Historically, Microsoft has written excellent documentation (not counting the flimsy booklets that ship with the software) that explains nearly every aspect of the company's operating systems. When someone asks me how to get up to speed on Windows NT, my first suggestion usually is, "Buy the Resource Kit." If you're not familiar with Microsoft's Resource Kits, think of them as what the manuals should be; from a support perspective, the basic NT documentation (especially in NT 4.0) is inadequate and inefficient. You have to pay extra for the real meat, but it's usually worth every penny.

The latest revision of Microsoft Windows NT Resource Kit ships in two versions: Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 Resource Kit (a book plus CD-ROM, hereafter known as the NT Workstation kit) and Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit (three books plus CD-ROM, hereafter known as the NT Server kit). However, unless you'd rather have a hard copy of the NT Workstation kit, you probably want the NT Server kit because it includes the full text of the NT Workstation kit in hypertext format.

The three books in the NT Server kit are

* Microsoft Windows NT Server Resource Guide: a 300-page book that explains how to deploy, manage, and configure NT Server on a local machine.

* Microsoft Windows NT Server Internet Guide: a new 200-page book that covers the Internet Information Server (IIS) architecture, server security, and troubleshooting information.

* Microsoft Windows NT Server Networking Guide: a large (more than 800 pages) guide that gives a comprehensive look at NT Server's networking architecture. This volume provides much-needed information about poorly documented features such as Remote Access Service (RAS), Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), connecting to NetWare servers, and TCP/IP.

The NT Workstation kit deals mainly with troubleshooting and system optimization. This emphasis is understandable because the target market is administrators of client systems.

The NT Workstation kit is invaluable for troubleshooting: The disk recovery chapter came in handy when the masochist in me had to rebuild a boot.ini file by hand. The performance optimization chapters, especially the chapters on disk and cache bottlenecks, are particularly useful for administrators. The NT Workstation kit also shows how to properly monitor a system for precise and accurate performance results and how to debug a faulty system.

Curiously, the NT Workstation kit doesn't have a chapter on Peer Web Services (PWS). Instead, it includes a table that compares PWS with IIS; a footnote to the table refers to the NT Server kit's Microsoft Windows NT Server Internet Guide.

The downside to the NT Workstation kit is its sketchy treatment of networking; the networking chapter discusses primarily TCP/IP and connecting to the Internet. But the NT Server kit compensates for the NT Workstation kit's shortcoming.

The NT Server kit concentrates on networking issues, almost at the expense of other information. Microsoft Windows NT Server Resource Guide gives enough background information about how NT works so that an administrator can successfully deploy and manage an NT server, but the NT Workstation kit covers the base NT architecture in far greater detail.

Microsoft Windows NT Server Internet Guide is the real star of the ensemble. The book reads like a manual for IIS, but the authors use screen shots, tables, and diagrams to demonstrate how to make your server safe from prying eyes, how to connect your Web pages to a database, and how to track down and eradicate problems.

Finally, Microsoft Windows NT Server Networking Guide is probably the most comprehensive networking information I've seen to date. Want to know how NT's security model works? It's in here. Ever wonder how Microsoft's TCP/IP stack compares with those from other vendors? Full details on NT's TCP/IP implementation is in this book. Want to devise a network deployment plan? The case studies in this guide show how to roll out an NT network with minimal risk. Just sorting through the plethora of information in this huge book will take you weeks.

Because both kits deal with different aspects of the NT system, the two kits overlap very little. Microsoft has revised and rewritten much of the information for NT 4.0, which means you will probably find the kits helpful, even if you already own an older version. For the systems administrator, the kits cover nearly every aspect of NT's operation­ after all, members of the NT development team wrote the books. The authors managed to explain the technical information and package it in an easy-to-read, well-organized format.

Each Resource Kit's companion CD-ROM contains system utilities that were left out of the base NT package. The NT Server kit's CD-ROM not only contains everything on the NT Workstation kit's CD, but also includes more than 30 server-specific utilities. Although the CD-ROMs provide some tools that you install and never use, Microsoft has also thrown in a few gems. For example, the CD-ROMs give you a (beta, but stable) Telnet daemon--something that's conspicuously absent in both NT and IIS--to let you access your resources remotely. If you plan to use Telnet to remotely log on to your machine, you'll be glad to know that the CD-ROM has several command-line tools. The CD-ROM also has command-line Registry tools that let you search and update keys, and it has programs that let you kill processes remotely. NT is not quite UNIX yet, but with these tools, it's getting there.

If you're an NT administrator for one system or for a large network, the NT Resource Kits are an excellent investment. The books are also worth your while if you're preparing to take the Microsoft Certified Professionals test. At about $225 (retail) for both, the NT Resource Kits are a bargain.

Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 Resource Kit

Publisher: Microsoft Press, Redmond, Washington, 1996, ISBN 1-57231-343-9
Price: $69.95, 1408 pages
Microsoft: * 206-882-8080
Web: http://www.microsoft.com/mspress
Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit

Publisher: Microsoft Press, Redmond, Washington, 1996, ISBN 1-57231-344-7
Price: $149.95, three-volume set
Microsoft 206-882-8080
Web: http://www.microsoft.com/mspress