Core technologies for your next operating system

For years I've been waiting for Microsoft to release several products as part of its enterprise focus. Many industry watchers refer to these products by their code name (e.g., K2 for Internet Information Server 4.0, Falcon for Microsoft Message Queue Server, and Viper for Microsoft Transaction Server). Some of these products are just emerging, and others are appearing as new versions of existing products. Microsoft has designed each product to fit into the layers of software that corporate MIS needs to build enterprise-capable applications.

To make adapting new products and technologies easier for organizations, Microsoft introduced the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack. The Option Pack bundles several core technologies, which you see in Table 1, page 154, into one powerful package. This approach supports Microsoft's long-standing strategy of continuously introducing and adding core technologies to its operating systems. The final version of the Option Pack should be available by the time you read this article (you can check the status of the Option Pack and related components at http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver).

The Option Pack includes updates to standard NT features, such as Remote Access Service (RAS), Web development tools, and general application development tools. In addition to the core technologies in the Option Pack, Microsoft will probably include the latest NT Service Pack (SP) with the final Option Pack (the beta cycle included NT SP3). This article provides a high-level overview of the components and major features in the Option Pack.

Standard NT Features
The NT 4.0 Option Pack contains two useful standard networking and system task features: the latest SP and an update to RAS. Including the latest SP is a nice touch that makes finding and obtaining the SP from the Internet as easy as downloading the Option Pack. And if you have the Option Pack CD-ROM, installing the latest SP is even easier.

The second standard feature in the Option Pack is an update for RAS, the Internet Connection Service (ICS) for RAS. ICS for RAS provides a lot of new features and services. One critical new feature for many organizations is the Virtual Private Network (VPN) upgrade. VPN is a technology that lets you create a private tunnel between two computers over the Internet. This tunnel carries encrypted data that only the two computers can decipher.

Many organizations use VPN to replace their standard dial-up lines. Instead of having a user dial in to a dedicated line at the office, you set up VPN on an office computer and the user's computer. The user accesses the Internet via any Internet Service Provider (ISP) and uses the VPN tunnel to access the computer in the office. This configuration lets you provide network (e.g., file, print, application) services over the VPN tunnel without incurring costs for the traditional dial-up line.

The down side of VPN is its reliance on the Internet as the transport layer. Your VPN traffic must vie for the bandwidth it needs with every other user surfing the net and sending and receiving email at that moment. Of course, you can set up a VPN and traditional RAS so that your users can optionally dial a traditional long-distance number to access the office when the Internet is bogged down. For more information on VPN, see Douglas Toombs, "Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol," June 1997 and "Create a Virtual Private Network with RRAS," November 1997.

The ICS for RAS also adds new features for managing RAS on both the server and the client. The Connection Manager Administration Kit lets you build a custom Connection Manager dialer for different users. You can brand users who dial in so that they can use only the dial-in numbers that you want them to access.

Web Development Tools
Many of the technologies in the NT 4.0 Option Pack are for use with Web applications and Web servers. Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 update is a powerful upgrade to the IIS 3.0 Web server and is a solid choice for hosting both intranet and Internet sites. This upgrade includes many new tools and features, and it sets the standard for creating a powerful Web server.

A hot new feature in IIS 4.0 for both developers and administrators is the ability to create transacted Active Server Pages (ASP) scripts. This functionality lets you run scripts as atomic transactions (i.e., all conditions must be met before the script will complete; otherwise, the script reverts) that Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) manages. (I plan to cover more on using MTS and IIS together in future articles.)

Systems administrators and Web managers will appreciate IIS 4.0's many management features. In last month's article, "Managing IIS 4.0 with the Microsoft Management Console," I demonstrated the value of the Microsoft Management Console (MMC). MMC is great for managing NT and is the central tool for managing an IIS 4.0 Web site or application. MMC provides the framework that the IIS tools snap in to.

Microsoft based the MMC interface on the NT Explorer interface, so it's intuitive and easy to use. You create and use workspace files (*.msc) to configure MMC. You can create your own setting files by saving a configuration or copying an existing configuration. This flexibility lets you have multiple configurations that you can quickly access by opening the appropriate setting file. By restricting the number of features in a setting file, you can reduce unnecessary clutter in the interface so MMC can load faster when you start it.

IIS 4.0 exposes almost everything about itself as a COM object. You can use these objects to script IIS 4.0 with the Windows Scripting Host (WSH) that comes with IIS 4.0, or with any other language (e.g., Visual BasicĀ­VB) that can access COM objects. Using the COM objects, you can automate most tasks that you want to perform on a Web server. For example, you can write a script to check the status of the Web server each hour.

WSH lets you access not only the IIS 4.0 object model, but also other COM objects. For example, if you install the Active Directory Services Interfaces (ADSI), you can access NT objects and IIS 4.0 objects with the same script. This functionality takes scripting on NT and other platforms such as NetWare and UNIX to a new level.

