X Window Emulators Open Doors to UNIX Systems

The graphical X Window System can be found in a wide variety of commercial settings, but it is most often found in technical, scientific, and manufacturing environments. X Window applications have become so commonplace that to introduce a workstation (or workstation operating system) into an organization, it must be able to run X Window applications. This review looks at the following X Window products for Windows NT: eXceed by Hummingbird Communications, eXalt by Intergraph Corporation, Reflection X by Walker Richer & Quinn, Inc. (WRQ), and XoftWare/32 by AGE Logic.

History of X
The X Window user interface is a simple, easy-to-use graphical interface that is similar to the graphical application interfaces provided by Windows, Windows NT, and Macintosh System 7. The specifications for the X Window System were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under Project Athena. These specifications were subsequently handed over to the non-profit X Consortium, which now maintains ownership and distribution rights.

The current version of the X Window specifications is "11" (hence, the nickname "X11"). They have undergone a number of revisions. For example, X11R3 refers to the third revision, X11R5 to the fifth, and X11R6 to the sixth (and current) revision. The revisions are, for the most part, backward-compatible, although there are a few bugs with X11R3 that are outside the specifications.

The X11 specifications describe fonts, window controls, and client/server interactions that allow it to operate across platforms and UNIX implementations. Despite the breadth of these specifications, however, some UNIX vendors have added proprietary extensions to their X11 implementations (just as they have with UNIX). For example, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Digital Equipment, and IBM have each developed proprietary X tools that use custom fonts. As a result, some X programs are not compatible across platforms.

An important part of X11 is the Window Manager, a software module responsible for the appearance and control of individual X Window programs in the display area. More than two dozen Window Managers have been developed for X11. Some of the more common ones are the Universal Window Manager (UWM), the Tab Window Manager (TWM--an earlier version of TWM was called Tom's Window Manager), and the Motif Window Manager (MWM). Most Window Managers are public-domain products, although some UNIX vendors have developed proprietary Window Managers. These include HP's HP VUE, Digital's DECwindows, and IBM's AIXwindows.

The proprietary extensions result in situations where an X Window product can run the full range of "standard" X11 programs but may not be able to run mission-critical X programs that depend on proprietary extensions. Consider this a word of caution, and make sure you can achieve the interoperability you need when you choose X Window software.

X in the Lab
Terminology is often a stumbling block when dealing with the X Window System. In particular, the system that is displaying the X application is called a "server," and the system where the binary program for the X application resides (and actually runs) is called the "client." Under the X terminology, an X Window terminal, for example, is really a server. Keeping this in mind, you might find it easier to think of products called "X Servers" as X Window terminal emulators.

The X Window server products I ran through the lab had several common operating requirements and features. For example, all the products ran as native Windows NT applications (no underlying services were installed), and all of them required an SVGA display subsystem configured for 256-color support (or better). More importantly, all of these products shared two key capabilities:

  • The ability to run X Window programs on the NT desktop--Each X Window program appears in a standard NT window and supports standard NT controls.
  • The ability to run X Window programs in a single NT window--You must access that specific NT window to access the individual X Window programs running in it.

Running X Window programs on the NT desktop offers the most natural fit with the NT environment. The X Window programs support the same controls as normal Windows programs, and, in more general terms, have the same look and feel as native NT programs. This approach also provides the best performance.

The performance advantage of using the NT desktop for X programs is based on running them under a single NT window. For most of the products, you must run a remote Window Manager (e.g., TWM, UWM, MWM, etc.) to manage the X programs that will display in the single window. (One product I reviewed, Hummingbird's eXceed, provides an optional local Window Manager for handling the single window environment, but unfortunately that's the exception--not the rule.)

When a remote Window Manager is used, every mouse click and control option is handled remotely. This often delivers less than ideal performance. Still, if you need to create an X Window environment that looks and acts exactly like it does on a UNIX system, this is really your only choice.

The two major areas where the X Window software products differ are in how X Window programs are launched on a remote system and how X Window fonts are handled. The second topic, fonts, is actually a broad one that addresses which fonts are included, how they are stored, and what proprietary fonts, if any, are included.

