Competition drives changes in network operating system technology

During the last several years the criteria for selecting networking operating systems has evolved as the technology has taken on new roles. Local-area network operating system (NOS) selections once centered on which product offered the fastest file and print services.

In recent years however file and print services moved from leading-edge to commodity status and customer buying considerations shifted away from speed to how many third-party applications ran on it.This shift has brought about a jockeying for position among the three major NOS vendors - Banyan Systems Inc. Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. Novell NetWare seemingly ruled the market for network file and print services while the focus on third-party applications has played to the strengths of Microsoft Windows NT industry observers said.

"Organizations started to focus on the applications that ran on LAN operating systems as well as a system's basic features " noted Glen Gulyas the president of Advanced Paradigms Inc. a network integrator in Alexandria Va. "Few third parties build applications that run on NetWare or [Banyan] VINES they usually focus on Windows."

Now another shift in customer interest is appearing on the horizon: The Internet quickly is becoming the foundation for agency applications.

Banyan Microsoft and Novell have all shifted their development efforts toward this area but it is too early to tell which will emerge as the leading Internet application platform and a new competitor - Netscape Communications Corp. Mountain View Calif. - may play a key role in how the LAN operating system evolves.

These market pressures ultimately shape what technology the three competing vendors deliver to market.

Microsoft's Emergence

While change has come steadily in the LAN operating system area historically Microsoft was slow to dent Novell's armor. Two Microsoft products MS-Net and LAN Manager failed to garner much customer interest and NetWare accounted for as many as three out of every four LAN operating system purchases.

The tide began to turn with the delivery of Windows NT Server 3.5 in September 1994. The new release required 4M less memory than its predecessor offered tighter links to NetWare and Unix networks via an enhanced Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol stack and featured the Microsoft BackOffice suite which offered companies simpler integration between desktop and server systems.

The suite which cost $500 million to develop includes tight connections to Microsoft's SQL Server relational database Systems Network Architecture Server mainframe connectivity software Systems Management Server for PC administration and the Microsoft mail server for electronic messaging.The delivery coincided with changing government agency buying considerations.

The Social Security Administration a Baltimore Md. agency with 50 000 users stationed in 1 300 offices throughout the United States represents a typical case. Last year the organization went out to bid on a new LAN operating system infrastructure.

Thomas J. O'Hare Jr. assistant commissioner for telecommunications and systems operations said the organization which had relied on NetWare as its LAN operating system selected Windows NT servers because it was more easily integrated with the organization's desktop applications: Microsoft Office. The administration expects to take two years to migrate to its new networking infrastructure.

Microsoft also has been trying to ease the management headaches that large organizations face.

Mitra Azizirad a systems engineering manager at Microsoft's federal office in Washington D.C. said the company includes configuration and installation in its LAN operating system rather than forcing companies to purchase add-on management applications and management features in its Windows 95 and Windows NT desktop operating systems so a central administrator can more easily monitor them.

Windows NT Server momentum started to steamroll with the delivery of Windows NT 4.0 in the summer of 1996. "We have been surprised at the amount of market share that Windows NT Server gained during the past year " said Michael Sanders a vice president at the Government Services Division of Wang Laboratories Inc. McLean Va.

Historically the Federal Aviation Administration Washington D.C. relied solely on NetWare to support its 2 000 users. Three years ago the agency took a look at its LAN operating system options and determined that Windows NT was less expensive to administer than NetWare.

"The Microsoft product offered administrators a [graphical user interface] and the base operating system included a lot of integrated management features " explained Janet MacNab the acting integration product team leader for the information technology service unit.

While Microsoft is charging hard Novell still stands as a formidable competitor. The company dominated the LAN operating system area for many years and now has a huge customer base which is under attack by Microsoft.

Since determining that Windows NT was simpler to administer the FAA has seen Windows NT acceptance grow to about 20 percent of its LAN installations. While MacNab anticipates that percentage will continue to increase she still expects NetWare to be the agency's primary LAN operating system in the future.

"NetWare works well the operating system supports many of our daily business applications and our technicians know how to use it so we see no reason to just get rid of it " she said.

However other agencies dependent on Windows and Windows NT applications are choosing to make the change.

Sgt. Stephen Jackson computer systems manager Little Rock Air Force Base Little Rock Ark. said his organization has been running NetWare for five years citing its ease of management and its directory services technology Jackson said.

