Operating systems must learn peaceful coexistence

The right tool for the job makes the job easier. At least that's what I tell my wife when I come home from the hardware store with new tools. As my collection of tools grows, I find I can often improvise the right tool out of the equipment on hand. But I don't have any emotional attachment to the tools themselves, as long as they get the job done. And if I recommend a tool to a friend, I don't need to defend the merits of whether the tool came from my local hardware store or a national chain.

Would that the arguments over operating systems (OSs) were that simple. Apple's recent resuscitation with the release of the iMac, Novell's release of NetWare 5.0, and the long-awaited release of Windows NT 5.0 beta 2 are again fanning the flames of the OS jihad. I just wish someone would come up with an argument other than "Anybody but Microsoft."

Novell's taken the right approach. The company's goal is to coexist with NT in the server environment. And Novell has released tools for a mixed NetWare and NT environment that simplify the network administrator's job. Assuming that users of NetWare (and its derivatives) want to integrate NT into their network environments, Novell has built services such as NDS for NT to facilitate the process. But the company doesn't try to force users off NT; rather, Novell has thought out and designed its tools to help administrators do their jobs. NetWare is an excellent network platform, and performing a wholesale rip and replace of NetWare networks just to install NT makes little sense.

Novell has also learned to talk the talk. The company doesn't attempt to run down Microsoft or its products. Rather, Novell points out the areas in which it believes its products are superior and describes how its products can help a business gain a competitive advantage. And this approach, along with the tools to make the job easier, keeps and holds the attention of users in the trenches and the suits upstairs.

Microsoft needs to learn this lesson. Although Microsoft provides tools for integrating NT into NetWare networks, the company takes the approach that this integration is temporary, and that the eventual goal is to remove Novell networks completely. Historically, Microsoft has released NetWare migration tools well before the company ever released any kind of integration tools. NT 5.0 beta 2 contains tools for migrating networks off NDS to Active Directory (AD), but these tools don't yet work the other way. To give Microsoft credit, NT 5.0 beta 2 contains management tools that work with NDS. But Microsoft's goal of domination, not integration, makes a lot of people nervous.

Don't get me wrong; I spend most of my life working with some form of NT Workstation or NT Server. I host a half dozen different domains on NT Server, run several Web sites on Internet Information Server (IIS), and handle a couple thousand email messages a day with a Sendmail implementation that runs on NT Server. But I don't use NT for everything.

For example, my Internet-connected router is a dedicated piece of hardware, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Likewise, I use a dedicated router that supports analog and ISDN connections on the same lines to dial in to my network. I can use NT Server to perform these tasks, but dedicated hardware does a better job, even with the major improvements that Microsoft has introduced with NT's Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS). Most important, except for firmware upgrades over the past 3 years, my Internet and dial-in routers have never gone offline. Finally, I always keep proprietary and x86 non-NT servers (i.e., NetWare 4.x, intraNetWare, and various flavors of UNIX) around for compatibility testing.

My latest network project involves bringing my Domain Name System (DNS) servers inhouse. The Internet Service Provider (ISP) that provides my frame-relay connection currently hosts these servers. However, I decided I needed to have the DNS servers locally available, especially because I'll eventually need full access to these systems to make use of NT 5.0's AD. But NT 5.0 isn't in my production environment, and even when it is, will I really want to expose the AD DNS directly to the Internet?

Although I could have added DNS services to my existing NT servers, I would have had to keep those two servers online (to provide primary and secondary DNS) 24*7. The only NT server in my network that is always on is my primary server, which handles all the Web serving and mail responsibilities for my local network. As a result, I wouldn't want to add the DNS service to that system. Adding two NT-capable servers to provide DNS services inhouse requires a significant investment in hardware because the DNS machines must remain online.

The need to find a more suitable solution led me to the newest player in the OS wars, Linux: Powerful, inexpensive, and able to run well on old hardware. In the long run, Linux is the most serious competitor that NT has in the applications server space and (to hear the Linux devotees talk) on the network and desktop as well. Many users have documented the ability to run Linux on old, slow, hardware. In my case, a 60MHz Pentium system and a 66MHz 486 system I had stuffed under a table would make great DNS servers for my small network. More important, I could run both systems headless (i.e., without keyboard or monitor) and telnet in to them when I needed to make changes.

Microsoft won't be quaking in its shoes over low-end, inexpensive DNS servers. However, Oracle, among others, plans to port its flagship database, Oracle 8, to Linux in 1999. This plan adds legitimacy to Linux's claims of corporate acceptance.

Linux has an installed base of 7.5 million users. This figure might not sound like much, but consider the Linux legacy; it requires no centralized development, is free for the asking, and boasts thousands of programmers who work on the OS for the fun of it. Businesses now provide commercial versions of Linux. This development has led to increased corporate confidence in Linux as a practical solution. And the value of the software, even in its commercial implementations, is tough to beat.

For example, Caldera's OpenLinux 1.2, Standard Edition costs $199 and provides a full Linux implementation that includes FTP, Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and NFS servers and clients; Netscape's FastTrack Server commercial Web server; a single-user license for Software AG's ADABASE D database software; several tools; and a full-fledged set of office automation applications (Star Division's StarOffice 4.0 Internet Productivity Office Suite). For another $59, you can add NetWare for Linux, which includes NetWare 4.x-compatible file-and-print services and full NDS support. And Caldera's standard Linux implementation lets you manage NDS. Caldera bases its software on Open Linux to help ensure that these tools and services work with any available Linux implementation.

With all the commercial support that's building for Linux, an enterprising developer might even overcome the awkwardness of using the OS on the desktop. As a desktop OS, NT wins hands down over Linux, if only because of the better user experience. But enough bitheads will always run code such as Linux to ensure that it can appear on more and more desktops.

Linux is maturing rapidly, but it won't succeed until its advocates begin to mature. Almost every interview, review, or story about Linux includes derogatory quotes about NT. The Linux community is firmly ensconced in the us-or-them mindset. Until these users learn the basics of how to play well with others, they might condemn the OS to the periphery of the business enterprise. If the Linux community begins to focus more on the concerns of integrating with NT rather than replacing it, then Microsoft might have something to worry about.