Time to Consider the New Kid on the Block

There used to be a saying, "No one was ever fired for buying IBM." Well, this is no longer a good strategy for protecting your job. The same goes for the default choice for a PC network operating system (NOS), Novell NetWare. NetWare enjoys an enormous market share. It's a good product. For some time, it was the only serious product. Other NOSs, such as IBM's LAN Server and Microsoft LAN Manager, were way behind on administrative tools and, because of their small market share, third-party product support.

Efforts by Microsoft to sell LAN Manager in this environment were essentially futile; they failed to develop a reseller channel, and marketing attempts seemed half-hearted. The market continued to evolve, and LANs became much more serious business as the apparent cost savings from downsizing attracted many organizations with large-scale requirements.

NetWare, however, didn't take well to attempts to apply it to large enterprises. Multiple server installations proved hard to manage. This prompted the release of NetWare Directory Services. NDS provides a way to access all enterprise servers through a single login. It works, but it's difficult to learn and must be properly set up from the start. An error in the structure created for an enterprise can have repercussions for quite some time.

The biggest strength of NetWare is its maturity as a file-and-print-services platform. Being the industry leader for so long has helped Novell to make it truly a high-performance product and solid in its role. NetWare also offers a client/server application platform. It can run programs on the file server--but it is still a file server running programs.

So how does Windows NT Server stack up against this NOS giant? It offers the promise of a flexible, scalable, connectable platform that will only improve with time.

Flexible, Scalable, Connectable
NT Server can play a variety of roles, separately or simultaneously. It's an excellent file-and-print server, particularly for Windows 3.11 or Windows 95 workstations. In the Windows workstation environment, NT slips invisibly into the picture bringing real security and high-performance file services. Remember, the definition of an Enterprise Computing System (ECS) has no numbers in it. A single machine is an ECS if your business depends on it. NT will bring the same level of performance, security, and data integrity to a 10-workstation workgroup that it does to a 1000-workstation system.

If you're currently running any NOS with Windows for Workgroups (WFW) or Windows 95, an NT Server will probably require no changes to the clients and only a small change to a dialog box. The workstations can participate in its security by authentication through the Registry. This makes NT Server the obvious choice for upgrades and new Windows installations.

NT offers support for all the popular networking protocols right out of the box. Unlike other operating systems which require third-party or optional add-on packages, NT can be native on your LAN or WAN right away. It offers IPX/SPX (NetWare), EtherTalk (Apple), and TCP/IP (Internet) networking, as well as its own NetBEUI protocol. But NetBEUI isn't routable (i.e., it can't be moved from one physical network to another selectively). It's possible to bridge two NetBEUI networks, but this means that all the traffic from one network moves to the other, potentially loading both down.

Microsoft has overcome this limitation by allowing Windows networking to use NetWare's IPX/SPX protocol, which is routable, via encapsulation. A NetBIOS frame--package of information--is encapsulated in an IPX frame. This is routed, then unencapsulated by the receiving node. TCP/IP can also be set as the default protocol for Windows networking, adding not only routability, but also transparency. NT need not disturb the existing LAN infrastructure.

You can also use NT Server as a client/server platform. With the Microsoft BackOffice application suite, it provides a solid, standard platform for database applications through industry-standard SQL and for messaging-based applications through Exchange, Microsoft's new messaging platform.

NT Server's client/server capability is considerably more advanced than NetWare's due to fundamental differences in their architectures. NT Server was developed as if it were a midrange computer operating system, not a file server. Thus, it was designed to provide a solid client/
server platform. The competition in this arena is UNIX, not NetWare.

In three distinct areas, NT Server beats out UNIX. First, UNIX is extremely difficult to administer, even with attempts to make it friendly. It's based on several text files which are often maintained manually. The formatting is critical, and a misplaced ":" can prevent mission-critical software from operating.

NT Server, on the other hand, uses a Registry database. This is an advanced system information database which is managed by the system itself. The graphical front end for managing the database interacts integrally with the operating system, making it easy to access and modify both user and system configurations. NT Server also provides advanced administrative tools, such as an Account Policy editor to access the security configuration of one or more accounts.

The second area in which NT Server beats UNIX is integration with the desktop. One way that UNIX integrates pretty nicely with Windows is through the X Window System. Developed at MIT and evolved into many versions, this system lets you run programs on the server and graphically display the results on a remote workstation. It provides no file-system connectivity but does let you run client/server applications with excellent security.

On the other hand, UNIX has a native networking scheme called Network File System. NFS, developed by Sun Microsystems, allows the same sort of remote access to drives on servers as the PC redirector software. Although native to UNIX, NFS is quite foreign to the PC. A version for the PC, PC-NFS is available and can be used with Windows. In fact, the Windows 95 Control Panel "understands" it. But, it is an Intergraph product and uses a system that is completely different from native Windows networking.

NT Server doesn't suffer from this "foreigner" status. NT Server is Windows, from the interface to the networking, and fits into a Windows network like a native. If X Window access to NT Server is desirable, it can be accomplished through a third-party product.

The third area in which UNIX falls short of NT Server is security. UNIX systems are under constant attack by hackers. There are continuous Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) alerts warning of ways that various flavors of UNIX are open to compromise. Furthermore, UNIX doesn't use encrypted passwords at login. Thus, a packet sniffer on the network can read passwords in clear text--a real danger.

NT Server has been certified as C2-secure, so it doesn't have the potential security holes of UNIX. NT Server can be used for secure government installations and has been widely adopted by financial firms instead of UNIX for security reasons.

NT Server also brings new meaning to the term scalability. It can fit a small enterprise as easily as it does a multi-server environment. It offers the ability to fully utilize the new multiprocessor machines. NT provides access to advanced non-Intel platforms as well, with a shrink-wrapped product for MIPS, Alpha, and PowerPC processors.

NT can be connected across a WAN and provides full native support for the Internet--presenting opportunities to use it as a WAN transport and a place to do business. In the WAN environment, NT's seamless remote-administration capability means easy control of your computing assets from a central location--with no third-party products.

A Boon to the Enterprise
Windows NT Server presents an exciting opportunity to use a rich variety of resources in enterprise computing. I look forward to providing you with practical information for Windows NT in this new monthly column.

Contact Info
Microsoft * 206-882-8080