Microsoft's recent announcement that it will enter the embedded systems market with Windows NT surprised the dedicated OS industry. Microsoft had hinted that it might port NT to the embedded space, but industry insiders were doubtful of such a product ever materializing. After all, Microsoft already has an embedded OS—Windows CE.

However, with the announcement of NT Embedded 4.0, it's time to start asking some hard questions. For example, how will Microsoft differentiate NT Embedded from Windows CE? According to company officials, the differentiation is in the feature set and system footprint. In the case of features, Microsoft officials say NT Embedded will be the choice in situations requiring full Win32 support or BackOffice integration. If the situation calls for cramming as much functionality as possible onto a wallet PC device, the logical choice will be Windows CE.

Platform confusion isn't the only concern. Microsoft also must prove NT's suitability for embedded operation. NT is in a state of architectural flux. Major changes are on tap for the Windows 2000 (Win2K—formerly NT 5.0) kernel, and the changes add to the uncertainty surrounding NT's reliability and robustness. And nowhere are reliabilty and robustness more important than the embedded OS space: A failure in a critical system such as a router or LAN/WAN gateway could prove catastrophic.

Another matter is NT's console-centric management architecture. Although Microsoft is promising headless (i.e., no keyboard or mouse) functionality with NT Embedded, many Win32 components still present a dialog box on the server's console. This fact is especially true with Visual Basic (VB) applications. Errant dialogs can stop remotely managed NT servers in their tracks. Microsoft's ability to deal with these concerns will affect NT Embedded's success.

Despite the challenges, NT Embedded should be a welcome addition to the Microsoft OS lineup. Enterprise IS professionals will welcome the ability to leverage investments in Win32 programming knowledge and experience across a new class of systems. In addition, IS professionals will appreciate the simplified manageability that stems from a common computing platform. Still, Microsoft has to prove that NT is ready for key embedded systems roles. One market in particular that Microsoft has identified as a potential NT Embedded target is the one for medical equipment. The infamous phrase "blue screen of death" takes on a whole new meaning when mentioned within the context of a lifesaving medical device.

Two crucial developments in PC server hardware will break barriers in 1999. The first development is the availability of 8-way symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) systems based on Intel's Profusion interconnect architecture. The second development is the move away from standard PCI-based I/O and toward more robust solutions, such as Intel's proposed Next Generation I/O (NGIO) for Servers.

Profusion will correct the problems of earlier 8-way solutions. Before Profusion, the best that you could expect from Windows NT-equipped 8-way database servers was average transactional throughput of 16,000 transactions per minute (tpm) as measured by the Transaction Processing Council (TPC). Limitations in the underlying interconnect architecture, which was mostly Axil Northbridge-based, and an emphasis on Pentium Pro-based designs were partly responsible for this performance.

The current generation of 4-way Pentium II Xeon processors had better results as measured by the TPC. Recently, HP's NetServer LXr 8000 broke through the 20,000tpm barrier for the first time under NT and SQL Server 7.0. If a 4-way Xeon system can perform at this level under NT 4.0, chances are good that we'll see throughput in the upper 20,000 range with these chips on the highly optimized (for Pentium II Xeon) Profusion architecture.

Of course, bigger boxes need more robust I/O. The NGIO model incorporates a new, fabric-based channel design that in theory will allow throughput of up to 10Gbps. NGIO also provides improved fault tolerance because devices are isolated and can't hang the bus the way PCI or ISA devices often do. Combined with Profusion, NGIO will help Intel-based servers challenge at least the midrange of the RISC server performance at price and performance levels that UNIX systems can't touch.

When NT-based servers fail to perform, most experts blame the OS. However, a lack of x86-based hardware scalability is also a factor. Now, with 4-way Xeon systems challenging the performance levels of Sun Microsystems' Enterprise and Ultra Enterprise boxes, you will be able to consider NT-based systems for high-throughput transactional applications. More important, these NT systems will approach UNIX-level performance for a fraction of the cost (as measured in dollars per tpm) of a traditional RISC system.

The future of NGIO, however, is harder to predict. Although Intel is committed to the specification, at least one major server hardware vendor, Compaq, has yet to endorse it. Compaq officials are leaning toward supporting the proprietary PCI-x architecture Compaq has been developing with HP and IBM. PCI-x will arrive earlier than NGIO—in the second half of 1999 vs. mid-2000 for the Intel specification--so PCI-x has an opportunity to establish itself as a bridge solution between current PCI designs and NGIO. Still, NGIO isn't going away. Switched fabric holds a performance and reliability advantage over the traditional PC bus.

Organizations eager to roll out Windows 2000 (Win2K—formerly Windows NT 5.0) will soon get what they want when several major PC vendors offer a preloaded beta version as an option with new systems purchases. Dell Computer, Micron, and HP have announced such plans, and rumor has IBM and Hitachi PC considering similar efforts. However, Microsoft hasn't formally announced support for the preloading of Win2K beta 3.

