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MS, Cisco team for Unix Active Directory

Microsoft and Cisco are joining forces to put MS's Active Directory on all major flavors of Unix platforms.

Unix-based versions of Microsoft's (MSFT) Active Directory technology will follow Windows NT 5.0 down the development path, according to officials from Cisco Systems, who are spearheading the development.

No timetable has been given before for release of Active Directory on other platforms, a key component of Microsoft's strategy to gain market share in the network operating system (OS) market.

A first beta of Active Directory will be released in the first quarter of next year, according to Ray Bell, director of engineering for network service management at Cisco. That should coincide with a second beta release of Windows NT 5.0, which should have a full implementation of the directory. An initial beta is being released at this week's Professional Developers Conference, but it does not have some key technologies in it.

No details were given on which Unix platform would be first, but Bell said rollouts on the major flavors of Unix would come in rapid-fire succession. The work is the result of a partnership that was finalized in May.

Though a directory is thought of as mundane software "plumbing," directory competition is creating a war among vendors for the hearts, minds, and dollars of network administrators. Novell, which is thought to have a clear advantage in the directory space, will unleash a Windows NT-based version of its Novell Directory Services (NDS) next month at Networld+Interop in Atlanta, according to sources. Others, such as Netscape Communications, have also introduced directories.

A directory provides a central repository for all network resources--including systems, printers, and applications--for managers to use when configuring a network. Thus, an administrator only has one place to go when users need to be changed or access rights need to be augmented.

Directory services are characterized as plumbing because--from a user's perspective--they are a tool that allows them to access applications and network resources more efficiently. But that simplicity belies a complex set of rules that are determined by the IT department.

Novell has also commissioned third parties to integrate NDS with their Unix flavors. Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and the Santa Cruz Operation are among the companies offering, or planning to offer, NDS.

For Microsoft, Active Directory represents another step in the evolution of Windows NT.

"This is one of those building blocks Microsoft wants to use to move up the enterprise," said Jean Bozman, a software analyst at International Data Corporation. "The enterprise is primarily a mixed-vendor environment."

Cisco and Microsoft are releasing a schema for third parties to review over the next 30 to 45 days, according to Kurt Dahm, a senior product manager at Cisco.

To that end, Microsoft and Cisco announced that a bevy of networking companies will cooperate in their efforts to integrate Active Directory into networks. Among the players taking part in the work are 3Com, Ascend Communications, Cabletron Systems, Fore Systems, and Compaq Computer.

Microsoft also announced an agreement with HP that will lead to use of Active Directory and Windows NT Server 5.0 in the huge systems vendor?s sales of collaborative software and hardware tools to enterprise customers. This division of HP is different from the systems group bundling NDS with its Unix-based servers.