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Windows NT comes of age

Nearly a decade after Microsoft began developing Windows NT, it is seeing a clear shift of momentum--in its favor.

When David Cutler was plucked from Digital Equipment by Microsoft (MSFT) to build a network operating system that would expand the company's presence beyond the desktop, the network as the centerpiece of a company's computing power was not a concept that had taken hold.

Now a third-generation general-purpose network operating system, Cutler's creation--Windows NT Server--is driving the software giant's push to the Internet and into the hearts and minds of chief information officers in corporate America. The latest figures indicate a groundswell around the operating system.

Windows NT Server shipments grew more than 80 percent over 1995, compared with growth rates in the teens for Novell's (NOVL) NetWare, according to a report by International Data Corporation. Novell remained on top with nearly 1 million servers sold for the year, but the 725,000 copies of the Windows NT Server that were sold last year provide the best evidence that the momentum has clearly shifted.

When Cutler was commissioned to drive development of Windows NT in 1988, displacing NetWare was the goal, an objective that analysts say is expected by 1999.

NetWare--or IntranetWare, as it is now known--has been seen as the primary operating platform for users who want to share files on a network while various flavors of Unix have cornered the market on mission-critical applications such as databases and transaction-processing systems. Windows NT was created to combine the best of both worlds into one operating system.

"Windows NT went through this phase where there were not many people using it, then people started to understand what a multipurpose server could be used for," said Mike Nash, Microsoft's director of marketing for Windows NT Server and infrastructure products. "No one ever thought that you could deliver a system that could do both [file and print services and applications] without compromise."

Windows NT's current incarnation, version 4.0, still lacks several services and enhancements that Novell users have grown accustomed to. But a recent flurry of activity at Microsoft is setting the stage for the next-generation operating system, Windows NT 5.0, and a series of add-on servers that could close the gap and render other operating systems such as IntranetWare, the various versions of Unix, and IBM's OS/2 Warp Server as niche players.

"There will continue to be a gap between what NT can do and what high-end Unix can do, but Windows NT is closing that gap," said Neal Macdonald, an analyst with the Gartner Group.

The growing number of Microsoft's server options is bewildering, to say the least. They include the following:

  • Microsoft Transaction Server, a $2,000 add-on to Windows NT that can manage hundreds or thousands of user requests for data to back-end databases that shipped in January. This feature has long been popular in the Unix and mainframe worlds.

  • Falcon, the code name for a message-queuing server that lets occasional users submit data and make requests to an application. The server prioritizes those queries and acts on them. This is due by midyear.

  • Wolfpack, the code name for a set of application programming interfaces, currently in beta, that will let servers be tied together in a cluster. The first release of the product will let an administrator connect two servers in a "fail-over" configuration in which a server with a problem can turn its applications over to a backup server within seconds in the event of failure. The true promise of the technology will arrive next year when a version of Wolfpack will be released that lets an administrator connect a distributed cluster of up to 16 nodes. Clustering has long been a feature of Unix systems.

  • Steelhead, the code name for a set of remote access and routing services due by this summer that will let a Windows NT Server act as a multiprotocol router on an NT network by supporting a series of routing protocols. Quality of Service enhancements for data are also in the works.

  • Active Directory, a new Microsoft strategy for delivering directory functionality that expands the current service to include support for multiple domains, high on the request list of current Windows NT shops. The Active Directory is intended to match Novell's lead in directory services, a key administrative tool on a network that allows an administrators to implement a central repository--or address book--for network resources. It will appear in Windows NT 5.0.

    Microsoft Internet Information Server, a Web server, is already part of the Windows NT operating system and BackOffice application bundle. But, despite the laundry list, Microsoft's technology is far from an embarrassment of riches, according to Gartner's Macdonald.

    "These are technologies that are necessary for Microsoft to compete in the high end," he said. The problem may be delivery.

    The Gartner Group does not believe that any of these technologies--leaked out to the press and debuted at the Professional Developer's Conference last fall--will arrive on time. Furthermore, the market researcher believes Windows NT 5.0, scheduled to go into beta in the second half of this year, will not see the light of day until at least the second half of 1998.

    "There's too many new technologies," a skeptical Macdonald said.

    At this point, that may be of little consequence to eager corporate network buyers who are moving to Windows NT Server in droves. How those administrators feel when and if their next-generation technology is surpassed will be a different story entirely.