Will Longhorn include WinFS after all?

Microsoft's official position is that its next-generation operating system, Longhorn, will ship in 2006 without some anticipated features like WinFS. But a pre-beta version of Longhorn and sources inside Microsoft say otherwise.

When Microsoft announced in August that it will ship the next desktop version of Windows in two years, it also said its new file system, WinFS, would be a casualty of the timetable to

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release Longhorn.

However, the early Longhorn build that I have includes WinFS, and my sources in the Windows development group tell me that WinFS will indeed ship with Longhorn's initial release.

Most of Longhorn's new features are found under the hood. The two most significant features are a new scripting engine and WinFS. Regardless of what will or will not be included in Longhorn -- and when -- it's worth examining why these features are significant and how they will eventually impact messaging.

It all starts with FAT

The PC was originally designed to use the FAT file system. FAT had a very modest size limit and also limited filenames to eight characters, plus a three-character extension.

Over time, Microsoft released the FAT-32 and the NTFS file systems. These allowed for greater storage capacity, and NTFS also provided integrated security. The problem was that those file systems were architecturally similar to FAT, and as we all know, FAT was never designed to store hundreds of gigabytes of data on a single drive. Although the NTFS file system has no trouble storing large quantities of data, the problem is often that specific files become difficult to locate because there is so much data on the drive. This is where WinFS comes in.

WinFS is a file system that is designed around a relational database. This relational database is built around the way that Windows already classifies file types. For example, in Windows XP, if you were to double click on a file with a ".doc" file extension, Windows knows that it is supposed to open Microsoft Word and then load the file. Windows already knows what a Microsoft Word document is. Now imagine that you could tell Windows to show you all of the Microsoft Word documents on the entire system, and you are starting to get a picture of what WinFS is all about.

The look and feel of SharePoint Services

In WinFS, a Word document would be considered a database object. Like most database objects, the object has attributes such as the document's author and the date that the document was modified. All of these attributes are stored within the database to make searching for specific documents even easier.

If that's starting to sound a lot like the SharePoint Services, it's no accident. WinFS uses a lot of the same concepts as the SharePoint Services. In fact, Microsoft's long-term goal is to build a SQL database that will maintain data from the operating system, SharePoint and Exchange Server so that users can easily search for data regardless of where the data actually exists.

Longhorn and the future of messaging

So what does all of this have to do with the future of messaging? Longhorn treats your contacts as objects in the same way that it treats files as objects. Just as your files have attributes, so too do your contacts. In the current Longhorn build, contact attributes include things like e-mail addresses, phone numbers, first name, last name, job title -- and the list goes on. There is even an image attribute that allows you to store a photograph along with a contact. When you open My Computer, there is a My Contacts folder right next to the My Documents folder. If you open the My Contacts folder, you will see all of your contacts.

It's too early to tell exactly what Microsoft will do with this new way of managing contacts, but one feature that is already built into Longhorn is that you can click on a contact and see every e-mail communication to and from that contact. Still to be determined is whether users will be able to e-mail attachments to a contact just by dragging a file to the contact object of their choice. Another possibility is that admins may eventually be able to give someone rights to a file just by dragging the user's contact object to the file.


Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. Click here to visit Posey's personal Web site.

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