Microsoft reveals its progress

At a press briefing in Seattle in mid-August, Microsoft revealed its progress on NT's next incarnation. The briefing provided bits of good news and bad news, but few major announcements. So what's the news from Seattle? After more than 2 years developing NT 5.0, Microsoft has settled into a set of definite goals for NT and has made tremendous progress toward those goals. The presenters were clearly proud of that progress, and rightfully so­I've been hearing about the future of NT for the past 2 years, but I was far more impressed by seeing the live demonstrations. I briefly recounted Microsoft's August NT 5.0 update in "NT News Analysis: NT 5.1?" October 1998, but I didn't go into detail. Now that NT 5.0 beta 2 is a reality, users want to know whether Microsoft has addressed their fears and expectations about this new version of NT. Microsoft provided the following NT 5.0 updates at the press briefing.

Bells and Whistles
The press briefing included updates about NT 5.0's new tools and technology. If implemented properly, features such as Active Directory (AD) and Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW) tools promise an improved NT.

AD. To get feedback about how NT 5.0 works in real organizations, Microsoft is working with a group of customers in the Rapid Deployment Program (RDP). As RDP members use NT 5.0, Microsoft is getting a better idea of what users can expect from AD. Margaret Johnson, Microsoft's group program manager, told us that some testers have 1.5 million objects in their AD database. When an attendee asked whether 1.5 million objects will be sufficient for large corporations, Johnson gave an example of a Fortune 50 corporation whose AD requires only 200,000 objects to represent its entire enterprise.

Although the average enterprise won't have as many domains under NT 5.0 as it has under NT 4.0, many corporations will maintain multiple domains for two of the same reasons why firms currently have multiple domains­politics and cost. Some organizations will want their domains separate from the domains of the rest of the enterprise. Other organizations will choose to treat geographical regions as separate domains because of the potential cost of replicating directory information over expensive international communications lines.

The AD briefing offered other interesting tidbits. AD updates between different geographical sites will be possible via Exchange Server. Exchange Server won't immediately use AD, but NT 5.0 will ship with a bidirectional directory-synchronization tool that will let an administrator update user information either in a user's Exchange Server account or in a user's AD account. The directory-synchronization tool will update the information in the other directory.

NT 5.0 will also include a tool that lets you reshape the AD tree. This tool will be useful: Clicking and dragging organizational units (OUs) beats rebuilding domains and reestablishing trust relationships any day. However, the tool's user interface (UI) needs some work­when I moved two OUs from one part of the tree to another, the system generated three "Are you sure?" dialog boxes.

ZAW tools. Keeping users from crashing their systems will be easier with NT 5.0's ZAW tools. Authors will digitally sign their NT drivers. You can set three levels of security for loading drivers. In the loosest mode, any driver will load. Alternatively, you can set your system to give you a warning if you try to load an unsigned driver. In the pickiest mode, your system will refuse to load an unsigned driver.

Have you ever had users call you after they've erased tons of data from the winnt directory? These calls will become less frequent with NT 5.0: When users open the winnt directory, they will get a message that says something like, "You probably don't want to mess around with these files, so go away." For the determined user, however, a Show Files button will bring up a normal folder view. (For a ZAW update, see "NT 5.0 TCO/ZAW Update," page 157.)

Setup. As I reported in October, the SysPrep tool will simplify workstation cloning. This tool lets you create one prebuilt image and then distribute it to new systems. SysPrep's limitation is that it can distribute images only to machines with the same disk controller as the original image's system.

Additionally, NT will finally come with a safe boot mode. This mode lets you choose at boot time to boot either to a simplified graphical mode (much like the safe mode in Windows 98 and Win95) or to a command prompt, which lets you copy files to and from the system. The system uses an environment variable to signal that it is in safe mode, which makes it easier for applications or batch programs to modify their behavior when running on a system in safe mode.

