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The Windows Server 2003 reference guide shootout

As an administrator, having the right technical reference at your disposal is crucial. And at first glance, most Windows Server 2003 references appear identical. But books can be deceiving.

Bernie's BooksThese reference works cover the same general topics, including new feature overviews, installation, migration strategies, Active Directory, managing users and groups, networking, Terminal Services, RRAS, VPN and troubleshooting. Most are more than 1,000 pages, and they all cost between $50 and $60. But are they all created equal? Does size matter? Should you make your selection by publisher or author? To find out what's different, I spent a few weeks digging through the more than 7,000 pages of major Windows Server 2003 references. Here's what I found:

Windows Server 2003 Administrators Companion
(Charlie Russel, et al -- Microsoft Press)

The Windows Server 2003 Administrators Companion is the place many people start when comparing reference books. It is 1,570 pages and covers Windows Server 2003 Standard and Enterprise Editions. The writing style is not as dry as previous Microsoft Press titles, and there are plenty of screenshots, tables and bulleted lists. Helpful callouts, tips and warnings are offset in blue ink, and the authors include "real world" scenarios to help administrators avoid common mistakes. The interoperability section is outstanding, as is the documentation on the Indexing Service. However, the chapter on Outlook Express and configuring Outlook 2000 seem out of place in a server reference, and it wastes valuable space that could have been put to better use. For instance, there is no coverage of Windows Server 2003 Web Edition outside of a light chapter on IIS 6.0. The book also covers ISA Server, which is useful, but also a bit out of place. For those administrators just getting started with Windows Server 2003, an evaluation copy is included on CD-ROM.

Mastering Windows Server 2003
(Mark Minasi -- Sybex)

The first thing you'll notice about "Mastering Windows Server" 2003 is the heft. At more than 1,600 pages, it is the largest book on my comparison list, narrowly beating out the Microsoft Press Administrators Companion. The Mastering series is written by Mark Minasi and other noted authors and is famous for its light writing style and ease of use. The chapters provide more conceptual information to give the reader an understanding of why things work, and the authors are much more critical of Microsoft and the shortcomings in the operating system than you'll find in the official documentation. The book makes good use of tables and screenshots, and notes and tips are highlighted in italics. The chapter on Active Directory is excellent, as are the chapters on MAC interoperability, Terminal Services and performance monitoring. The CD includes a copy of the text in .PDF format. Unfortunately, the file cannot be highlighted or annotated.

Inside Windows Server 2003
(William Boswell -- Addison-Wesley)

At 1,300 pages, "Inside Windows Server 2003" is a bit smaller than the previous books, but don't let the size fool you. This book breaks from the traditional reference format and provides more in-depth content that is well suited for seasoned administrators with plenty of NT/Windows 2000 experience. The book leads you through a full Windows Server 2003 deployment, starting with installing a single server and then progressing logically into more complex topics. Chapters present design principals first, followed by process descriptions, and finally procedures. This approach is based on the author's experience as a Naval nuclear power plant operator, where it isn't enough to know simply how to operate a piece of hardware; you have to understand why it works and how it impacts other systems. The chapters on Active Directory, LDAP and DNS are excellent, and the section on Active Directory replication is second to none. The author places a heavy emphasis on troubleshooting techniques for Windows Server 2003, which will become invaluable once your network is up and running.

Windows Server 2003 Unleashed
(Rand Morimoto -- Sams)

Windows Server 2003 Unleashed is comparatively "light" at 1,100 pages, but still manages to stuff a lot of information into those pages. The book has a strong emphasis on migration planning and compatibility testing, as well as an outstanding chapter on documenting the enterprise. It also covers integration of Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), and each chapter ends with a summary and a helpful list of best practices. Unfortunately, coverage of Terminal Services is weak and the tips and callouts are rather generic and not as helpful as many of the other books in this comparison.

Windows Server 2003: The Complete Reference
(Kathy Ivens -- McGraw Hill)

At 980 pages, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the title of this book is a bit overstated. Unfortunately, its content is even more disappointing. A large font size and oversized graphics may make for easy reading, but for this book, it just adds padding. This is a basic reference, with very generic content. It contains the usual chapters, without much additional information that isn't already available in the Windows Server 2003 help files.

Windows Server 2003 Bible
(Jeffery Shapiro, et al -- Wiley)

Another rather generic reference with an overstated title, large print and light content. In my opinion, this work is far from comprehensive, and doesn't come close to the quality or quantity of information available in other works.

In conclusion … Finding an overall winner in this comparison isn't an easy choice. For beginning administrators, Mark Minasi's Mastering Windows Server 2003 is the clear frontrunner. The engaging writing style, depth of content and clear explanations make this book one of my favorites. More experienced administrators who already understand the intricacies of Active Directory, Group Policy and DNS may prefer the Microsoft Press Windows Server 2003 Administrators Companion. Both are excellent choices as a standalone reference, and clearly the additional 600 pages of content does make a difference when choosing a technical reference. However, as a companion reference to either of these, I also highly recommend William Boswell's Inside Windows Server 2003. The technical content of this book is superb, and it will take even seasoned administrators to a new level of technical proficiency.

Boswell's book also highlights another point: A great technical reference doesn't have to be an unwieldy encyclopedic tome. Mark Minasi's Mastering Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft Press's Windows Server 2003 Administrators Companion spend a lot of time covering the "basics" of networking, TCP/IP, DNS and other components. While these are crucial administration skills, they aren't really unique to Windows Server 2003, and perhaps should be covered in another reference.

Assuming that succeeding versions of Windows Server will increase in complexity, authors and publishers may need to assume a higher level of technical ability when creating these works. A 1,600-page hardcover reference isn't exactly portable, or convenient to use.

But that's a topic for another day.

About the author: Bernie Klinder is the founder and former editor of, a comprehensive resource index for IT professionals who support enterprise Windows and BackOffice products. Before joining as a contributing editor and operating system troubleshooting expert, Bernie worked as a technology consultant for several Fortune 500 companies in northeast Ohio. For his contributions to the technical community, Bernie was reselected as an MVP (Most Valuable Professional) by Microsoft in 2004.

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