Longhorn Server Revealed: Terminal Services Improvements

Sun Microsystems was fond of saying, "the network is the computer." Microsoft seems to have bought in at least partly to that notion -- the two companies are now friends, or not enemies, or somewhere in between -- and that philosophy is reflected in the improvements to Terminal Services in Longhorn Server.

Microsoft has just released a new Longhorn Server preview. With Beta 3 around the corner and the final release due later this year, now's a great time to look at what the product can mean to you if your organization has a lot invested in Terminal Services in Windows. This feature sheds some light on the improvements you can find in this new release.

Terminal Services gateway

One new feature in Longhorn Server is the Terminal Services Gateway. This allows users to access Terminal Services-hosted applications from a Web portal anywhere on the Internet. The setup is secured via an encrypted HTTPS channel, much like the RPC-over-HTTP protocol used by Outlook 2003 to avoid connections via a virtual private network.

The gateway can send connections through firewalls and correctly navigate Network Address Translation situations that stymied the use of this technology before. As an additional benefit, because the data is sent over HTTPS almost anyone can access the sessions. This is true even at locations where the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), which operates over port 3389, is blocked by the firewall.

Administrators can set connection authorization policies that define user groups permitted to access Terminal Services through the Gateway machine. The main takeaway is that any client with an Internet connection can use an appropriately configured application without needing a full software installation.

Gateway makes software truly portable, anywhere.

Terminal Services remote programs

If you're familiar with the Citrix MetaFrame product from years ago, you will recognize what Terminal Services remote programs can offer you. Out of the box, Longhorn Server will support the ability to define programs to be run directly from a Terminal Services-enabled server and allow the application to be integrated within the local copy of Windows. It adds an independent Taskbar button, resizable application window areas, Alt-Tab switching functionality and more.

It's meant to be seamless and transparent for the end user: theoretically, the user will have no idea that their application is hosted elsewhere, except for the occasional slow response because of network latency or server overload. It will look locally just like the application is running locally. In short, it's a way to deploy a single application over RDP, instead of requiring an entire operating system session and environment. It means less overhead, less traffic, less configuration management and less administration required.

To enable this functionality, all an administrator has to do is create .RDP files, which are essentially text-based profiles of a Terminal Services connection which the client reads and uses to configure an RDP session for that particular program.

Terminal Services Web access

This third major new feature lets administrators publicly display available remote programs on a Web page. Users can browse the list for the application they are looking for, select it and then be seamlessly embedded in the application -- using all the features of TS Remote Programs. This all happens while retaining the ability to launch other programs from the same Web Access site.

Think of it as a straightforward, efficient menu of hosted programs for the user.

The service is smart enough to know that multiple programs launched by the same user should reside in the same Terminal Services session, making resource management a bit simpler on the server side. And you can even integrate Web access within SharePoint sites so users have access from their collaboration portal to various hosted applications.

Overall tweaks

Aside from the three new features, the team worked on improving the core processes that make Terminal Services tick, including single sign-on to Terminal Services sessions, monitor spanning and high-resolution support for sessions, integration with the Windows System Resource Manager to better monitor performance and resource usage, and themes that make Terminal Services sessions seamless to the client.

Terminal Services management was also a pretty big pain point for users that Microsoft has finally addressed. If you worked with Terminal Services in Window Server 2003, you know of the multiple management interfaces it had. In Longhorn Server, there is a single console that provides one-stop shopping for all things configuration and management.

Via this console, you'll also get a better handle on how your per-user client access licenses for Terminal Services are used, to help you better comply with the terms of your license. (What is unclear at this point is whether the licenses will become more expensive at the time of the new release.)

And of course, last but not least, to support all of these improvements, Microsoft will introduce a new RDP client -- version 6 -- that integrates all of the functionality. Additionally, the new RDP client version will support fine-tuning the bandwidth usage, so your connection to the network won't be completely bogged down with RDP traffic when you have an active session.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUS, Hardening Windows, Using Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Learning Windows Server 2003. His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Windows IT Pro magazine, PC Pro and TechNet Magazine. He also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is currently an editor for Apress, Inc., a publishing company specializing in books for programmers and IT professionals.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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