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St. Allchin On The Road To Cairo

b y Christine Hudgins-Bonafield

On the road to a distributed and object-oriented NT operating system code-named "Cairo," Jim Allchin had a vision. The Microsoft Business Systems Division vice president worried that the operating system still required too much client memory. Too many ship dates had slipped. Expectations were too high and developers, too tired. Reality struck with evangelizing force. So Microsoft began to preach a new, more humble creed.

It's impossible to say whether Microsoft's new attitude is the result of lessons learned or legal oversight, but much has changed recently in Redmond. Those changes bode well for users considering Microsoft as their enterprise provider. The Business Systems Division is molding its products into a tightly integrated core, and showing greater awareness of industry standards and support for the non-Microsoft world.

Interoperability has become so important that Microsoft will test its upcoming Windows95 on 400,000 users before its scheduled August ship date-a far cry from Windows 3.1's 300 beta users. Of course, cynics might view this as a way of using beta product to "seed" the market.

Windows95 not only supports NetWare clients but uses Novell's IPX as its default protocol, not NetBEUI. Windows95 includes native TCP/IP support and can be managed using the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP).

Instead of trying to catapult OS/2 into the enterprise, Microsoft now comes as a diplomat offering support for existing protocols, lower prices, better administration and the unification of commodity-based file and print services with application services. Microsoft's new attitude extends to promoting upcoming products. Allchin has scaled back, or at least clarified, expectations for Cairo, the 1996 version of NT Server. To those awaiting the object-oriented operating system they thought they'd heard Microsoft describe, Allchin has a warning: "Cairo isn't the second coming." It's just the next NT revision.

Below we'll discuss how all these present and future components fit together in Microsoft's bid for the networked enterprise.

Desktop Unification

Even as Microsoft revs up Windows95, it's clear that the OS is intended to be as transitory as its name for large users. Microsoft will use Windows95 to migrate users from today's 16-bit applications to 32-bit applications that will ultimately find a more stable home on NT. NT has a stable microkernel that prevents a single application from taking down the OS. Windows95 does not.

Already, 32-bit NT applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel run on Windows95. Both OSes use Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) 2.0 technology. When NT workstation and Windows95 come to share the same upgraded user interface with the release of NT version 3.51 later this year, differentiating the products will become even harder. Microsoft is actively examining going to a single kernel.

"In the long term," Allchin states, "we want NT to be considered the business desktop."

NT Today

Even today, NT is impressing users with its price and multiprocessor performance as good or better than Unix's-without making 32-bit developers write to Unix's different versions. Collins Hemingway, the Business Systems Division director of industry marketing, claims that NT is "outselling any Unix workstation, period."

Some NetWare users-including big players like Westinghouse-are swapping NetWare for Windows NT, with performance as well as desktop and server consistency as important draws.

NT is also apt to be the platform for even more emerging Microsoft products. Vendors other than Microsoft hint that BackOffice will one day include an Internet server and firewall product.

NT Server 3.5 is slated for fine-tuning in revision 3.51, tentatively scheduled to go to beta last month. The rev includes support for file compression on a per-directory and per-file basis, support for customized logins, like those used for bank ATM password/hardware access, and PC Card support. It will have common controls and dialogs with Windows95. Login scripting for NetWare is promised by July.

Whither Cairo?

While not the second coming, Cairo still marks a fundamental departure from current server architectures. The key new piece of object technology in Cairo will be its Object File System-an extensible directory of all operating system objects that will function much like a database, permitting searches of object properties, such as the state of all color printers, and extending to documents.

This means that many of today's on-line or network-based database searches may evolve into future object-based directory searches. Cairo is expected to provide rich queries of the file system. While the operating system itself won't be object oriented, it will have an object manager, says Allchin. That manager will operate much like an object broker.

The fact that Microsoft's object architecture isn't based on the Object Management Group's (OMG) CORBA specification has raised some eyebrows. But John Rymer, editor of the Distributed Computing Monitor for the Patricia Seybold Group, says CORBA is just a specification. The true test will be marketplace functionality.

