A year into the life of Windows 2000, the report card for Microsoft's "bet the company" OS is decidedly mixed: Win2K Professional is a huge hit, and Win2K Server rollouts are now gaining steam. But Active Directory (AD) and Datacenter Server rollouts have been much slower than anticipated. This week, I'll evaluate what Microsoft did right and where it failed with its first truly competitive, enterprise-ready OS.
Microsoft's Windows product line, of course, faces a perception problem. Although Windows has been wildly popular—Bill Gates recently referred to Windows as the "most successful software product of all time"—most people still use the Windows 9x line, which is notable for blue screens, crashes, and sudden reboots. With Windows NT, Microsoft had a chance to start over and "get it right," and indeed, most NT advocates will tell you that the company did get it right. However, the NT product line has faltered at some points, with support for various platforms being dropped over time so that NT became an Intel-only solution just like Win9x. And of course, Microsoft dropped the "NT" moniker for Win2K, feeling that the Windows name was more important than NT. We'll be debating that decision for the next decade, but I find it telling that Microsoft's current ads for Win2K show a Win9x blue screen and explain that Win2K isn't the same.
Regardless, with Win2K, Microsoft took the long-planned step of merging the NT kernel—or "Windows Engine" as it's now called—with a number of features that had long eluded NT, such as true Plug-and-Play (PnP) support, a scalable directory services architecture, and a number of other often-requested business-oriented features. But Microsoft might have reached a bit too high with this release: Although the company eventually dropped plans to produce a consumer-oriented version of Win2K (because it didn't have time to add the hardware and software compatibility features consumers would expect), Win2K took more than 3 years to complete, an eon in the Internet age. And because the aging NT 4.0 chugged along during this time with nary an upgrade, Microsoft might have lost both mind share and true market share during a critical period of dot-com growth.
When Win2k was about half completed, my voice was among many asking for an "NT 4.5" release, an interim version of NT that would include everything from Win2K except for the IntelliMirror and AD features. I still think that Microsoft should have taken this approach and released an OS in 1998 that would have met most of its customers' needs. Instead, Microsoft trudged slowly toward a product with a huge and complex feature set. What was eventually released was literally as good as Microsoft said it was. But Win2K—especially AD—is hard to master, and enterprises must spend a lot of time evaluating the OS and training folks to implement it. The results are much what I had predicted: Enterprises rolled out Win2K Pro on desktops and laptops immediately, but held off on Win2K Server and AD. What I didn't anticipate was that when the server rollouts finally began, AD would be left by the wayside.
I spoke with representatives from various companies that have performed Win2K rollouts, most notably Hewlett-Packard (HP), a close Microsoft partner with a Microsoft service operation that exists almost independently under the wider HP umbrella. As a global organization, HP offers a vital look at Win2K's health and the ways in which real companies are implementing Microsoft's latest release. According to HP, Win2K deployments are solid, with the introduction of accessory servers, such as Exchange Server 2000, providing a nice incentive to upgrade. The expected lag of rollouts before the release of Win2K Service Pack 1 (SP1), I'm told, never happened. But in the first half of 2000, most Win2K deployments were of Win2K Pro, not Win2K Server. According to HP, enterprises were waiting to hear whether Microsoft had delivered as promised.
"Reality has set in after the Win2K honeymoon," says Dave Stubbs, general manager of HP's Microsoft Service Operation. "We've seen a good interest and a fair number of OS deployments. Fully 20 percent of IT departments worldwide have deployed Win2K Server now. But people got Win2K Pro out there first. IDC predicted Win2K Server installations will more than triple in Q1 2001, and we think that's accurate, because customers are more confident about their deployment abilities."
Building this confidence, of course, took time. Stubbs told me that existing enterprises tend to take 6 to 8 weeks to evaluate Win2K, followed by a short period during which final conclusions are drawn up. Using rapid deployment solutions from Microsoft partners, corporations can often be up and running 90 days after that. But of course, many smaller and new companies choose to implement Win2K inhouse. These companies find that rolling out a Win2K infrastructure can be daunting, with AD often the sticking point.
"AD is the big feature in Win2K," Stubbs said. "A lot of organizations are putting off AD deployment at this time. Brand new businesses are often going with AD, but existing NT-based domains are staying put, with NT 4.0 servers and domains. It's a significant project to deploy AD and most people just don't have the skills. So far, uptake on AD has been quite a bit less than Microsoft anticipated."
On the high-end, Microsoft's scalability message is finally taking root in worlds that were previously dominated by big iron. Reliability is much less of an issue with Win2K Server, which has been notable for its lack of high-visibility horror stories. Enterprises with serious reliability and uptime needs were skeptical early on, but now, a year later, Microsoft has largely won these people over. Enterprises actually trust the scalability and reliability of Windows, and this trust might very well be the company's biggest Win2K achievement.
"The management benefits are real," Stubbs said. "With Win2K, enterprises are stemming the Intel server spread, because they need a smaller number of larger servers to do the same job; we've seen reductions on a 3 to 1 ratio overall. Win2K is a better managed environment that lets enterprises achieve control of their Intel environments for the first time and reduce costs for their overall structure."
For Microsoft's Datacenter product, the results are mixed. This high-end solution isn't selling as well as anticipated, but much of the reason is that most customers don't need it; Win2K Advanced Server can service them more effectively. And Datacenter deployments tend to be more grueling: HP reports that 6-month evaluations are common, so we might not see wider Datacenter rollouts until later in 2001. "The speed of the Datacenter rollouts didn't surprise HP," Stubbs told me. "Even for someone committed to \[rolling out Datacenter\], it's a very serious undertaking. We'll see large-scale financial institutions and governments rolling out Datacenter this year."
One interesting Datacenter deployment involves Ragnarok, a financial application service provider (ASP) startup that rolled out Datacenter 4-node clusters, based on 8-way machines, with 1TB of storage. "We're on the cutting edge," says Ragnarok Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Chris Thomas. "This comes down to technology and the ability to deliver a redundant and highly-scalable transactional platform that adapts in realtime to our clients' business models at market-beating costs." Ragnarok's operation is built on HP NetServer servers and Surestore disk arrays.
Finally, looking forward to Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler), how will Microsoft sell today's product while building excitement for the next generation, which is right around the corner? Given the impending Windows XP release, Win2K might have a significantly shorter shelf life than it did development time. "Enterprises don't want to move that quickly, and Whistler isn't going to make them change their plans," Stubbs says. "They want something stable, and Win2K has that right now. People running data centers want a predictable platform, not the latest thing. Windows XP is a rolling challenge, and we'll see how it fits in. But really, it's just a marketing challenge for Microsoft."
So Microsoft has delivered on the Win2K promise, at the cost of time to market. As Microsoft executives noted in discussions with me last week, no one will remember a delay if the product arrives and is reliable, stable, and does what's expected. But with challengers from all sides chipping away at Windows, the future is hard to predict for the most solid product the company has ever built. Microsoft has proven that it can build a rock-solid, scalable solution. Whether that's enough in this fast-moving industry remains to be seen.
Next week, I'll revisit the world of wireless networking, which many readers found to be a hot topic, and introduce the laptop of the month, the Gateway Solo 3350.