The Redmond, Washington-based software giant is hoping to cash in on the growing appetite among users to connect from anywhere. To do so, it will complement the existing networking features found in desktop stalwart Windows NT Workstation with new technology, code-named BaseCamp, that will provide the ability to securely connect to a corporate network or Internet service provider (ISP) over the Net.
BaseCamp is currently in its third beta release and is scheduled for a fourth-quarter rollout. Microsoft officials refused to disclose packaging or pricing details on the new technology.
Sometimes called a VPN (virtual private network), the BaseCamp technology is already supported in limited fashion within Microsoft's server-side Routing and Remote Access Services, previously dubbed Steelhead (See related story), and Windows 95. Now VPN capabilities will be added to the client and server side of NT through a user interface utility called Connection Manager.
On the server side, Microsoft will add to its Routing and Remote Access Services through an Internet Authentication Server, which will include support for the RADIUS security protocol and the point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP), features that were originally reported by CNET's NEWS.COM in February. The server technology allows secure connections to be made from the client to the server.
Services to enable reservation of bandwidth via the resource reservation protocol (RSVP) are also in the works.
The intent is to make it so easy for remote users to connect that they don't have to know the remote access acronym salad--VPN, RADIUS, PPTP--to dial in from the road, according to Microsoft officials.
"This will be on a number of Windows platforms," confirmed Lloyd Spencer, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows communications. "We certainly want to make VPNs easy."
The other goal is to compete with low-end remote access gear by offering the same functions within servers and the client side, in some cases eliminating the need for a separate hardware box from companies like Shiva.
"Network administrators want to have their people dial in, but they don't want to deal with remote access equipment," said Spencer. "If you make it convenient and affordable, people will investigate it and use it."
Support for VPN capabilities, sometimes known as tunneling, essentially offers a secure connection over the public network via a dial-up line to an ISP or a corporate intranet. Once the connection is established, it is secured to offer users access to private information without worrying about who else might have access to it.
According to research released by International Data Corporation, the market for remote access software on the client side will more than double by the year 2001, to $475.7 million. And for every client who wants to dial in, server-side functions will be needed to make it possible.
On both the client and server sides, remote access remains one of the hottest niche markets on the overall networking landscape. Users are increasingly taking their office wherever they go, leading to accompanying investments by organizations to facilitate mobile computing.
IDC forecasts that nearly 700,000 units of remote access server software, and 12.7 million units of client software, will be sold by 2001. The current leader in this market is Symantec's PC Anywhere package, with over 50 percent of the market. The closest competitor is Traveling Software's LapLink.
Analysts said Microsoft's increasing focus on remote access features within its operating system software will be watched closely, but they did not feel the software monolith's entry will necessarily spell doom for others.
"Anytime Microsoft makes such an announcement like this, it's going to make these vendors wake up and take a look," said Stephen Drake, an IDC analyst. "This announcement may hurt some of the smaller vendors. You have to look at how these products are being used."
Microsoft officials also disclosed that the BaseCamp technology could potentially run on Unix-based systems for VPN connections, though the primary market for the new technology will likely be within Windows-based networks.
Developers can expect Microsoft to divulge more information on BaseCamp at the company's upcoming Professional Developer's Conference in San Diego later this month.