Digital Equipment Corp., Rymer says, is already working to support CORBA and Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM) on a wide variety of platforms. That effort includes OLE Portal, which is designed to intercept some basic OLE calls and transmit them to the server to operate against CORBA objects. Rymer also expects OMG to complete a CORBA-COM interoperability specification within a year, but a current hang-up is that Microsoft isn't offering anything more than its existing OLE 2.0 for the effort.

The distributed file system expected in Cairo would seemingly need to be based on a new, distributed version of OLE that would let applications interact, whether they are on the same system-as occurs today-or on multiple Microsoft-based systems. Just how that interaction occurs is proving to be a tough problem for Microsoft. Allchin describes today's plans for the Cairo release as "Tinker Toys," compared to the dream.

Performance and size will also be measures of Cairo. NT has just begun approaching marketplace expectations with a recommended 12 MB of RAM in version 3.5. "Eight megs is an engineering limit of how hard we'll try to push down" with Cairo, says Allchin. "But we don't know if we'll make it."

A long-term distributed computing goal for Cairo, says Gary Voth, SQL Server's group product manager, is to rely on a single "replication model for all of our products." Another is a single system of hierarchical storage on the network so that it doesn't matter where mail, user documents or other data are stored. With such unified storage, Microsoft believes users could query a very heterogeneous data system to find stocks, data feeds or other information.

Microsoft hopes eventually to provide a single management application and console for the BackOffice product set, comprising SQL Server, SNA Server, Mail Server, Windows NT Server and Systems Management Server (SMS). It would also like to reduce the number of separate store-and-forward mechanisms in BackOffice. "But everything is harder than it looks," says Allchin.

NT Server will move from Microsoft's proprietary security to support Kerberos for authentication and RSA Data Security's RC4 data encryption formula.

Analysts say they also expect NT-as well as IBM's OS/2-eventually to support application programming interfaces to the flow control capabilities needed for certain asynchronous transfer mode applications, such as interactive video.

What won't change much in Cairo is NT's kernel. Microsoft's Hemingway says interoperability with existing applications is "very important to us." He says developers writing to OLE today "won't have to radically rework or tear their apps apart."

So Why Windows95?

Allchin says "this is an evolving set of products" and so there can be no guarantees that Cairo is only a year away. Seybold's Rymer also says that Microsoft will follow the money, and if Windows95 is a huge success, the company could back off NT the same way it did OS/2.

Hemingway says Windows NT is the OS for the server, for BackOffice and for businesses needing extremely reliable clients. Windows95 is Microsoft's general 4-MB desktop (although analysts recommend at least 8 MB). NT supports symmetric multiprocessing and runs on RISC-based systems. Windows95 runs only on Intel-based machines. Microsoft also expects Windows95 to be used increasingly in the home.

Windows95 is flush with fascinating features, however, including system self-configuration for devices supporting Plug-and-Play APIs; dynamic loading and unloading for docking stations; a registry that can be queried for all configuration data; a configuration profile that follows the user on the LAN; support for 16- and 32-bit applications; support for longer file names; a more direct approach in help files; CD-ROM autoplay support and push-button task switching.

Networking-specific capabilities include: aliases, called "shortcuts," for networking applications; compression and encryption over the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP); single-button access to Microsoft's on-line network; single password access on-line and to the Internet; NetWare NCP peer service support; extensive control over the user interface, applications and points of communication through server-based policies.

Support for the Desktop Management Task Force's (DMTF) Desktop Management Interface is scheduled to ship 60 to 90 days after Windows95, although Microsoft does not plan to support the D MTF's Component Interface. The OS' native TCP/IP stack also allows for basic SNMP management.

But the Microsoft Business Division is building more than operating systems. Integrating the server applications in its BackOffice suite is how Microsoft wants to finally become a networking leader. Two of the hottest products in the BackOffice suite are SQL Server and the yet-to-be-shipped Microsoft Exchange mail system.

