Operating system software is no easy engineering task, but the promises Microsoft has made related to its ambitious Windows NT 5.0 upgrade seem to be coming back to haunt the software giant.
Someday--the exact date is still in flux--Microsoft promises that users will have a full-fledged version of NT 5.0 Workstation and Server in their hands, replete with improvements in directory services, manageability, data access, file systems, and other key areas.
In the meantime, the company has become increasingly defensive in the face of perpetual delays in the project, feeding the perception that Microsoft has taken on more than it can handle in building a corporate-class, industrial-strength operating system intended to handle the largest of computing tasks.
Taken hand in hand with announced delays in the delivery of Intel's high-end Merced chips, as well as some nasty bugs in current NT offerings, and it seems likely there will be significant delay before the Wintel virtual duopoly can confidently sell its hardware and software as a replacement for older, proven Unix, AS/400, and mainframe systems.
Microsoft executives announced recently that a second test version, or beta, for NT 5.0--originally expected by the end of June-will be delayed until later this summer.
Delivery on NT is a key component in Microsoft's future growth, especially since the NT code base will eventually become the only software infrastructure used to build various versions of Windows, from consumer-oriented offerings to industrial-strength server software. It is also viewed as the next large revenue driver for the company, in light of the recent release of the Windows 98 upgrade.
Some say the NT delays are of minimal consequence, due to looming Year 2000 issues. Pundits also note that it is more important for Microsoft to deliver on its vaunted technology promises for NT 5.0 than to meet any hazy shipment dates. Previous versions of NT, like the current 4.0 software, needed a series of subsequent "service pack" releases--generally intended to squash bugs in the code--before they were considered stable.
"Critics are going to say what critics are going to say," said Mike Nash, director of marketing for Windows NT Server and infrastructure products. "Windows NT Server is a very significant software engineering project."
One school of thought within the technology industry is that Microsoft has been articulating its vision for NT 5.0 and explaining its features early so that adopters may be swayed to deploy current NT 4.0 versions of the operating system and wait for the upgrade rather than deploy operating system alternatives from the likes of rivals IBM, Novell, or Sun Microsystems, among others.
Revving the Microsoft marketing machine early could disguise the complexities in delivering an NT upgrade that by internal estimates is now around 35 million lines of code. By comparison, an upcoming upgrade of Novell's NetWare operating system, due to ship later this summer, will entail about 10 million lines of code, according to company executives.
Why is NT 5.0 so big? The upgrade includes various services and infrastructure that the operating system has lacked in past releases. "Microsoft really wants to make a splash with this new functionality," said Jean Bozman, software analyst with International Data Corporation.
These services--such as centralized management capabilities through directory technology--are daunting tasks: Novell has ten years of directory experience and is only now reaping the benefits of wide adoption within its customer base.
To take advantage of that lead, Novell will deliver a version of its directory that runs on NT software later this year--one example of how delays in delivery of 5.0 could offer a window of opportunity for competitors. Novell, for one, has refined a message that incorporates the company's experience in managing networks while admitting that NT will have a role alongside Novell software. Executives are nonplused by the NT delays. "Microsoft's goals are really Microsoft's," said Richard Running, director of marketing for NetWare.
The state of NT 5.0 could affect other elements of Microsoft's corporate computing push. The company's efforts to tie several server systems together to form a single system, commonly referred to as clustering, will not see the light of day in NT 5.0 versions called the Enterprise Edition, as previously reported.
Clustering of four systems together will likely come in a post-NT 5.0 release, according to Ed Muth, group product manager for Windows NT Server. Current Microsoft clustering technology allows for a fail-over mechanism between two connected computers when one has a problem.
Additionally, the company is planning a post-NT 5.0 release that takes advantage of 64-bit Merced chip technology that is forthcoming from Intel, recently pushed back to the first half of the year 2000. Work continues on the 64-bit version, which offers greater data access capabilities for large databases, for example, even as NT 5.0 itself moves closer to release.
In the end, it will be NT 5.0 that drives the company's subsequent corporate computing efforts, according to Muth. "NT 5.0 is really the pivot point in the history of NT," he said.
Dov Goldman, president of Dynalog Technologies, a Valhalla, New York-based network integration and software firm, said delays in the massive upgrade are of little concern to his customers, who are still entangled in deployments of Microsoft's current software.
The fact that they pushed this thing back was not a surprise to us or our customers," Goldman said. "Our customers are still rolling out NT 4.0 and Windows 95. Is anybody concerned that NT 5.0 has been pushed back? No, in fact you could say that some people are happy it's been delayed."
Goldman noted that the elements involved in delivering the technology promised in NT 5.0 has left Microsoft with little choice but to delay future beta versions. "They're trying to do a lot of things with NT 5.0. I think they had a very unrealistic sense of how long it would take to get this stuff right," he said.
It should also be noted that both sides of Wintel are also embroiled in legal squabbles with federal regulators--litigation that could also affect NT down the road.
To combat the perception that another delay has befallen its NT upgrade, Microsoft posted a document on its Web site to explain its position. In the posting, the company stressed that final delivery of NT 5.0 is not necessarily behind its latest schedule, even though original estimates for delivery of the massive upgrade date back to late last year--a time-table used at a 1996 Professional Developer's Conference in Long Beach, California.
"Most people were not fooled by the aggressive schedules of Microsoft and Intel so their revisionist history has not influenced the market," said Jon Oltsik, analyst with Forrester Research. "The impact now is that it gives breathing room to companies like Compaq Computer around the Alpha chip and Novell around NetWare 5.0.
"I think it means, between the market and each company's legal problems, that they need to wake up to the fact that it will be a heterogeneous world so interoperability should be on their business plan moving forward," he said.
Other industry pundits seem resigned to Microsoft's perpetual late deliveries of software. "Anyone who's surprised at delays in Microsoft's shipping schedule hasn't been awake for the past few years," said Dwight Davis, industry analyst with Summit Strategies.