updated 4/26/2007 7:47:12 AM ET 2007-04-26T11:47:12

The first public "beta" release of Microsoft Corp.'s next-generation Windows Server operating system, code-named Longhorn, is now widely available, the company said Wednesday.

The Redmond-based company's last major overhaul to the server OS was in 2003.

Longhorn is more secure, and makes servers — behind-the-scenes computers that handle e-mail, Web traffic and file-sharing, among other tasks — easier for information-technology professionals to manage than previous versions of the software, said Bob Visse, a senior director in Microsoft's Windows Server group.

One Longhorn development, "network access protection," examines employees' computers every time they log onto the company network. If the PCs don't have up-to-date antivirus programs, for example, they're quarantined until the problem is fixed.

Longhorn can also be installed in pieces. IT managers can decide what tasks they want the server to perform, then install just the necessary functions. Less software means fewer programs to keep updated with security patches, and fewer places for hackers to attack, Visse said.

He said he expects "hundreds of thousands" of companies to test the beta, and that Microsoft is on track to finish work on the software by the end of the year.

Michael Cherry, an analyst at the independent research group Directions on Microsoft, said the network access protection feature is "a good step," but noted that other companies, such as Cisco Systems Inc., offer similar products.

Cherry also said the ability to install only as many functions as needed is the most exciting new Windows Server feature. Besides being more secure and less of a space-hog, the new software brings Windows Server in line with Linux, an open-source alternative Cherry said many companies choose because it can be slimmed down in this way.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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