Making Sense of Microsoft's 32-bit Choices

The signs were everywhere at Comdex. The magazines are full of it. Everywhere you look, nearly everything you see involves something about Microsoft Windows 95. With all the hype, you'd think that this was Microsoft's only 32-bit operating system, but of course, it's not.

On the other hand, all of the discussion about Windows 95 does bring a number of things to the Windows NT community: some good, some bad, and some question marks. Dealing with these aspects of both Windows NT Workstation and Windows 95 is likely to attract considerable attention from corporate staffs, however.

The biggest challenge is to untangle the snarl of confusion between two seemingly similar 32-bit operating systems. However, both versions promise to be more stable and to work better in an enterprise environment than did earlier versions of Windows.

Theory vs. Reality
Both NT Workstation and Windows 95 are 32-bit operating systems for the desktop. This means, in theory at least, they should be free from the constraints that have plagued MS-DOS and Windows systems for over a decade. In theory, the 640KB memory limit should vanish; the problems with handling protected-mode memory should disappear; and device drivers shouldn't have to compete for scarce resources. In theory!

In reality, only NT Workstation actually delivers on the promise of true 32-bit operations. Windows 95 delivers part of the promise, but deep down inside, MS-DOS still lurks. Those memories of days past are well hidden, which is why Windows 95 can give you long file names and why it can handle 32-bit device drivers. What it doesn't give you is the robust protection against problem software that NT Workstation can deliver, and it doesn't give you the rich networking environment.

As a result, when you're looking for a desktop for the enterprise, it's useful to think of Windows 95 as the answer for stand-alone users and those who have comparatively simple needs. In contrast, NT Workstation is for power users and people who must support complex needs where multiple processors, lots of memory, and secure operations are critical. In all likelihood, most enterprises will end up with both.

Appearances Can be Deceiving
The first thing most users notice when they encounter Windows 95 is that the user interface (UI) looks a lot more like a cross between the Macintosh and OS/2 than it does like the Windows of years past. On the other hand, the NT Workstation UI looks a lot more like that of earlier versions of Windows, although the icons in the Program Manager are a little different. In reality, though, appearances don't tell the whole story.

First, you can equip Windows 95 with the familiar Program Manager UI if that's what you want to do. If you do, however, you will lose some of its new capabilities, such as the useful ability to place folders within folders and the ability to launch most things with a single mouse click. More important, the Explorer GUI is available for NT Workstation (but it's not supported).

Count Your Winnings
A more important issue in the enterprise goes beyond the UI and the bundled software and goes directly to the core of most IS managers' concerns. Which operating system is a safer repository for company data? In this case, the issue clearly belongs to NT Workstation. Windows NT Workstation is capable of significant crash protection. It can encapsulate potentially misbehaving MS-DOS and Windows applications. In addition, you can configure it for security far beyond anything that Windows 95 can achieve.

Still, there are a number of areas in which you should compare the products so you can select one or the other for a particular user or location. In the right environment, either one can be an excellent choice.

Windows 95 is for stand-alone users and those with relatively simple needs.

Installation. Windows NT Workstation has a robust installation capability that's effective at figuring out what hardware is installed on a computer and then configuring itself appropriately. Windows 95, on the other hand, appears to be nearly psychic. Engineers at Microsoft tell me that they routinely install Windows 95 before they install NT Workstation so that they can sniff out all of the potential problems before NT Workstation encounters them. Eventually NT Workstation will be equipped with similar capabilities; but for now, if you have users who must do their own installs, or just want to minimize setup labor, Windows 95 has the edge.

Stability. At this writing, Windows 95 is still in its beta test phase, so it's too early to discuss the stability of that product with much authority. However, it's a complete rewrite of a product that was none too stable to begin with, while NT Workstation is one of the most stable desktop operating systems available. Here, the edge goes to NT Workstation.

Safety. Here, again, NT Workstation is the winner. With its solid memory model, its C2-certifiable security, and its fault-tolerant design, it's hard for any PC operating system to compete.

Ease of Use. This decision depends on the nature of your workforce. Users are more likely to feel comfortable initially with NT Workstation, mainly because it appears to be virtually identical to what they have been using for years. However, you can configure Windows 95 to look the same as NT Workstation if that's what you want.

Flexibility. Windows 95 has a feature called the Policy Editor that supports complete customization of the UI. Thus, any feature or function can be turned off or modified while still using Windows 95. For companies with vertical applications, this is a good way to create exactly the look you want and the functionality you need, while not going to a lot of trouble. In addition, you can configure Windows 95 to key on specific users, so that the same interface appears for each user regardless of the workstation with which they attach to the network. Here, Windows 95 is the clear choice.

Hardware Support. Because of its later genesis, Windows 95 has a few extra features, such as expanded PC Card support and Plug and Play support. In addition, Windows 95 will usually work with earlier 16-bit device drivers for things such as network interface cards. While this capability offsets some of the advantages of the 32-bit operating system, it does let you use your equipment until the manufacturer gets around to releasing the drivers you need. Likewise, expanded PC Card and Plug and Play support may not be as compelling to the high-end users of NT Workstation as they are to the Windows 95 crowd, but that depends on your users. Either way, though, the advantage here lies with Windows 95.

Resources. Neither Windows 95 nor NT Workstation can be accused of being svelte, and both gobble up huge quantities of disk space. Still, you can run Windows 95 in 8MB of memory while NT Workstation requires 12MB to 16MB. This could make the difference between needing to upgrade your hardware and not. Depending on your enterprise hardware, this could be an edge for Windows 95.

Performance. In a conventional, single-processor environment, both operating systems exhibit acceptable performance. Because Windows 95 is still in beta test, it's hard to predict exactly how its performance will shake out. What is certain is that NT Workstation will support more than one processor, which in turn gives it the potential for being significantly faster than Windows 95, especially in compute-intensive operations. At the high end, NT Workstation is definitely ahead.

Some of Each, Please!
In the areas most important to the IS department--mission-critical applications, for example--NT Workstation is the clear choice. However, in the areas that currently use earlier versions of Windows, Windows 95 can be an obvious selection. While there isn't any such thing as a Windows 95 Server and Windows 95 doesn't have the security of NT Workstation, it does fit in well in an enterprise that already uses Windows NT Workstation and/or Windows NT Server.

Even better, both NT Workstation and Windows 95 work well in complex enterprise networking environments, especially those that have to support Novell NetWare file servers, Internet connectivity, and UNIX, OS/2, or NT Server application servers. Therefore, both can help to form the basis for a well-designed enterprise network that provides seamless connectivity.

There are a few issues that most companies will need to resolve, most notably, the lack of support for a true enterprise directory service such as Novell's NetWare Directory Service. However, solutions to meet those needs are on the way. As a result, the best decision for many companies when faced with choosing between Windows NT Workstation and Windows 95 may well be to take some of each.