If you have ever tried to perform an unattended installation of NT, you will like the new and improved NT 5.0 Setup Manager. Although NT 4.0 Setup's unattended installation option offers flexibility, figuring out how to use the option can be challenging. (For more information about unattended installations see Inside Out, August 1998 through October 1998.) If you want to tap the hidden power of unattended installations, you must figure out how to create and use the $OEM$ directory­a challenge for which Setup Manager for NT 4.0 offers no help. In contrast, Setup Manager for NT 5.0 makes using $OEM$'s power a matter of pointing and clicking. With Setup Manager for NT 5.0, you can specify that an NT machine automatically log on to a particular user account when it powers up. And one old NT 4.0 bugbear, unattended installations of audio drivers, is simple with NT 5.0.

UI. Win95 was the first Microsoft operating system (OS) that freed users from the look and feel of Windows 1.0 through Windows 3.0. Win95 introduced many good features from the Macintosh, OS/2, and other GUIs. With each subsequent OS release, Microsoft has tweaked the UI a bit, trying to find a balance between clutter and ease of use. Users who feel that the clutter is winning will find NT 5.0's new File Open dialog box interesting. This dialog box will have a vertical toolbar on its left side (like the toolbar in Outlook) that points to folders in which a user is likely to place data. The toolbar contains an icon for My Documents and My Network Places, but it does not include an icon for the Temp directory. Why include the Temp directory? Suppose Joe sends a document to Jane with Outlook Express. When Jane receives the document as a mail attachment, she double-clicks it to view and modify it. After modifying it, she saves it. But, when she wants to send the document back to Joe, where is the document? Outlook Express puts attachments in the Temp directory.

My Network Places combines Network Neighborhood, a Remote Access Service (RAS) phonebook, and a place to store shortcuts to commonly accessed drive shares. It also includes a wizard to guide you through creating a new mapped drive. My Network Places, with Distributed File System (DFS), simplifies using file shares under NT 5.0.

Control Panel looks very different in NT 5.0. It's lost quite a bit of its functionality. Many NT administrators regularly use the Services applet in NT 4.0, but NT 5.0 doesn't include that applet. You right-click My Computer and select Manage to reach a program that lets you control services. Have you ever made a change to a Registry entry, then needed to stop and immediately start a service before those Registry changes took effect? Waiting for a service to stop before you can click Start is tedious. In addition to being able to start, stop, pause, and resume services, with NT 5.0 you can restart a service with one click.

Multiprocessor support. Under the hood, NT 5.0's kernel (i.e., its internal machinery) is largely unchanged, except for its multiprocessor support. One speaker talked at great length about the combination of tweaks and major plumbing revisions that will make NT 5.0 better at exploiting multiple processors. NT 5.0 will support more RAM than NT 4.0: 64GB for systems equipped with Intel Xeon processors, and 32GB for Alpha systems (i.e., Xeon and Alpha chipsets only; NT 5.0 will still restrict other chipsets to 4GB). Many users know that NT 5.0 will grab a lot of memory for its disk cache, but they might not know that the amount of RAM the system allocates for disk cache will rise from a maximum of 512MB under NT 4.0 to 960MB under NT 5.0.

JobObject. JobObject is a built-in tool that lets you tell the system to automatically shut down a program if it exceeds a certain amount of CPU time or RAM. In the past, I have mistakenly led readers to believe that they can set the JobObject limits via Task Manager. However, at the August briefing Microsoft clarified that JobObject is an API call that is available only to programmers. "But, who knows, we might put something in the resource kit that provides a user interface to JobObject," one program manager told me.

System maintenance. Microsoft hopes NT 5.0 will make it easier to keep systems running. Microsoft will ship service packs in a format that makes them simple to push out over the network. NT 5.0 will include several tools that will simplify identifying memory leaks. And, when blue screens happen, there's an improved dump-analysis tool.

