Microsoft recently released the BackOffice Server 4.5 Readiness Kit for Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server), a bridge for administrators managing the changeover of their BackOffice systems from Windows NT to Win2K Server. This kit provides patches for all Microsoft BackOffice components to ensure their Windows 2000 (Win2K) compatibility. The company released the Readiness Kit now so that users can prepare their systems and simply lift their BackOffice components off NT 4.0 and put them on Win2K Server.

The Readiness Kit is free to BackOffice customers and is available for download at http://www.microsoft.com/backofficeserver. Microsoft also provides an overview of the migration process and a white paper that details the process of adding a Win2K Server system.

According to a Microsoft spokesperson, "The numerous advantages of uniting Microsoft BackOffice Server 4.5 and Microsoft Windows 2000 Server include more robust interoperability, comprehensive Web services, information-sharing capabilities, and centralized user and group management. With the introduction of Active Directory services and Global Catalog, Windows 2000 offers easier domain administration, single-user logon for resource access, and enhanced network and data security."

Be aware that the Readiness Kit doesn't offer complete functionality yet. If you employ the kit to upgrade your BackOffice network to Win2K Server, you'll lose Microsoft Systems Management Server. SMS 2.0 requires the Service Pack 2 (SP2) upgrade to operate on Win2K Server, and SMS 2.0 SP2 isn't available yet.

The Readiness Kit release presages BackOffice Server 2000, which Microsoft announced in April 2000. This release will include Win2K components such as Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server with Microsoft Outlook 2000 Service Release 1 (SR1), Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Host Integration Server 2000, SMS 2.0 with SP2, and the next Proxy Server revision. Microsoft is configuring the entire suite to use Active Directory (AD). Microsoft is also including setup and deployment monitoring tools and server suite management tools to enhance branch office administration.

Microsoft expects to make BackOffice Server 2000 available in fourth quarter 2000. Releasing BackOffice Server revisions within 90 days of an OS revision is Microsoft's goal. However, Microsoft often waits for components, such as Exchange Server and SQL Server, before completing the next revision, which is the case here.

Although Microsoft's BackOffice Server product-marketing group applied attractive marketing techniques, such as depicting an example Web site shipping in a box, BackOffice Server releases have garnered little attention compared with the suite's OS or components. However, the BackOffice Server suite is an intriguing product that offers interesting integration opportunities to Microsoft customers.

For many small businesses and workgroups of as many as 50 computers, Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) is the central networking component. SBS provides most of the important functionality of the Microsoft BackOffice Server suite. In SBS, you get Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Exchange Server, Proxy Server, IIS, and SQL Server. Although the SBS market share is difficult to gauge, Katy Hunter, SBS product manager, characterized the product as exceeding Microsoft's projections. Joshua Feinberg, author of Building Profitable Solutions with Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server 4.5 (Microsoft Press, 1999), said SBS sales are almost entirely channel driven.

Microsoft Value Added Providers (VAPs) typically install SBS to provide a platform for delivering software such as full-featured accounting packages. Customers most often require SBS to obtain common Internet access and messaging. Group faxing is also a popular feature.

SBS 4.5 is the current release, and no service packs are available for this product. Microsoft offers service packs for the individual SBS components. The SBS Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/smallbusinessserver/default.htm) is an excellent resource for information about service pack releases, interoperability, and component upgrades.

With the release of Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server) and Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro), organizations that employ SBS will likely need to modify SBS to accommodate Windows 2000 (Win2K). SBS 4.5 can have a Win2K Server as a member of its domain, but the Win2K server can't be a BDC. SBS 4.5 can have only NT 4.0 servers as BDCs.

Microsoft offers instructions about how to make a Win2K Pro system a client on an SBS 4.5 network in the "Windows 2000 Professional Client Setup" white paper. And Microsoft describes how to perform an SBS and Win2K Pro integration in the "Windows 2000 Professional Client Quick-Install Guide." You can download the white paper and the installation guide from the SBS Web site.

SBS faces two known Win2K problems with the fax client software and the modem-sharing client. Microsoft offers a fix for the fax client problem, which arises from the code similarity of SBS's fax server and Win2K's fax server. At press time, Microsoft didn't offer a fix for the modem-sharing client problem.

