Windows NT 5.0

Microsoft Corp. recently shipped Beta 2 of Windows NT 5.0, giving government users a first look at what to expect when the shipping version is released, probably next summer.

State and local government managers, such as Kerry Wagnon, Oklahoma City chief information officer, are awaiting Windows NT 5.0, anticipating greater centralized management control and seamless integration of drivers and peripherals to reduce maintenance overhead. "As we move more and more into the Windows networking environment, the ability to control the desktop from a central management perspective is important to us," said Wagnon, who is just beginning to move the city's 1,800 desktops to Windows NT 4.0.

If Beta 2 of Windows NT 5.0 is a good indicator of what will ship next year, the product will make the lives of Windows NT administrators such as Wagnon much easier. However, it will not yet have the industrial-strength features that will woo many shops from Unix. Although a number of new and important features were added to Windows NT 5.0, our evaluation of this beta release indicated that the shipping product is not likely to be the mature, enterprise network operating system that Microsoft has promised in the past.

Windows NT 5.0 will provide a more robust platform for current Windows NT shops, and it will add important new administration features, but it is not at all clear that the product will convince those using other packages to make the move to Windows NT.

One of the most touted and eagerly awaited feature of Windows NT 5.0 is the new Active Directory, which is Microsoft's answer to Novell Inc.'s NetWare Directory Services. An increasingly popular tool among agencies, a directory service is a database of information about the resources on a network, such as e-mail addresses or attached equipment.

Unlike Windows NT's previous directory service, Active Directory provides a single point of administration for complex networks and, of even more interest to end users, a simplified naming system.

Active Directory lets administrators structure all the network resources into simple hierarchical trees for easy management. Other highlights that will ease administrators' chores are multimaster replication of name indexes, distributed security and delegated administration.

Active Directory supports such standards as Domain Name System, for translating network domains into Internet Protocol addresses; the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which is a simplified version of the X.500 standard for directory services; and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, for supporting hypertext links on the World Wide Web.

The administrator's primary window on the new directory is the Active Directory Sites and Services Manager.

If that seems like a mouthful, don't worry. It's easily digested. The utility looks and behaves very much like Windows Explorer, with a hierarchical tree on the left and the contents of folders on the right. Other Active Directory utilities, such as the Directory Manager, where administrators can view and manage users and other network resources, are designed in a similar fashion.

However, we found that the beta version of Active Directory has some irritating limitations when it comes to administering the directory. First, you cannot repeat organizational unit names even if they are in different branches of an Active Directory tree. If, for example, you have economic development offices in two locations within your state or municipality, you cannot name the units "economic development" in each tree.

Also, Microsoft has not yet ironed out all the bugs in synchronizing directories. For instance, it is possible that one administrator's changes can overwrite another administrator's changes before synchronization is accomplished. Active Directory, in short, looks promising, but we will have to wait until Beta 3 to assess how strong it will be in Windows NT 5.0.

IntelliMirror

Another major new feature of Windows NT 5.0 is a collection of desktop and application management tools collectively known as IntelliMirror. Our look at Beta 2 showed the tools to be powerful and easy to use. The control over system and user settings is more granular than with previous versions. Even better, a user's data, applications and preferences follow his log-on rather than residing on a specific machine, which means the information does not have to be re-entered if a user changes offices.

The most interesting part of IntelliMirror is its Software Management tools. Using these tools, administrators can "push" applications to specified users or groups of users on the network in a variety of ways. If the administrator chooses to advertise the application, for example, the user will receive a message telling him the application is available the next time he logs on from whatever computer he is using.

The administrator also can configure the process so a shortcut to the application is automatically placed on the user's desktop, or an installation dialog box is summoned when the user activates a received data file. Options are provided to manage the process of upgrading users' applications.

The problem with IntelliMirror is that some of the more important features work only with Windows NT 5.0-based workstations. Agencies with many workstations running Windows NT 4.0 or systems running other versions of Windows or operating systems will have to turn to other software management tools for such chores as publishing and assigning applications.

Bundled Services

Although pricing has not been set yet, users can expect to realize some savings through Microsoft's decision to bundle services that were not offered before in the base product. These services include Transaction Server, Certificate Server and Message Queue Server as well as Terminal Server for terminal emulation on Windows clients. What's more, Windows NT 5.0 will offer stronger security tools, including Kerberos network authentication, and better telephony support through Telephony Application Program Interface 3.0.

Also with Windows NT 5.0, administrators can look forward to easier setup and configuration of server clusters and the enhancement of key services to take advantage of the server clusters. Unfortunately, though, clusters are still limited to two-server fail-over.

Last-but far from least-Windows NT 5.0 promises to lighten the burden on administrators by cutting down on the number of configuration operations that require a system reboot. According to Microsoft, 45 procedures that once required reboots no longer do so, including network protocol changes and volume management.

Microsoft also promises that administrators will see fewer "blue screens of death," although we were not able to assess the validity of the claim in our tests with this beta code.

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EDS Unveils Y2K Database

With the Clinton administration pushing for high-tech vendors to share information on the status of their products, Electronic Data Systems Corp. announced what the company described as the world's largest database of Year 2000 compliance information.

Vendor 2000 provides a World Wide Web-based database of more than 129,000 hardware and software products from more than 3,400 vendors, accessible through a browser interface. The database provides full search capabilities as well as the ability to view the complete list of products or vendors. The database can be accessed at www.eds.com/vendor2000 and soon will be accessible from the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion Web site at www.y2k.gov.

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