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Microsoft fishes for small businesses

Microsoft prepares to post the latest version of its routing and remote access software for Windows NT Server 4.0.

Users will soon be able to reel in Steelhead, the latest version of Microsoft's (MSFT) routing and remote access software for the Windows NT Server 4.0 operating system.

Now called the Microsoft Routing and Remote Access Service, the software lets NT shops connect to a network and communicate with the router and switching hardware. The software should cater to small businesses that do not feel comfortable installing a hub or low-end router or hub or don't need specialized networking hardware.

The software should also find a home in the networking hardware of third parties. It will be available for free download tomorrow from Microsoft's Web site.

Release of the software comes after Microsoft announced a cozy partnership at Spring Networld+Interop '97 with Cisco Systems to offer directory services using the software giant's next-generation operating system. The new Microsoft Routing and Remote Access Service would appear to compete directly with elements of Cisco's Internetworking Operating System (IOS), the software that runs on all of the network monolith's routers and switches.

Cabletron Systems has already demonstrated its gear running the Microsoft routing software, and other switching hardware makers are expected to offer the package as an option, creating an entire NT-based communications network.

Router hardware gains its intelligence from the software components layered on top. Microsoft's internetworking services package will offer routing and remote access capabilities to users within a Windows NT server box. The software supports networks communicating with IP or IPX and includes APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow a network manager to tie protocols running on their networking gear to Windows NT services.

The package also supports server-to-server virtual private network connections, which allow a secure data stream to be maintained between two end points over the public Internet.

Analysts said one problem facing Microsoft is that there are two sets of employees they need to communicate with. "The guys who run the network aren't the guys who run the servers," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with the META Group consultancy.

Kleynhans said the routing services will have a "slow build impact" on the market. Corporations connecting several branch offices and rolling out new technology provide a particularly good target for Microsoft, but he said it might be 12 to 18 months before the software gains significant acceptance.

Traditional networking players need not worry, however. "Is it going to put a dent in Cisco? Not anytime soon," he predicted.