SQL Server: The Price Is Right

SQL Server's key product advantage is price. When it shipped in 1994, analysts said it cost almost 10 times less than some competitors' products. "Microsoft destroyed Borland with its price strategy for desktop databases and it will use pricing to win the enterprise market as well," Rymer says. But analysts don't expect Microsoft to take the feature lead soon.

The next version, SQL Server 95, was expected to have reached about 3,000 beta sites by early last month. Built-in replication, with drag-and-drop capabilities, is expected in the rev, and a high-performance parallel design is expected to boost query performance. These should position SQL Server better in decision-support environments. The rev also includes high-speed parallel backup support, which should help large users with multigigabit backup needs.

Microsoft also touts SQL Server 95's Enterprise Workbench, a feature designed to manage a multiserver environment from a single vantage point. Enterprise Workbench includes a scheduler for automating backup. SQL Server 95 is scheduled to ship before July.

Exchange: Server-Based Rules

Exchange-the successor to Microsoft Mail-is Microsoft's attempt to consolidate many disparate elements, including Internet use, group scheduling, forms, information sharing and client/server messaging. While no major new MS Mail releases are contemplated, Microsoft planned to integrate Mail with BackOffice by this spring, and MS Mail will be supported as a client under Exchange.

Exchange-which is expected to ship in the second half of th is year after a series of delays that have savaged its reputation-is slated to include native X.400, X.500, SMTP and Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI) support. Because the architecture is based on remote procedure calls, protocol independence is a strong suit. Replication across the network can be via RPC or messaging, depending on bandwidth requirements. Clients include Windows95, Windows 3.1, Windows NT, Macintosh, MS-DOS and Unix.

Features include extensive filtering capabilities to preview and sort messages. Rules can be set up, too, such as to forward mail when users are out of the office. Public folders can be finely manipulated so that additions from a particular source are automatically routed to a specific user. Forms are provided that can be extended with Visual Basic.

Exchange Server runs only on Windows NT. Exchange mailboxes are automatically created with the addition of new NT user accounts.

While NT includes SNMP support, Exchange does not support an e-mail-specific Management Information Base (MIB). Thomas Austin, Gartner Group's research director for Groupware and Workgroup Computing, says the lack of SNMP support will be a "sore point" with users, but not a decision-stopper.

SNA Server

Microsoft's SNA Server is a stable and well-known way to link PCs to IBM mainframes, but it is being recast as Microsoft's primary mainframe integration vehicle in all applications areas.

For example, Microsoft was expected to announce last month that version 2.11 of SNA Server will include Windows and Windows NT support for accessing IBM DB/2 and other Distributed Relational Database Architecture (DRDA) databases, without users having to install an entire SNA stack on network clients and without needing SQL Server or other database software. This is accomplished using StarWare's StarSQL ODBC-enabled DRDA requester over SNA Server's networking drivers.

Systems Management Server

Microsoft's SMS system inventory and software distribution product, w hich shipped last November, is closely aligned with the rest of BackOffice. Management information is passed to SQL Server, for example. SMS can also be used to manage Microsoft Exchange-such as by measuring server hard disk space.

Our December 1994 Sneak Preview of SMS (page 44) found it very NT-centric, expensive and challenging. But it is apt to improve with the addition of third-party applications.

SMS has hierarchical features. Some sites serve only as information collectors, while others provide limited management and still others provide a more full-featured view. Microsoft believes SMS will scale. Today, Microsoft uses SMS to manage most of its 19,000 PCs. While SMS includes its own network monitoring capabilities based on the Remote Monitoring specification (RMON), the company is working with Network General Corp. to integrate its more encompassing network analysis product with SMS. Microsoft is also integrating SMS with all the major SNMP management platforms, except Sun's. Microsoft says Sun wasn't interested in working with them.

Soft Wrap, Hard Mission

Even in Microsoft's new era of reduced expectations, its goals are ambitious. But the Business Systems Division has this much right-shipping what it promises, on time, with all its parts, will give NT and its interacting applications solid corporate appeal.

Christine Hudgins-Bonafield can be reached at cbonafield@nwc.com. Bruce Robertson also contributed to this article.


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