Finally, all the products I reviewed share one common oversight--program launching is blind. In other words, none of the products displays any error messages generated by the remote system in response to font incompatibilities, command errors, or incorrect parameters, although some do include a simple progress monitor. For this reason, you might want to use Microsoft's Telnet or Remote Shell (RSH) facility until you get the hang of command initiation--you don't really have to use a product's launch facility to start X programs.

The following reviews give brief reports of my experiences with each product in the lab. For product comparisons, see the table on page 62.

Contact Information
eXceed v4.1.1
Requirements: Windows NT Server or Workstation
Contact: Hummingbird Communications, Ltd.
Phone: 416-496-2200
Web: http://www.hummingbird.com
Price: $545

eXalt v1.1
Requirements: Windows NT Server or Workstation
Contact: Intergraph Corp.
Phone: 800-291-9909; 205-730-5499
Email: info@intergraph.com
Web: http://www.intergraph.com
Price: $500

Reflection X for Windows v5.0 Beta 2
Requirements: Windows NT Server or Workstation
Contact: Walker Richer & Quinn, Inc. (WRQ)
Phone: 800-872-2920; 206-217-7100
Web: http://www.wrq.com
Price: $469

XoftWare/32 for Windows v4.0 Beta (July '95)
Requirements: Windows NT Server or Workstation
Contact: AGE Logic
Phone: 619-755-1000
Email: sales@age.com
Web: http://www.age.com
Price: $495

eXceed v4.1.1
The installation of eXceed was a little more complicated than installing the other products because eXceed can be located on a local disk, on a network server, or on a combination of the two. The installation process also tests the performance of your display subsystem and gives you the opportunity to password-protect the configuration module. I tested eXceed's commercial version 4.1.1 and encountered no problems. Screen 1 shows the two program groups created by the installation process.

The X program-launch facility in eXceed supports initiation via RSH, REXEC, and RLOGIN. The basic facility is a dialog that allows you to store your individual launch commands (Screen 2). You can access it from the program group or from the X Server Control Panel when it's operating in single-window mode. Alternatively, eXceed supports a session-launch facility where the server software and multiple X programs can be started simultaneously. However, Hummingbird does not provide a monitoring interface to track the status of program initiation.

eXceed contains the standard X11 fonts, optional HP fonts, Digital fonts, the Andrew Consortium toolkit fonts, and generic PC fonts as NT TrueType font files (.FON). A font-conversion tool is also provided, as is support for a font server. Based on my lab tests, eXceed provides excellent font compatibility and is one of only two products that could run the lab's favorite legacy HP calculator tool--the other is WRQ's Reflection X.

Bottom line: Hummingbird's eXceed is a top-of-the-line X Server product loaded with extra features and functions. It's the only product I reviewed that offers a local Window Manager for the single-window environment. Hummingbird also offers several companion products for eXceed that enable remote X access and X program development under NT.

eXalt v1.1
Installation of eXalt was very simple and resulted in the program group shown in Screen 3. A remove command is included so the program can be uninstalled later. I tested commercial version 1.1 of eXalt and encountered some minor problems. For example, when I was running the X11R3 MWM, I experienced a ghosting of 3D effects when controls were selected and deselected. I encountered no problems when running X programs on the NT desktop.

The launch utility in eXalt is activated from the program group or from the X Server Control Panel when it is operating in single-window mode. The launch utility provides a simple dialog to select the host, user information, and the remote X program command (see Screen 4). A history of information is maintained, allowing you to re-launch programs fairly easily. Programs can be launched via RSH or REXEC, but there is no launch monitor.

Intergraph's eXalt includes the standard X11 fonts in X11 Portable Compiled Format (.PCF) files. Additional font packs can be purchased from Intergraph. Alternatively, .PCF fonts, Bitmap Distribution Format (.BDF) fonts, and Speedo (.SPD) fonts can be imported and used by eXalt as is; no conversion utility is needed (or provided). The program also supports a font server.