The programs that include the beta OS are a result of Microsoft's Win2K Ready program, a new logo and certification initiative designed to smooth the transition to the new OS by providing guidelines for compatible hardware. The idea is to give hardware customers early access to Win2K, which sounds great in theory. In practice, however, this approach could be a compatibility and product-support disaster. Without Microsoft's endorsement, vendors are acting independently of the OS's developer. This situation creates problems with product support.

Microsoft has never offered frontline support for prerelease software. Although Dell, Micron, and HP say they plan to directly support customers who choose the preloaded beta, such efforts usually fall short of the mark. Even with the Microsoft OS development team's direct support, which these vendors don't have, supporting an unfinished OS is simply too difficult.

Licensing is another concern. Will customers pay to license a beta product? Dell is leaning toward charging as much for the beta OS as for the full preload price for NT 4.0. However, with a few exceptions (notably those companies participating in certain Microsoft Select programs), the upgrade from NT 4.0 to Win2K will not be free.

Beta preloading programs aren't good for the customer or the vendor. No clear means of support is available, and the customer will encounter the inevitable bugs. Members of the core Win2K beta program will receive updated builds that correct problems discovered in beta 3. Customers who acquire the beta through preloading won't have this benefit. Without a direct line of support from Microsoft, these customers have no established means to get bug fixes. They're stuck until the final product ships and they receive their free upgrades—if they're lucky. IS professionals concerned with retaining their sanity (and their employment) will stick to the policy of isolated pilot programs and comprehensive regression testing.

As organizations gear up for Windows 2000 (Win2K—formerly Windows NT 5.0), IS planners are weighing their options for hardware upgrades. Win2K will present many new hardware possibilities, with support for cutting-edge technologies such as Universal Serial Bus (USB), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)-1394, and I2O.

One new option is the ability to exploit 2-way symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) at the desktop. Previously, organizations were limited to single-processor deployments under the dominant Windows platform, Windows 95. Although some organizations deployed the SMP-aware NT Workstation 4.0, few tapped its 2-way processing potential, mostly because of a lack of compelling performance data justifying the cost of more expensive SMP-capable hardware.

However, recent events are making 2-way desktop SMP feasible. Dell Computer decided late last year to ship a dual-CPU-capable desktop system (the Precision 210 Workstation) at a price point comparable to single-CPU designs available from competitors Compaq and IBM. Then, IS research reports, which Intel sponsored in part, presented current and projected NT performance characteristics across a variety of single- and dual-processor desktop configurations.

These test results showed that the presence of a second CPU improved performance under load and reduced the impact of background OS overhead on foreground application throughput by more than 60 percent. The user recaptured two-thirds of the performance that typically would have been lost to the OS and related components.

Suddenly, the benefits of SMP technology aren't restricted to the power-user elite. Independent testing shows that NT coupled with a 2-way SMP-capable desktop system can compensate for the effects of application and OS code bloat. The technology is a hedge against OS inflation.

A second CPU's ability to offset the burden of increasingly complex operating environments is a benefit of moving to an all-NT-based computing infrastructure. You've watched top-of-the-line gigaboxes slow to a crawl under layers of GUI elements and network services and agents. Desktop SMP can reduce some of that burden, returning some of the performance we had lost to OS evolution and potentially extending the life cycle of our PC purchases by at least 12 months.

Enterprise IS planners welcome this development. Many planners are struggling to reconcile standard 3-year depreciation cycles against the 18- to 24-month cycle of obsolescence, which is characteristic of new PCs. With major workstation vendors such as Dell producing SMP-capable (single-CPU equipped) systems at price points comparable to traditional uniprocessor PCs, organizations don't need to buy any new box with fewer than two CPU slots, even if they're only using one of those slots today.

You will reap the benefits in the years following the initial purchase, when the retail purchase price for the second CPU has dropped. Then, an upgrade to 2-way SMP becomes an economical way to gain a 20 to 30 percent performance boost under Win2K.

—Randall C. Kennedy

Market consolidation is a fact of life for many Web server vendors. Once dominant, Apache now clings to an 8-point market share lead (36 percent vs. 28 percent) over Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), although Apache is an Open Source (i.e., freeware) product. Netscape's Enterprise Server trails at 19 percent. This data comes from a recent SiteMetrics survey of more than 53,000 domain name owners. Additionally, SiteMetrics surveyed about 4300 corporate entities. In that group, Netscape still holds a slim lead over IIS and Apache.

However, the survey didn't establish the underlying OS platform in use with these products. UNIX or Linux is the foundation for most Apache installations, but both Netscape Enterprise and IIS can run on Windows NT (Netscape also runs on Linux and various flavors of UNIX). Although Microsoft might not own the Web server market, its software probably accounts for more than the total IIS-based sites.

This point is important for a few reasons. Microsoft makes most of its Web platform-related money in OS sales. IIS is a free giveaway to any organization purchasing NT Server, and thus isn't a source of revenue. So regardless of which Web server platform users ultimately deploy—IIS or the NT version of Netscape Enterprise Server—Microsoft wins.

Microsoft continues to take the long view of the Web server market share. Although IIS is gaining on the leaders in both the general Internet category and the high-end business category, more administrators are using NT as a Web serving platform, regardless of the Web server they deploy.

