The last thing that Microsoft needed in the run-up to its Windows 2000 launch was a
comment by Gartner raising concerns about potential application incompatibilities. But
then, life is never easy when you're at the top. The well-respected analysis company
suggested that there could be minor incompatibilities between Windows 2000 and
applications designed for older Microsoft operating systems, and it suggested waiting for
the few months before purchasing the software, rather than diving in head first.
Certainly, Microsoft has a lot to prove with this new software. It is making a
number of large claims for the system, which will hopefully dispel some of Windows NT
4.0's reputation for a lack of reliability. In particular, it is including self-repair
facilities, that enable both the Server and Professional (desktop) editions of the
operating system to re-install corrupted system files and protect device drivers from
corruption by badly behaved applications. Another aspect of this application reliability
feature is the ability for the server to remotely repair desktop applications that have
been corrupted. This will save administration and helpdesk staff a lot of work. Its
based on the Windows Installer feature, which provides a generally more reliable
application installation process, enabling users to escape from a process more cleanly if
it goes wrong.
While making the product less susceptible to crashes, the company is also touting a
number of new features designed to add functionality to the software, and to differentiate
it from its predecessor. The most important of these is the Active Directory service.
Novell has always used the directory service within Windows NT 4.0 as a stick to beat
Microsoft with, because it uses a 'flat' structure to hold information about company
resources on the network. This has been frowned on in the past, because most company
infrastructures are hierarchical. Active Directory is an object-based directory services
model that holds information about company resources using a forest, tree and branch
approach. This enables companies to create a more accurate picture of their
infrastructures within Windows 2000, but it also means that they can make some spectacular
mistakes if they don't understand what they are doing from the outset. Training is vital.
Active Directory includes the ability to define group policies, meaning that you
can assign certain attributes to groups of users all in one go, which is useful for
managing people at a departmental or workgroup level. You can also use this facility to
distribute software automatically based on group attributes set in the directory - handy
for ensuring that the managing director isn't sent the latest version of Doom when you
install it for all your mates in the accounts department.
A particularly clever feature of the Directory is its delegation ability.
Generally, companies may feel happier delegating administration tasks to individuals
within a certain office or department. It makes more sense for the UK office of a
multinational company to set up and maintain the security privileges and system
information of its own employees, rather than having a disassociated IT administrator do
it from, say, the New York headquarters. Microsoft has built administrative delegation
into Active Directory so that it doesn't all have to be done from a central location. One
potential benefit of this is that local changes can be made more quickly. If a member of
staff leaves the company, you don't want to have to wait for a week before the central
office gets around to removing their passwords.
These group policies can be put to good use when coping with mobile staff. The new
Intellimirror facility maintains information about the applications and desktop settings
that a member of staff uses. It uses this information to present the same environment to
that user wherever they are on the network. It means that an executive travelling from the
London to Manchester office can plug in his laptop when she gets there without having to
cope with an alien server environment.
But perhaps the most important thing about Active Directory is that it will form
the foundation for Exchange 2000, the latest version of Microsoft's messaging product,
which will ship later this year. This is likely to be the killer app for that technology.
Microsoft has also overhauled the operating system's security functions. For one
thing, the server addition now includes support for the well-known Kerberos system, and
the company purports to have integrated this functionality with Active Directory. This
means that the operating system can reference security profiles held within Active
Directory when granting staff access to particular systems and applications. Windows 2000
now includes data inclusion on the desktop, which will be handy for protecting sensitive
data in the office.
For those customers with more mission critical computing needs, particularly in the
e-commerce space, Microsoft has also released Advanced Server, which includes clustering
facilities that are backwards compatible with the company's existing Windows Load
Balancing System (WLBS). This enables you to implement dual-node failover clustering to
make your system more reliable. It also includes Network Load Balancing, enabling a group
of up to 32 clustered servers to share the variable workload that Web sites often receive
from the Internet. Clustering aside, Advanced Server also supports up to eight processors
in a single box. Further down the line, Microsoft will ship the Datacentre edition of
Windows 2000 for very high-end customers.
In addition to the new administration and end-user services within Windows 2000,
Microsoft has also taken the opportunity to enhance the application infrastructure within
the product. The company has based its application development strategy on software
components for the past few years, in the form of the Component Object Model (COM).
Windows 2000 takes the technology one step further, with the introduction of COM+, an
enhanced version of its component implementation. COM+ is the lynchpin of Microsoft's new,
grown-up Internet-oriented application development strategy, DNA.COM is designed to work
in an n-tier applications model, with the presentation at the front, (often in the form of
an Internet browser, for example,) the data at the back, in the form of a database such as
SQL Server, and the application logic - the bit of the system that handles the business
process - in the middle, residing on any number of distributed servers. This is often
known as the application logic.
COM+ integrates COM with the Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS). MTS is a piece of
software designed to co-ordinate interactions between different COM components and
external resources such as databases. It can be used when components have to provide
different services to process a single transaction, such as a customer order, for example.
COM+ also includes other services, such as COM+ Events, a software service that notifies
clients when a particular back-end event has happened. A good example of this is the
notification of a customer whose order has been processed. COM+ also includes a facility
that enables COM+ components to take part in a transaction while they are offline or
unavailable. So, if a customer order was being processed, the shipping department could
send the product without waiting for a customer information component to update its
records to reflect the sale.
Because COM+ is designed to work with Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP), the
enhanced application development infrastructure will be of particular interest to
companies that want to develop e-commerce applications.
Better performance, tighter security, greater reliability and more sophisticated
network administration are the main benefits to be found inside Windows 2000. If you want
to take advantage of it, just make sure that you have a clear understanding of your
existing applications infrastructure, and have certified that your software is able to
work with the system.