Another new feature of IIS 4.0 for Web masters relates to FrontPage Server Extensions. Most production Internet sites don't use FrontPage Server Extensions because they let anyone with the magic username and password remotely access the Web site. Now IIS 4.0 lets you turn FrontPage Server Extensions on and off for a particular site (Screen 1 shows the FrontPage Web check box that you use to control the type of content on your Web site). So, for example, you might set up some sites on your Web server that use FrontPage Server Extensions, and not use these extensions on other sites from the same server.

Another new feature in IIS 4.0 is the Microsoft Script Debugger. This tool lets you single-step through the script code in a Web page so that you can troubleshoot any problems with the code line by line. The debugger can cut the time required to develop an application by a factor of 10 to 100.

The Microsoft Script Debugger must run on the same system as the scripts you want to debug. If you don't want to debug scripts on a production machine, you need to test your applications on a development server before installing them on the production server.

IIS 4.0 also includes the Microsoft Certificate Server 1.0. Microsoft Certificate Server lets you create and use your own digital certificates. Specifically, you can use Microsoft Certificate Server to automatically issue and manage certificates, perform user authentication, and let users log on to their existing NT user accounts.

This initial release of Microsoft Certificate Server is a robust application that makes creating and managing certificates simple. As the Internet community requires more and more certificates and secure access mechanisms, Web developers will find more need for applications such as Microsoft Certificate Server.

The other major application in IIS 4.0 is Microsoft Index Server 2.0. This server builds an index of your Web site and lets users search the index. The update includes filters for Office 97 documents, an integrated setup with IIS 4.0, new administration features, and new objects for ASP scripting. The new script objects are one of the hottest features. Now you can use an object in an ASP application to issue SQL queries against the index. This application makes creating site search engines much easier.

Another powerful management tool for Web applications in the NT 4.0 Option Pack is Microsoft Site Server Express 2.0, a slimmed-down version of Microsoft Site Server. You can use Site Server Express to

  • Generate content maps for your Web site
  • Generate various reports from log data for your Web site
  • Import usage data for your Web site into the Log File Manager, and generate reports on that data
  • Print reports
  • Search your Web site for broken links, objects, images, and missing objects

Screen 2 (page 156) shows a map of a Web site in the Site Server Express Content Analyzer. You can see how the various links on the Web site stand out, and the lines from each item show you the number of links from that item. The map gives you a powerful tool to help you visualize the structure of your Web site and any problems that might exist.

Screen 3 shows the Link Info for the Home Page in Screen 2. To display the Link Info dialog box, I right-clicked the Home Page entry in the Web Map you see in Screen 2, and selected Links from the context menu.

Application Development Tools
Two of the core technologies in the NT 4.0 Option Pack are tools for application developers. Both tools are important middle-layer tools for building scalable enterprise applications. You can use these applications, in turn, either as part of a larger intranet or Internet application or a traditional client/server application.

The first tool, MTS 2.0, provides the transaction layer for applications. Because the MTS interface is simple, you can focus on the application. Developers can create MTS transactions from ActiveX components and ASP. You can use languages such as VB and C++ to build ActiveX components for MTS, which provides tools to package ActiveX components into transactional units. With MTS, all actions in a transaction must succeed for the transaction to complete. If even one action in the transaction fails, then MTS backs out of the transaction.

In addition to providing tools to package the ActiveX components, MTS handles component creation and destruction automatically, freeing you to perform other tasks. MTS also makes managing powerful applications easy for system or network managers.

For the system or network manager, MTS provides the MTS Explorer, an MMC snap-in that graphically shows the status of the MTS components. For example, imagine that your application server is running slowly and you suspect a component you just installed. First, you can bring up the MTS Explorer and check the status of the component. If the component is running, MTS Explorer will tell you. Once you know that the component is running, you can use NT's Performance Monitor or another utility to dig deeper and troubleshoot the problem.

Another application that provides middle-layer support for developers is Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ). MSMQ is an asynchronous messaging transport. It lets you pass information between applications without having a direct link between the applications. For example, suppose a sales representative closes a large deal and then accesses the corporate Internet site to enter the sale. Imagine that the action the sales rep enters on the Internet site kicks off a process on the corporate systems that runs for 25 minutes. MSMQ lets the sales rep enter the information for the sale and then exit the application. The information in MSMQ will arrive at its destination later and kick off the process. So what happens if the computer running MSMQ goes down right after the sales rep enters the sale update and before the message goes to the second computer? Nothing. As soon as the computer and MSMQ start up again, the MSMQ server delivers the message and the transaction completes.

Building a Better OS
The NT 4.0 Option Pack adds several new features, including IIS, Internet Explorer (IE), Microsoft Personal Web Server, and ICS for RAS, to NT Server. I like this iterative approach to releasing new features for NT because it provides the technology now to help users solve real problems, and Microsoft can roll these features into the next release of NT (i.e., NT 5.0) when it ships. This approach offers a win-win situation for both Microsoft and its users.

The Option Pack demonstrates Microsoft's commitment to providing enterprise tools on a timely basis. It bundles technologies that add power to your NT network. The Option Pack is a simple update to NT Server 4.0. You can find the latest version of the Option Pack at http://www.microsoft.com/ ntserver/info/ntop.htm, or you can order it from Microsoft on CD-ROM.