Already making major inroads in almost every market segment for server operating systems, Microsoft plans to enhance remote access and wide area routing capabilities for Windows NT Server 5.0. The effort, code-named Steelhead, offers further proof that Microsoft intends to make Windows NT Server an "industrial strength" operating system for mission-critical tasks in corporate networks.
As Windows NT has made inroads in LANs (local area networks)--largely at the expense of Novell's NetWare operating system--a missing piece has been routing functionality. Novell currently ships the NetWare Multiprotocol Router 3.1, a set of software services that allows users in remote locations to access a NetWare LAN over the wide area network. The software sits on a NetWare PC client or server, but for large sites the product can be configured as a dedicated router.
"We're trying to deliver that level of routing: one-to-one," said Enzo Schiano, group product manager for Windows NT Server. "It seems like a natural fit for the OS."
Though routers are often thought of as a purely hardware-based product, the functionality and features within a router are driven by software. Protocol support and tables--which serve as a "telephone book" on which to route data--are controlled through software. Cisco Systems offers a wide variety of options and features in its Cisco Internetworking Operating System (IOS), an umbrella name for countless routing services.
Steelhead will debut this summer with WAN (wide area network) routing capabilities and enhanced remote access functionality. The product is intended to compete against low-end offerings like Shiva's LANrover remote access server. The new server will likely debut as an add-on that sits on top of the Windows NT operating system, according to Lloyd Spencer, group product manager for Windows NT Communications.
The NT-Steel Head combination could be used to replace low-end routers. However, the Steel Head software will most likely be packaged with router hardware to form, along with Windows NT-based server hardware, a more cohesive networking platform.
"We're going to continue to offer tools to allow people to connect their NT servers over the WAN," Spencer said. Current remote access protocol support in Windows NT 4.0 includes the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), a communications specification that supports Novell's IPX, NetBEUI, an IBM-developed LAN protocol, and the communications protocol of the Internet, IP. Both RAScom and U.S. Robotics include support for Windows NT in their remote-access software.
This support will be augmented by more robust routing capabilities as Microsoft breaks out the remote access and routing components of the operating system into a separate product. Future PPTP support in Steelhead will include WAN support and LAN-to-LAN connections over the Internet instead of current client-to-server connections.
Support is in the works for networking protocols such as the Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) routing protocol, a dominant protocol in routers from vendors such as Cisco. Other internetworking features that will be included in Steelhead include the following:
Microsoft's upcoming moves in the internetworking space are not surprising to industry watchers. "They just seem to be picking up add-on pieces from all over the realm of the network," said Virginia Brooks, manager of network technology at the Aberdeen Group consultancy. "They have to move [remote access and routing capabilities] up to make it attractive for the NT market."
Others agreed. "It's almost logical because they've been trying to drive the operating system ties with the Internet, so on the back-end it seems like a logical thing for them to do to develop internetworking capabilities," said Don Miller, an analyst with market researcher Dataquest.
"Either this is a Microsoft move to suck up more into the operating system, or, if it's got lots of functionality--which I find hard to imagine--it could be a significant competitive threat," Brooks said.
Steelhead is currently being implemented in gear from six to eight networking vendors as part of ongoing tests of the software, according to Spencer. No pricing has been set.