enabling the agility of IT organizations around the world," he said. "The new products we're announcing today fit in the sweet spot."

While all three have been hotly anticipated by enterprise IT and developers, Ballmer gave little indication that his thunder might have been stolen by some key omissions.

For instance, although Microsoft has said Windows Server 2008 is complete and is set to begin shipping this week, one key component of the server is still only in beta: virtualization support.

Instead, Microsoft's hypervisor technology, dubbed Hyper-V, will ship in its final form 180 days from now.

SQL Server 2008 also trails behind. The company just released a "feature complete" community technology preview (CTP) of the database, although the final product won't be available until later this year.

The opposite is true for Visual Studio 2008, the company's flagship developer environment. Despite featuring prominently in today's launch event, the product actually became available to customers a month ago.

These peculiarities aside, the official Windows Server 2008 launch marks the culmination of a long wait for enterprise IT shops, many of whom have been seeking new security features.

Those include network access protection (NAP), a quarantining technology that keeps unqualified devices from logging onto the network. In addition to NAP, it also features a new installation option called "server core," which enables system administrators to deploy only components that they need.

Ballmer couldn't highlight the new products without also putting in a plug for Windows Vista Service Pack 1," or SP1 -- which is already available to some customers and will be opened up to all Vista users in mid-April.

Many analysts have said they expect sales of Vista to corporate customers should take off with the arrival of SP1, which many see as a sign of the OS's maturity and stability.

"I think SP1 will do exactly what people [expect] it to do," Ballmer said.

Vista and the Windows Server 2008 are also closely related. The new server release had previously been codenamed "Longhorn" -- just as Windows Vista had been. That's because the two share quite a bit of core code, including the code included in Vista SP1.

Virtualization features: Not quite finished

Given the explosive interest in virtualization in corporate datacenters, Ballmer during his speech talked up Hyper-V -- despite the fact that the feature has yet to be finalized. He also urged customers to begin using the beta software to test virtualized applications.

While it's unclear at this early stage whether enterprises will follow Ballmer's suggestions, some industry-watchers said the lack of a completed Hyper-V -- which will be included as part of the server release once finalized -- shouldn't discourage most buyers.

"I think there's enough value in Windows Server 2008 that it's worthwhile for organizations to start evaluations and even deployments," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at researcher Directions on Microsoft,

In addition, even though it's only beta code, Cherry agreed that customers should test Hyper-V while they wait for it.

"It's a first-generation product, and the best time to catch issues is in the beta," he added.

Visual Studio and SQL

In addition to making his pitch for Windows Server 2008, Ballmer also detailed some of the benefits of Visual Studio 2008.

The product include support for Language Integrated Query, which provides the capability to handle query and set operations -- such as SQL statements -- directly within .NET languages like C# and Visual Basic.

Additionally, Visual Studio 2008 adds the ability to write applications that work with multiple versions of the .NET Framework. It also provides tools for building applications with a similar look and feel to Office 2007's "ribbon" user interface.

"With Visual Studio 2008, you'll see performance ramp up dramatically," Ballmer said.

The Microsoft CEO gave SQL 2008 some time in the limelight, as well. However, like Hyper-V, it's also yet to be completed.

The company announced last month that it had pushed SQL 2008's ship date back to third quarter, saying it needed more time to ensure product quality.

Among the new features coming in SQL 2008 are improved data mirroring and improved database encryption.

The product's "encryption capabilities allow me to encrypt an entire database on the fly," Ballmer said.

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