The SBS team is readying the next revision, SBS 2000, and plans to release the product in third quarter 2000. The team plans to produce the SBS revision as soon as the major components of SBS, particularly Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server and SQL Server 2000, are available. Hunter said that although Microsoft won't add major components to SBS 2000, the SBS team plans to provide better management tools and remote administration through Win2K Server Terminal Services. The team will also add more features to the Server Status Tool and enable the management tools to use the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

Microsoft plans to provide SBS 4.5 users an upgrade to SBS 2000 that preserves settings, applications, and files. Microsoft even issued a technology guarantee: Any customer buying SBS 4.5 during 2000 will receive a free upgrade to SBS 2000.

The world of 24 * 7 fault-tolerant-computer vendors isn't crowded. Compaq's NonStop Integrity systems, Sun Microsystems' variation of its SPARC system, and Marathon Technologies' Intel-based system for Windows NT are the main solutions. Therefore, Stratus Computer is about to make a big move by marketing midrange and low-end Windows 2000 (Win2K) fault-tolerant computers. At Comdex/Spring 2000, Stratus unveiled its plans to release three systems.

This move is quite a switch for a $1 billion company that has made its mark in the high-end server market for more than 20 years selling the Stratus Virtual Operating System (VOS) and UNIX boxes. For the development and release of the new products, Stratus intends to follow Intel's processor roadmap—first offering products based on the 32-bit Intel Architecture (IA-32), then offering IA-64-based products after 64-bit processors become available.

Stratus' product lineup includes ftServer 5200, ftServer 6500, and an unnamed low-end product. The ftServer 5200 (code-named Melody) will come with two 550MHz Pentium III Xeon processors, 512KB cache, a maximum of 2GB of RAM, 10 PCI slots, a dual (i.e., 2 boards) modular redundancy (DMR) or triple (i.e., 3 boards) modular redundancy (TMR) configuration, and 48-disk RAID 1 storage. The product will cost between $30,000 and $35,000 and will be available in August 2000. The ftServer 6500 (code-named Liberty) will come with four 750MHz Pentium III Xeon processors, 1MB to 2MB cache, a maximum of 4GB of RAM, 10 PCI slots, a DMR or TMR configuration, and 48-disk RAID 1 storage. This product will cost between $40,000 and $45,000 and will release in September 2000. Stratus hasn't released the details of the low-end server (code-named Tune). However, the entry price will be between $15,000 and $20,000, and the product will be available in fourth quarter 2000.

Stratus' Win2K systems are unique in several respects. Stratus duplicates or triplicates all the components of the system, then uses a clock to synchronize the separate motherboards. Each system operates as one system image that has proprietary cross-checking hardware. Because Stratus' computers operate as one system, they require only one OS license. Stratus builds these systems from off-the-shelf components but adds proprietary device identification, I/O hardware, and cross-checking application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). In a DMR system, a proprietary algorithm compares the system state against a standard to check for failure. In a TMR system, the algorithm is simpler and polls the boards to determine whether one board doesn't match the other two.

Stratus has engineered numerous other fault-tolerant mechanisms into its computers. When an application running on a non-fault-tolerant system fails, the Windows OS dumps the system state to disk and reboots. Stratus' systems keep the system state in persistent memory so that when a system fails, the reboot occurs from system memory. The system performs a session dump after the reboot so that the administrator can analyze the results.

Because 50 percent of Win2K's blue screens result from device-driver failures, Stratus has tried to harden the drivers. Stratus employs rigorous board and driver certification that requires driver source code and often asks that drivers have checkpoints to diagnose driver and board conditions, such as ID number, revision number, and errors. Stratus also created a hardware protection boundary that isolates the driver and causes the device, instead of the system, to fail. When the system detects a driver writing to protected memory, it intercepts the call, takes the peripheral offline, and switches over to a backup. To alleviate the 25 percent of blue screens that result from DLL failures, Stratus wrote an add-on DLL manager software package.

Each Stratus system has a dial-up modem connection to a Stratus service center that knows the identity of every hardware and software component in the system. Diagnostic software and hardware that Stratus' worldwide service centers manage remotely are also part of the systems. As a result, Stratus can offer a system that guarantees customers 99.999 percent reliability, which represents 5 minutes of downtime per year. To bring down a Stratus system requires severe operator error, and many of Stratus' UNIX customers have years of service without failure. Stratus charges 15 percent of a server's cost annually to monitor it, and more than 90 percent of the company's customers buy this service.