New versions of an OS bring both hope and fear.
The Primary Goal
The presenters discussed NT 5.0 feature updates, but they focused on quality as the most important factor in NT 5.0's success. Many experts wonder whether Microsoft can deliver enterprise OS quality in a product with 27 million-plus lines of code, much of it new. Microsoft is not deaf to this fear: One of the first presentations was a speech solely about quality by Moshe Dunie, Microsoft's vice president of the Windows division. Most participants agreed that although virtually everyone wants NT 5.0 to be a high-quality product, no presentation will convince people of its quality until NT 5.0 actually ships.

Nevertheless, after more than a decade of Microsoft developer briefings, this announcement was the first time I've heard Microsoft identify quality as a major goal. Perhaps NT 5.0 will be the no-bugs version of NT; in any case, it was heartening to hear talk of quality from a firm whose CEO once said that quality will never sell and that features are what make people buy software.

Promises, Promises ...
New OSs bring both hope and fear. You hope the new OS will deliver killer ability. You fear that your existing hardware won't work with the new software and that the product won't live up to the vendor's promises.

Hardware support. A Microsoft product manager speaking about NT 5.0 in late 1996 said that NT 5.0 will use any NT 4.0 driver. As he wryly noted, "We figured out after the NT 3.51-to-NT 4.0 transition that you folks got kind of mad when you couldn't use your old hardware." He was referring to NT 4.0's inability to use disk controller drivers from NT 3.51. He received a round of applause for that line, but the promise behind it remains to be carried out, at least as of NT 5.0 beta 2. The Seattle briefing underscored the same no-new-drivers-will-be-necessary promise, but NT developers revealed the drive issue is not all that simple. Many video drivers and many disk controller drivers will be problem-free. Users won't need to rewrite network card drivers, but their .inf files will need rewriting. At press time, the developers could not be specific about how users will need to modify .inf files. However, if the change involves any complexity, then Microsoft is not exactly correct when it says that NT 5.0 runs with NT 4.0 drivers. Many users don't have the skills to modify .inf files. The developers could not comment about other drivers (i.e., mouse, keyboard, Twain drivers, etc.).

Users have heard for years that Win98 and NT 5.0 will share the Windows Driver Model (WDM), but in August Microsoft speakers revealed that users will need to recompile Win98 drivers for the drivers to work under NT. Recompiling drivers is simple for developers, but most hardware vendors don't ship source code, so unless vendors release NT 5.0 drivers, this mythic Win98 and NT 5.0 driver compatibility is of no value.

Also, if you're thinking about buying a laptop anytime soon, carefully scrutinize prospective machines to be absolutely sure that they support not only the Advanced Power Management (APM) standard that Windows uses, but also Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) standard. NT 5.0 will not support APM, at least not without OEM drivers. Microsoft has been very clear about this information for at least the past 18 months, but ACPI machines are still scarce. Don't assume that because you pay $6000 for a newly released machine, it'll work with NT 5.0. Why is Microsoft so hard-nosed about APM? Because APM is not a very well-defined standard. ACPI, in contrast, is better defined and is therefore easier to support.

Speed. Microsoft managers talked about NT's support of gigabit Ethernet, but NT 5.0's server software and network stacks can't supply more than about 100 megabits per second (Mbps) no matter how fast the hardware is. This fact leads to the obvious question, "Who cares about gigabit Ethernet when you can barely keep 100-megabit Ethernet occupied?" Microsoft technicians claim that NT 5.0's network stacks are capable of delivering an impressive 920Mbps. However, as with many claims about NT 5.0, I'll take this one with a grain of salt until the product is in labs for testing.

Reasons for Optimism
NT 5.0 has entered its third year of full-time development in good shape. Beta 2 is proof that Microsoft is making good on many of its promises. All of the Microsoft speakers seemed genuinely interested in feedback. They are asking, "How can we make this product better?" and, "Is this feature what the buying public needs?" If NT 5.0 succeeds, its success might ultimately result from that interest. NT 5.0's hardware compatibility still needs a lot of work, but Microsoft no doubt has time between now and the NT 5.0 ship date. Cairo doesn't seem so far away anymore!