Despite the aggressive marketing efforts behind Microsoft's next-generation directory services technology, software makers are debating whether to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the new technology or to wait on the sidelines until the dust clears.
Software application makers vary in their acceptance of Active Directory (AD), the new directory service Microsoft plans to offer in its forthcoming Windows NT 5.0.
Executives at German software giant and market leader SAP said they plan to use, in some way or another, Microsoft's Active Directory, while their counterparts at Redwood Shores, California-based Oracle said they are unhappy with the service, calling it unstable and not ready for implementation.
A directory provides a central repository for all network resources, including user addresses and applications, and is used by managers in configuring a system. Thus, an administrator has only one place to go when users need to be changed or access rights need to be expanded.
A directory services is often characterized as plumbing because--from a user's perspective--it is a tool that allows the user to access applications more efficiently. But that simplicity belies the complex set of rules determined by information technology personnel.
Microsoft said third-party support won't officially be announced until just before NT 5.0 ships, by the end of the year. However, SAP and Oracle executives involved with NT relations shed some light on their plans to use AD.
As expected, SAP plans to support Microsoft's new version of NT. "This would include active directory," said Steve Rietzke, national partner manager at SAP America. However, "we have our own security and directory services...developers are debating how much of Active Directory SAP should use," he added.
From the user's perspective, the benefits of having one directory translates into easier management of the entire environment, Rietzke conceded. So why doesn't SAP go with the single Active Directory?
Without giving too many details of the current debate, the SAP executive said there are many things they "may want to maintain themselves, like our own security. But anything we can use, we'll use."
He said SAP will probably try to release its next version of R/3 business application at the same time as NT 5.0 ships. And the murky state of NT release dates doesn't interfere with SAP's release schedule. "Actually it gives us more time to direct efforts towards further development, though we like to take advantage of new technologies as soon as possible."
From the end-user's point of view, directory services are the process of logging on to get to particular applications and networks. Having just one login would be "nice," Rietzke agreed. But that doesn't mean it would be the most practical way to run a directory.
While SAP executives are debating how they will use AD, their counterparts at Oracle are staying away from the technology, saying it's not quite mature enough to do the job.
Oracle's senior director of NT solutions and sales, David Applebaum, said his company feels Microsoft's AD has a few shortfalls. "We think Active Directory doesn't have a good working code, and it has some stability problems. Right now we're in a wait and see kind of mode. We have to see what Microsoft will do," about those issues.
Applebaum said Oracle customers won't suffer from the company's cautious approach with AD. "We actively support LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol)." In addition, the company also supports Novell's directory service, NDS, he said, calling it a much more mature service than Microsoft's.
Analysts said a vendor's attraction to the new service may rely upon how much money it has to build the services itself.
In fact, some major vendors, like SAP, usually write their own applications to handle directory services, said International Data Corporation analyst Dennis Byron. "It's the smaller application players that can't afford to write their own middleware," that take advantage of directory services from Novell and, now, Microsoft.
Microsoft would like to bring in as many third-party vendors as possible. "A directory is not exciting unless you can integrate applications into it," said Joycelyn Etheridge, a Windows NT server product manager. "We've never had the platform before."
Microsoft will also make sure its own homegrown applications make particularly good use of AD, with directory-enabled updates to all components of the BackOffice suite due within 12 to 18 months of NT 5.0's release.
Current versions of Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0 operating system include a domain-based directory scheme which, according to some critics, lacks support for advanced features and is a configuration nightmare for administrators. Novell's NDS for NT interoperates on a Windows NT-based network but currently must be housed on a system running the company's own NetWare operating system.
Both companies have chosen to fight a propaganda war on the Net. Novell has posted a "fact book" on Microsoft's next-generation Active Directory, noting that their competitor was "caught off guard" by the directory explosion and the next version continues to rely on a domain-based scheme.
In fact, Microsoft plans to use the storage engine of Exchange 5.5 as the base for Active Directory, said Steven Judd, a program manager for Windows NT distributed systems at Microsoft.
Microsoft plans to allow NDS and AD to share data, integrate applications, and provide a common management base. This makes sense to most observers, since all agree that having a directory service is essential to any operating system.
"Directory services will be key to any network configuration," Applebaum said. "This will become especially true as server based models become the norm and e-commerce grows. The networks are assuming the critical role now and directory services [in general] will be needed to manage all of this."
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