Eventually, Microsoft will be able to leverage this position to its advantage. The tight integration of IIS, COM+, and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) in Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server—formerly NT Server 5.0) and Win2K Advanced Server (Win2K AS—formerly NT 5.0, Enterprise Edition) represents Microsoft's greatest asset among all of its Web platform competitors.

The trend toward using NT as a Web serving platform is encouraging for Microsoft customers if they invested heavily in Microsoft Web technologies; however, the news isn't good if you're on a different Web server platform and want to continue to use your current technology on Windows NT/2000. Over time, ignoring the intrinsic-value case for Microsoft's bundled solution will be hard, and IS planners might be at odds with corporate finance over the cost of Web server software. Such costs become increasingly difficult to justify when a comparable product is already built into your OS.

What do you do when you encounter a tough problem with Windows NT Server, Small Business Server (SBS), or any other Microsoft product? The answer depends on the company you work for. If you're on the payroll of a large Microsoft Certified Solution Provider (MCSP), you probably have a well-defined escalation procedure. If you work for a small Value Added Provider (VAP) or are the most senior person on staff, you have to be more resourceful. Perhaps your toolkit includes a Microsoft TechNet subscription, or you make frequent trips to the Microsoft Support search wizards. You might even open a $195 incident with Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS).

Microsoft Direct Access is offering free newsgroup-based support to all VAPs. Nigel Burton, Microsoft's director of VAP programs, said in a recent interview that resellers "can raise questions about small-business products, especially SBS and NT Server. You'll receive a response from a Microsoft engineer unless a peer has already answered the question. We've been shooting for a response time of a few hours, but advertising the intention of the same day."

I have used the newsgroups about a dozen times. Burton's goals for response time have been on target, in my experience. I had answers within a few hours, even when I've used newsgroups at night. I received replies to most of my questions within the 24-hour window. Although the Direct Access support engineers didn't have a concrete solution every time, they suggested troubleshooting strategies or recommended a Microsoft article.

Most of the newsgroup users haven't been shy about posting their successes or failures with the recommended strategies and article citations. These postings demonstrate VAP satisfaction.

Ten live newsgroups are available. NT Server, SBS, and BackOffice seem to get the most traffic. However, forums are also dedicated to Exchange Server, Year 2000 (Y2K) concerns, SQL Server, and Office.

To configure your Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP)-compliant newsreader, point your server name to Log on using account DirectAccess and the password channel.

—Josh Feinberg

The skill, perseverance, patience, and creativity of systems administrators, network administrators, and security professionals directly affects the productivity of every computer user in organizations from the smallest one-site company to the largest global enterprise. As organizations have added computers over the past few years for enterprise resource planning (ERP), email, e-commerce, scientific analysis, and general office productivity, the relentless law of supply and demand has pushed systems, network, and security administrator salaries higher and higher. According to the SANS Institute's SANS System, Network, and Security Administration Survey, the average increase in salaries that almost 7000 respondents in the United States reported was 11.93 percent more than in the past year. (For more information about the survey, send an email message to Enter Salary Survey in the Subject field.) The northeastern and southwestern parts of the United States continue to be the technological salary hotbeds. Here are some of the highlights from the survey. (See "About the Survey" for a description of the administrators who responded to the survey.)

Seventy-five percent of the administrators reported 1998 salaries between $40,000 and $89,999. Table 1 shows the salary breakdowns. The average systems administrator's salary is $60,991. Independent consultants reported salaries $22,000 higher than their contractor counterparts. Contractors, in turn, reported salaries $10,000 higher than salaried employees.

Results of the survey show that experience and education count in the workplace. People with fewer than 6 years of experience have incomes that average at least $10,000 less than average, but administrators with 20 or more years of experience average $10,000 or more above average. Administrators with a master's degree reported salaries $5000 greater than average, but those with less education reported salaries that are less than average.

Data from the survey also concluded that frontline managers appear to earn more money for each subordinate they manage. Those who manage many people (e.g., second-line managers and those who manage huge numbers on the front line) don't do as well.

People managing more types of computers made more money. More than 88 percent of the administrators surveyed reported that they didn't work in homogeneous computer environments. Amazingly, significant salary differences occur among those who concentrate on different OSs. For example, Solaris administrators reported salaries $5000 above average, and Windows NT administrators reported salaries $2000 below average.

Although women's salaries continue to trail men's salaries for administrators with more than 5 years of experience, women's salaries have caught up with and surpassed those of men for respondents with fewer than 5 years of experience. Consulting, systems integration, and finance continue to be the highest paying industries for administrators. According to the survey, the best places in the United States to make the best wage as an administrator are the Southwest (including California) and the Northeast.

The average reported raise among administrators was 11.9 percent. Men reported raises of 12.1 percent versus women at 10.2 percent. Table 2 shows a breakdown of salary increases by gender. Systems administrators reported raises of 11.9 percent; network administrators reported 12.1 percent; security administrators reported 11.7 percent. Apparently, some wage compression by age occurred: People with more than 10 years of administrative experience received generally smaller raises than those with fewer years of experience. However, very highly paid workers received raises that were, on average, higher than the raises that below-average-salary earners received.

—Alan Paller