However the base recently decided to migrate from NetWare to Windows NT. "We see LAN servers functioning primarily as application servers and providing our users with access to different types of applications. We started to use Microsoft Office as a personal-productivity tool when we upgraded our desktops to Windows 95 " Jackson said.

Delivering Directory Services

To slow Microsoft's charge Novell and Banyan have focused on directory services which store user names addresses and authorization levels and enable employees to access applications files and printers. Banyan and Novell have delivered global addressing services so a user can access any application from anywhere on a network.

Microsoft's directories are more server specific: A user can access applications on the closest server but may have difficulty working with information stored on other systems.

Greg Edwards the director of Banyan's Federal Systems Division McLean Va. explained that distributed directories can help large organizations reduce network administration. With Banyan's and Novell's services a technician can enter a change once and it will automatically be relayed to all associated servers. With Windows NT Server the updating usually requires manual intervention. But customers seem to be paying little attention to directory service differences.

"We have to do a better job educating customers so they understand all of the benefits a global directory offers " admitted Michael McLaughlin director of the government systems group at Novell's Herndon Va. office.

Customer interest has been lax for a couple of reasons. Organizations have found that deploying a global directory can be difficult: Novell's first attempt NetWare Directory Services (NDS) in NetWare 4.0 was not compatible with installed NetWare servers. Also directory services are of the most benefit when third parties tailor applications to them.

"Currently only electronic mail applications really take advantage of global directory services " Advanced Paradigms' Gulyas said. To date neither Banyan nor Novell have had much success convincing third parties to write applications that take advantage of their directories. Both companies claim that soon small armies of third parties will tailor applications to their directory services but they have been making such statements for a few years.

Also the directory debate has been shifting away proprietary systems such as Banyan's StreetTalk and Novell's NDS to those based on industry standards.

However the company has continued to focus on the technology that has evolved and is beginning to see the payoff McLaughlin said.

According to Novell a number of Unix vendors have announced plans to use NDS including IBM Corp. on AIX and the Santa Cruz Operation Inc. with UnixWare. Assuming Novell delivers on the technology's promise "NDS is going to become a standard for directories in the market " McLaughlin said.

In April 1996 Netscape announced plans to support the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). This specification stemmed from work at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Mich. in the early 1990s. The university stripped down the International Standards Organization's X.500 specification so it could operate on PCs.

Netscape not only selected LDAP as the foundation for its directory services server but convinced 44 other suppliers including Digital Equipment Corp. Maynard Mass. Hewlett-Packard Co. Cupertino Calif. Microsoft and Novell to add LDAP compliance to their products.

Changing Competitive Landscape

The move may point to how LAN operating system competition could change in the future. Traditionally Banyan Novell and Microsoft bundled all necessary networking features in their products. The Internet has forced vendors to emphasize standard rather than proprietary features. Suppliers have started to offer networking options in a modular fashion so companies can mix and match vendors' products.

For instance Banyan offers a version of StreetTalk that works with Windows NT servers and Novell offers similar capabilities with its file and print services. Theoretically an agency could use Netscape's directory server as its global directory Microsoft's Internet Information Server as a World Wide Web server and NetWare for file and print services.

With buyer considerations changing vendors are scrambling to position their wares. Banyan is trying to shift its revenue from software sales to service and support. Novell turned its attention to the Internet and introduced its IntranetWare product line which bundles Web server browser and authoring tools with NetWare. Additionally Novell through NDS and other technologies is trying to position NetWare to play in the mixed environments many users are creating for example. For example the company has developed the Novell Administrator tool for Windows NT for efficiently managing Windows NT workstations in the NetWare environment. NetWare is "the Switzerland" of the computer world McLaughlin said.

Microsoft has been busily rounding out its Internet product suite to beat back its newest formidable competitor Netscape.

With all the maneuvering there is a possibility that the "LANscape" could shift once again during the next few years observers said.

"Government agencies are trying to determine how to exploit the Internet " Wang's Sanders said. "Right now no vendor has a clear lead in this space but all are trying to put together a strong case. Emerging issues such as security are becoming more important and will play a big role in determining which vendor will end up delivering the most popular offering."

-- Korzeniowski is a free-lance reporter in Sudbury Mass. specializing in networking issues.

* * *

AT A GLANCE

Status: The focus of network operating systems has shifted from file and print services to third-party application support.

Issues: Network directory services have emerged as a potentially valuable feature for large agencies while Internet-related features are starting to come to the fore.

Outlook: Very good. Although the number of NOS vendors is small the competition is fierce laying the groundwork for more developments in such areas as Internet computing and security.

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