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Windows NT 5.0 put to the test

Will Windows NT 5.0 be tough enough to take on Unix as a big system OS? Developers will soon find out.

The hottest CD in San Diego this September won't be found at Tower Records.

At the annual Professional Developers Conference hosted by Microsoft (MSFT), the company will hand out beta copies of its much-anticipated Windows NT Server 5.0 operating system, an upgrade that the company hopes will prove that it is a serious challenger to Unix as an industrial-strength operating system.

Microsoft officials have pegged NT 5.0 as the most important release of the operating system platform yet, and the developers conference will be the first time that a vast audience of all-important developers get their hands on the operating system.

For those of you just tuning in, the Microsoft marketing machine has tried its best to position Windows NT as an operating system ready to handle the mission-critical, transaction-intensive tasks normally associated with Unix and high-end operating systems. That work climaxed with Scalability Day, a splashy event held in New York in May, where the company showed off a series of add-on components for NT that include Microsoft Cluster Server (previously code-named Wolfpack), Microsoft Transaction Server, and Microsoft Message Queue Server.

These components will be bundled in a forthcoming version of Windows NT Server 4.0 called the Enterprise Edition, currently undergoing a second beta test period and scheduled for release this quarter. Though current users of Windows NT generally place the operating system in environments alongside machines running a Unix variant, Microsoft officials believe that over time they can drive those systems into a small niche at the top end of the market.

Since developers last gathered, the company has also made moves to shore up its work on a directory scheme by enlisting Cisco Systems to help port the forthcoming Active Directory for NT 5.0 to Unix flavors. The Redmondians are also signing up Citrix Systems to aid in the development of an add-on for NT that supports a variety of clients, from PCs to dumb terminals.

Active Directory--a key component of the forthcoming version that has been rumored to be behind schedule and will be offered as an add-on after initial shipment--will be included in the beta copy distributed in San Diego. "Absolutely, it's one of the key features people want to start working with," said Jeff Price, a product manager for Windows NT Server.

This feature is an important one for NT. Directory schemes are becoming increasingly important, as managers try to tie disparate directory systems together. Microsoft's current domain-based directory is admittedly behind the curve in providing support for protocols like the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP).

Microsoft has also embraced total cost of ownership as a theme, releasing a Zero Administration Kit for current Windows NT 4.0 Server and Workstation users. In the beta version of 5.0, many of the policy and configuration profile features of the kit will be more tightly wound into the administrative portion of the operating system.

"Going forward with 5.0, we won't need a separate kit," said Price. "Things get much, much easier for administrators in NT 5.0." The intent of the initiative is to give an administrator greater control over each user's desktop environment, restricting the applications available to individual users.

And NT 5.0, in its Workstation incarnation, will also continue Microsoft's drive to embed the Internet Explorer 4.0 (IE4) browser interface into the operating system. Some call this a monopolistic move to tie users to IE4 and marginalize the impact of software from rivals such as Netscape Communications. Supporters of the move cite the ubiquity and simplicity of the interface as natural reasons for the move.

The beta version of NT 5.0 is so anticipated because the operating system is selling so fast. According to market researcher International Data Corporation, Windows NT Server will officially pass Novell NetWare and IntranetWare for the No. 1 position in annual operating system shipments in 1998, selling more than 1 million copies.

Analysts note that the operating system continues to move in two development directions: adding support for more processors and support for larger applications, such as large databases. Add Microsoft's work in clustering--currently in relatively primitive failover form--and the company seems driven to deliver an enterprise-strength platform, whatever the short-term costs.

"NT is on a much quicker rate than any other OS I've ever seen," noted Dan Kusnetzky, director of server operating environments for IDC. "They need to find some way to put more work on a single system."

That means that the plethora of holes that have been discovered in recent months in NT can be expected to continue as NT increasingly becomes a target for hackers and as users implement it in more mission-critical ways, according to analysts. "There are nagging issues regarding quality," Kusnetzky observed, noting the number of operating system-level problems the platform has faced. "Microsoft needs to do something about that as well."

For users, NT 5.0 represents the good and the bad of the upgrade cycle. Some networks may just be rounding out their NT 4.0 implementations, they say.

"I'm really excited about the DCOM additions in NT 5.0, and, of course, the directory services," said Russell Galvin, vice president of technology for consulting firm SRG Software of Toronto, Ontario. "Judging from IE4, the desktop as we think of it is radically changing. But the overhead of that will likely keep quite a few enterprises from rolling it out until their hardware catches up."