Bottom line: Intergraph's eXalt is a bare-bones X Server implementation that pales in comparison to competitive offerings. The most appealing feature of eXalt is its ability to directly support the .PCF and .BDF X11 font formats--no conversion process is required. I recommend that you wait and look at the next release of eXalt (2.0), which should be available by the time you read this.

Reflection X for Windows v5.0 Beta 2
Reflection X is easy to install and the installation process includes some of the finest images of northwest American mountains I've seen. Unfortunately, no uninstall utility exists, and if you need to remove this product, you will have to do it manually. By the time you read this, the final version of Reflection X v5.0 should be on the market. I reviewed a beta copy and encountered no errors during my tests. Screen 5 shows the program group contents after installation.

Reflection X includes a client-launch dialog that allows you to start remote X programs using RSH, REXEC, RLOGIN, or Telnet (see Screen 6). Each command can be stored in a file for subsequent recall, making it easy to re-launch programs later. This facility is available from the Reflection X program group or directly from the X Server module when it's running in single-window mode. It also includes an optional monitor that provides progress reports on the steps taken in launching a program.

In terms of fonts, Reflection X provided the standard X11 fonts, Asian fonts, and a variety of HP, Digital, and IBM fonts. All the fonts are provided as NT TrueType (.FON) files. If additional fonts are needed, Reflection X includes a font-conversion utility and supports a font server. Based on my lab tests, Reflection X provided the best overall font compatibility and was one of only two products that could run the lab's favorite HP calculator tool--the other is Hummingbird's eXceed.

Bottom line: WRQ's Reflection X is a fully functional, highly compatible, and easy-to-use X Server product that includes extra fonts to support many of the proprietary X tools developed by HP, Digital, and IBM. One unusual feature of Reflection X is its ability to support a remote Window Manager for X programs running on the Windows desktop--the programs take on the attributes of the remote Window Manager even though they are running on Windows. WRQ's solid history of developing terminal emulation and connectivity software for the HP, Digital, and IBM markets really shows in this product.

XoftWare/32 for Windows v4.0 Beta (July '95)
XoftWare/32 includes slick installation software with lots of gauges and indicators to assure you that the product is installing correctly. XoftWare/32 also comes with an uninstall facility, providing a painless means of removing the product. The final version of XoftWare/32 v4.0 should be on the market by the time you read this. I reviewed a beta version and encountered no serious errors during my tests. Screen 7 shows the XoftWare/32 program group contents after installation

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XoftWare/32's launch facility is embedded in its Control Panel program (see Screen 8). This Control Panel is contained in the XoftWare/32 program group and can be accessed from the X Server module when it's running in single-window mode. Note that this Control Panel is totally unrelated to the NT Control Panel.

At first, not being able to access a launch facility from an icon seemed awkward, but it turns out that XoftWare/32 automatically stores each launch command as its own Program Manager icon. This could be a boon in many environments because it eliminates the need to interact with a dialog to re-launch X programs. The launch facility supports RSH, REXEC, RLOGIN, and Telnet. It also includes an optional monitor that provides launch progress reports.

XoftWare/32 includes the standard X11 fonts, Kanji fonts, as well as Digital, HP-ISO, and HP Roman8 fonts for compatibility with proprietary X programs. All fonts are provided in NT TrueType format (.FON). Additional fonts can be supported via a font server or by converting fonts using the included font-conversion utility.

Bottom line: AGE's XoftWare/32 is a versatile X Server with extra fonts to support many legacy HP and Digital X tools. The ability to launch clients directly from Program Manager icons allows XoftWare/32 a high degree of integration with the NT environment.

Closing the X Files
My lab experiences with these X servers led to several interesting observations. First, and most important, Windows NT proves to be a more than adequate operating environment for X server software. If you ever had the (mis)fortune of running X server software in the 16-bit Windows environment, you owe it to yourself to at least look at X server software running under NT. The performance difference is dramatic to the extreme.

Second, I found that the best fit, the best feel, and the best overall performance was always achieved by running X Window applications in native windows on the NT desktop. Although this requires that you sacrifice the look and feel of an X11 Window Manager, getting the look and feel of native NT windows in return isn't such a bad trade-off because you get consistency across all applications, regardless of their origin.