When a device fails, a Stratus service center automatically takes the device offline and ships a replacement to the customer overnight. Stratus claims that often the first time a customer knows a component has failed is when the replacement arrives. Additionally, the configured components show a green, yellow, or red status light. Therefore, an untrained person can go to the failed component, pull it out, and insert the replacement.

David Flawn, Stratus' vice president of worldwide business development, explained that Stratus' systems provide a strong fault-tolerant alternative to other vendors' clustered Win2K systems because clusters are difficult to set up, difficult to maintain, and require specially written software to run. Flawn said, "The ftServers are fault-tolerant hardware and provide full compatibility with standard software."

By entering the Win2K market with low price points for its ftServers, Stratus will compete with mainstream server vendors such as IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Dell. Steve Kiely, Stratus president and CEO, anticipates that many implementations, such as application service provider (ASP) and ISP, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Microsoft BackOffice deployments, can benefit from mission-critical hardware. Stratus customers can also move UNIX applications to less-expensive Win2K systems.

The Stratus systems will be among the first systems to receive Windows 2000 Datacenter Server (Datacenter) certification. Stratus has high hopes for the ftServer systems and expects to sell a significant number of systems in the next year. This volume will change the sales model for the company and give it a dramatically bigger profile in the market. Stratus will sell its servers through channel partners and might seek distribution through OEMs. Stratus might become an important competitor in the Windows server space.

IBM began a major push toward Linux in early 2000 and announced a new division to provide Linux software and hardware offerings. IBM created the Integrated UNIX Software Mission and named Irving Wladawsky-Berger to head this group as vice president of technology and strategy.

In essence, IBM is trying to infuse some life into the company's troubled server business by making Linux equal to IBM's proprietary AIX (UNIX) OS as a development platform. IBM already sells Linux on its Netfinity (Intel-based) servers, supports Linux on the RS/6000, and is experimentally running Linux on the S/390. IBM is also evaluating whether to put Linux on its Sequent Computer Systems division's NUMA-Q servers.

IBM is positioning the company as a hardware and software provider of choice in the rapidly growing Internet market sector. Linux is strong in this sector, and IBM hopes that making Linux and AIX interoperable will serve the company well. If Linux continues to grow, the OS will help the company compete with Sun Microsystems for the Internet accounts of dot-com enterprises. If Linux falters, IBM has Monterey (a version of AIX ported to the 64-bit Intel Architecture—IA-64), which can serve the Internet market. IBM envisions that its Linux products will serve the low-end market and that AIX will serve the top-end market. Interoperability between the two OSs means that companies can migrate to AIX as they grow.

Key to IBM's interest in Linux is the belief that IBM can use Linux as a common application platform in heterogeneous networking. IBM is moving its primary applications and other e-business software over to Linux. Among the important e-business applications that IBM will make available on Linux are DB2 Universal Database, WebSphere Application Server, MQSeries, a Java Development Kit (JDK), VisualAge for Java, Tivoli system management tools, and the Lotus Domino messaging server. IBM is making all its server platforms Linux-ready and will contribute additional IBM technologies to the Linux community. IBM hopes to have these Linux applications running on AIX and on Monterey (which will run Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip) by second half 2000.

IBM also hopes to keep Windows from becoming a dominant OS in the Internet market: Linux serves as an alternate choice. With Windows, Microsoft holds the keys to the kingdom, but Linux's territory is still unclaimed. IBM's move to become the dominant supplier of Linux applications and hardware will keep Linux OS software vendors' market share fragmented. At the moment, IBM works with all four major Linux OS vendors (i.e., Red Hat, VA Linux Systems, Caldera Systems, and SuSE) but might create a proprietary Linux distribution, which would provide convenience to IBM in its software efforts. IBM doesn't expect to make money from selling the Linux OS but does hope to make money from applications, middleware, and add-on software.

IBM's push for Linux means that more software and hardware choices will be available to corporations deciding to adopt Linux. In the Windows community, we're likely to see more third-party vendors offer support for Windows server software and Linux interoperability.