After years of waiting, testing, U-turns and evangelising about the future of Windows NT, Microsoft has finally delivered Windows 2000.
Most of us have been waiting for this moment since the day we unwrapped our copies of NT 4 and realised just how much of its claimed advances it couldn't deliver on.
Windows 2000 is more than simply an evolutionary upgrade of NT 4. As well as upgrading and repairing much of the feature set of NT 4, it brings into NT many of the successful features of Windows 95 and 98 that users have taken for granted for years, such as fully operational plug-and-play support, as well as support for USB Firewire and virtual private networking.
Of course, it also introduces a selection of new operations that are new to all parts of the Windows range, as well as borrowing ideas from other successful packages in the corporate world.
The question is: was Windows 2000 worth the wait, and will it deliver what Microsoft has promised? I can tell you with absolute conviction that yes, it was and it does. Shocked? You should be, but not too much.
Windows 2000 retains the main deployment features that emerged at the beta 3 stage, such as dynamic resizing of disk partitions and dedicated 4Mb core code hard disk sectors.
One welcome improvement from NT 4 has been its unattended setup support in all versions. Administrators can now roll it out to the most minute detail using a predefined text command file, which handles the selections and choices usually performed manually. The file is normally generated on a test machine, but can be coded by hand.
Using this process to deploy Windows 2000 to multiple servers and workstations cuts installation time by three quarters compared to NT 4, but there's a catch. This feature requires that each target machine contains the exact same hardware and configuration as the original machine. Driver installation is completely based on the file in this instance, so the hardware set must match or incorrect drivers will be installed and the target machine will almost certainly under-perform, if it works at all, after installation.
Many of the user interface characteristics introduced with Windows 98 have been introduced into Windows 2000. Everything from animated start menus to expanded file information appear on demand in directory windows.
Despite this, it retains the common look-and-feel introduced in NT 4, and benefits from the close-knit integration of the Internet Explorer 5 browser.
Active Directory (AD) is the single biggest development in Windows 2000, and is something Microsoft should have done years ago. AD consolidates network objects (users, computers, printers etc) centrally under a single hierarchical structure, and allows synchronisation of data between different sites and folders and dynamic linkage of every repository point on the network. This allows single object management tasks to be performed from one interface and one location, and object data to be re-used by other applications.
Organisational-wide actions can be triggered from a single event. For example, when a new user is created, this should trigger the corresponding information to be passed to human resources, payroll, systems and facilities all in a single operation.
AD can also be used for policy-based network management. Access rights, bandwidth provision and device management can be set up and regulated according to pre-set instructions, rather than on a case-by-case basis.
DNS and DHCP services have also been incorporated into the AD structure. Both of these can be maintained on the same basis as other objects, cutting the time needed for both end user and server maintenance yet further.
While users are able to retrofit their systems with third party directory services such as Novell's NDS system for NT, this does not offer the same level of integration that AD does.
Microsoft has made great strides in routing and remote access services (RRAS), which are a core function within all versions of Windows 2000. These services operate virtual private networking (VPN) and direct dialling, and their inclusion means VPNs and remote networking can be deployed from the standard Windows 2000 installation.
RRAS allows users to collate separate phone lines into a single trunk for greater bandwidth-on-demand dial-up links. It supports dynamic bandwidth allocation and channel switching for ISDN, and a series of intelligent network management protocols. Drivers are included for about 5,000 modems and several thousand network interface cards, although there remains reduced support for industry standard architecture (ISA) and extended industry standard architecture (EISA) devices.
Windows 2000 now boasts a 'safe mode' as in 95 and 98. This avoids any machine becoming crippled (and therefore unusable) by offering a boot mode that uses only a bare minimum set of trusted and critical drivers to kick-start a machine back into life. This way, you can attempt to debug a machine from the inside, rather than trying to repair a fault by externally editing .cfg files, as was the NT 4 way.
A basic but functional disk defragmentation tool is now included, along with a rewritten version of Chkdisk, the utility for checking drive integrity and repairing errors. These are not exactly fully featured tools, so you shouldn't cast aside your copy of Server Magic just yet.
Plug and play
One of the biggest failures of NT 4 was its lack of a working plug and play implementation. This has been rectified in Windows 2000. A full USB port implementation is also supported.
The process for handling plug and play has been overhauled, with the operating system able to extract even more information from an inserted device, making identification and recognition almost twice as fast as Windows 9x in some cases.
Support for ISA devices is very poor, and is going to be problematic for many people hoping to retain dependable controller cards. Likewise, PCMCIA support does not extend to I/O wake-up.
Network data handling
Windows 2000 now supports digital subscriber line (DSL) and Gigabit Ethernet natively. Also implemented is the Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP), a routing protocol designed for accurate delivery of multicasts over a single line by improving handling of dropped data packets.
The main benefit of this is in the transmission of audio and video data over a network, but the principle can be applied to everyday data handling.
And now for the bad news
Windows 2000 isn't all things to all people, and it is far from completely suited to the high end of business, so should you move up to Windows 2000?
There are many users who'll benefit hugely from Windows 2000. But there are plenty others who'll get no real benefit, and a few who will cripple their infrastructure if they try to upgrade or migrate.
Our tests have exposed serious problems with a host of relatively new and legacy hardware. Support for non plug and play cards has still not been resolved, making many drive controllers, custom I/O cards and a selection of PCMCIA cards useless overnight.
Hardware requirements are a serious issue. Windows 2000 has raised the bar for both workstations and servers, and in most cases this will be to the detriment of the user or administrator. Hiking the spec to a Pentium 133Mhz with 128Mb Ram and 1Gb of free storage space is ridiculous, and a prime example of bloatware gone mad. Regardless of how advanced and reliable this operating system is, placing such a requirement on everyday desktop systems will immediately price Windows 2000 out of the range of most budgets this year and next. That said, if you already have suitable hardware in place, and are running NT workstation, then you should seriously consider upgrading.
Migration also raises serious issues. While it can be argued that Active Directory is superior to NDS, its main competitor, thanks to its close integration with the rest of the operating system, moving from one to the other is not straightforward. The inevitable extra manpower needed to help transplant critical data from one to the other will again place significant cost on any Windows 2000 project.
Systems administrators who are contemplating implementing Windows 2000 on their servers or clusters should look before they leap. Advanced server features like Active Directory are enticing but untested.
Laptop users are going to experience either very good or very bad results. Windows 2000 doesn't support as wide a range of hardware as Windows 98. Those who purchase a new laptop with it pre-installed will have the best experience.
Considering the effects of change
Windows 2000 is undoubtedly a must-have for the coming years, but the complexity and change it represents means we must be blunt about the effect any migration or upgrade project will have on your organisation.
There is life after NT, especially for anyone already possessing suitable hardware. For these people and organisations, there is no choice to make - do it, and do it now! For the rest of you, give extensive thought to taking the leap. If you are even slightly dissatisfied with your existing NT setup or are planning a serious web based project in the short or medium term, look at Windows 2000 as your platform of choice. But pay close attention to the potential pitfalls, as both the financial and productivity cost could be catastrophic if not done properly.
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