Microsoft is posting the final beta and first publicly available and feature-complete version of Windows Server "Longhorn," marking the final time the product will be available for testing and feedback before the long-awaited server update is available later this year.

Microsoft posted Longhorn beta 3 code on a special webpage early this morning, said Ward Ralston, senior technical product manager for the software. It's the first time anyone who's interested can get their hands on the product, which has been in private beta release only until now.

It will also be the first time users can get a look at a new scripting and command-line technology, Microsoft PowerShell, at work from within Longhorn server, he said. The technology, which allows administrators to more easily automate tasks across Windows servers on a network, was previously available as a separate add-on, but will be built directly into Longhorn and is making its first appearance in a test version of the product.

Customers also can get a first look in beta 3 at two new Longhorn features – a new always-on firewall in Server Manager and an installation option called Server Core, Ralston said.

Server Manager in Longhorn is designed to keep the server firewall up 100% of the time, which means server administrators will have to unlock the firewall using the Server Manager console when they want to install components, he said. This allows administrators to install components needed for certain server roles, leaving anything extraneous out of the system, Ralston said. The server also will intelligently know what dependencies and restraints the roles will have once installed, configuring the server automatically to run most effectively in those scenarios, he added.

Server Core is a minimal installation option for Windows Server that only installs components for eight server roles – out of a possible 18 – on the server and automatically configures them for the most reliable performance. This limits the amount of code that needs to run on the server, and also will decrease the number of and time allotted for updates because the server will only need to be rebooted for updates related only to those roles, Ralston said.

Longhorn is due for final release sometime in the second half of the year, a time frame that, in typical Microsoft fashion, was revised several times.

In fact, Ralston said the Longhorn team is "proud" to have gotten beta 3 out on time; its release was scheduled for the first half of 2007, which means it was due by the end of June and according to Microsoft's schedule is actually out the door early.