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Special reports - Jan 2000 -- Out with the old

As Microsoft pensions off a selection of its MCSE exams, Phil Edwards takes a look at the pressure this puts on the industry.

When what is now Windows 2000 was in beta testing, dates were something of a contentious issue for Microsoft. Plans for a rollout in the fourth quarter of 1998 were rapidly shelved, in favour of a launch in the second quarter of 1999; in the course of 1999, this in turn was replaced by a plan to reach release to manufacture (RTM) stage in the fourth quarter.
This final target was eventually hit; Windows 2000 should be hitting distributors and OEMs any time now. However, Microsoft’s date woes are not over yet. For all the media interest in Windows 2000, it is unclear how enthusiastic a reception the new OS will have in the world of business: a substantial period of coexistence with NT 4.0 is widely expected, both globally and within individual companies. Moreover, Microsoft stands accused of forcing the pace: making it harder in the medium term for companies to run on a mixture of NT and Windows 2000 platforms, so as to encourage conversion to the new platform.

Out to grass

This latest controversy has been triggered off by an apparently routine announcement on Microsoft’s Web site. The page http://www.microsoft.com/mcp/examinfo/retired.htm gives a list of exams ‘selected for retirement’. Selected in September 1999 were "Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0" (exam 70-067), "Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise" (exam 70-068) and "Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0" (exam 70-073). Each of these will be withdrawn as of December 31st 2000; MCSE and MCDBA candidates will be required to pass a replacement exam within the next year. Following the retirement of "Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 3.51" and "Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 3.51" (exams 70-042 and 70-043 respectively), the September announcements made a clean sweep of MCSE certification for NT.

The difference between Windows 2000 and NT has been likened to the difference between Windows 95 and Windows 3.1. "There’s no doubt that Windows 2000 is needed," says Richard Harrison of QA Training. "NT 4.0 is getting long in the tooth; Windows 2000, even in beta, is considerably more functional - and more stable." There is general agreement that the client OS, Windows 2000 Professional, will make extensive inroads in the NT Workstation and Windows 9x user bases: the NT 4.0 Workstation exams may not be missed much more than the Windows 3.1 exams (withdrawn in September 1998). The server side is another matter. The first release of Windows 2000 Server will be a large, complex and relatively unfamiliar piece of software: it would be a bold system administrator who pushed it out across an organisation without an extensive period of live running on a single server.

Rip and replace

Microsoft disclaims any intention of hurrying the transition. "We don’t expect the market to move in a predefined timescale," comments Microsoft’s Nicholas McGrath. "Even when people have adopted Windows 2000, there will be a period of coexistence with NT: our research indicates that there’s not much enthusiasm for a ‘rip and replace’ approach. We’ve put a lot of effort into enabling integration, both with NT 4.0 and with NetWare; you can set up a Windows 2000 server as a backup domain controller within an NT 4.0 network, or for that matter as a primary domain controller."

The MCSE news appears to tell a different story. While the lack of an MCSE exam will not in itself make NT training unobtainable, it will make it considerably less attractive - which in turn will make it less of a viable proposition for training providers. "We’re committed to offering training across both platforms," says Alan Bellenger of Wave Technology, "but towards the end of last year we were having to work to keep NT training alive; the interest was all in Windows 2000." Bellenger anticipates an even steeper drop in demand for NT training from the latter half of this year onward.

How much this will matter depends on how long the period of coexistence identified by McGrath will be. As with any other software release, prospective users of Windows 2000 can be divided into three groups: the early adopters at one extreme, the diehards at the other, with the majority of users in between the two. However, says Bellenger, Windows 2000 has an unusually high proportion of early adopters: "I’d put it at 20-25%; it’s generally more like 5-10%." This will have dramatically raised the volume of interest expressed in Windows 2000 prior to its launch - "we’re seeing incredibly high levels of interest," McGrath comments - and may have given the impression of a relatively rapid movement away from NT.

Three-way split

In reality, the pace of change may be considerably slower. The three-way division between early adopters, laggards and the rest of us is complicated by the realities of implementing a new server platform. Bellenger identifies three implementation milestones:
  • the trial installation, insulated from live systems
  • the first live installation
  • the transition to a Windows 2000-only network throughout the organisation

While in some software implementations these stages - particularly the second and third - might be telescoped, in the case of Windows 2000 the time and effort involved is likely to be substantial. As McGrath maintains, Windows 2000 should be a good network citizen, setting aside some lingering doubts in areas such as bi-directional directory synchronisation; however, many of its most innovative features - from the Active Directory to the multi-master domain model - will only come into their own when installed throughout an organisation’s network.

This three-stage model modifies the simple picture of early adopters and laggards in two ways. Firstly, the process of implementation across an organisation may be lengthy, meaning that the technical base of different departments within an organisation has to be taken into account: "even the most forward-looking organisation will have pockets of diehards," comments Bellenger. Secondly, it shouldn’t be assumed from the groundswell of enthusiasm for Windows 2000 that there will be a rush to live implementation. In the corporate world, in particular, even the early birds move slowly: "There’s a lot of enthusiasm - for pilots," stresses IBM’s Dick Sullivan.

When it comes to full-scale implementation, many companies are expected to follow the Gartner Group’s much-publicised recommendations and sit it out until the first Service Pack appears. "Windows 2000 offers distinct advantages over NT, but that doesn’t translate to an instant upgrade," says Sullivan. "Nothing’s automatic any more. Windows 2000 is going to prompt people to make rational decisions about the software to meet their needs - looking at Linux at the low end and Unix or AS/400 at the high end, as well as Windows 2000. A rational decision about Windows 2000 could be to wait for the first service release; I don’t know of any operating system which was perfect on its first release."

Slowly does it

Microsoft has taken account of the ‘Gartner factor’ and acted accordingly: we can expect to see the first Windows 2000 service pack within months of the initial release. Nevertheless, few vendors are betting on a rapid rollout. "All our NT software will be Windows 2000 ready on day one," says Sullivan, "but not all of it will exploit the new features of Windows 2000 straight away. That capability will be there by the end of 2000. Given that many of the new features depend on a Windows 2000-only network, we don’t believe there will be any great demand for software to exploit them before then; organisations will need that time to roll out their Windows 2000 clients and servers."

On this reading, Windows 2000 will just be establishing its user base and beginning to supplant NT 4.0 at the point when the NT 4.0 MCSE exams are withdrawn. The timing is odd, to say the least. It now seems inevitable that NT will survive for two or three years alongside Windows 2000. Even the dreaded Y2K is a factor: as Harrison points out, many companies have just invested heavily in NT 4.0 networks, and are unlikely to want to repeat the process much before 2002.

For Bellenger, the withdrawal raises two main issues. "Firstly, the timing is wrong. Withdrawing NT qualifications at the point when Windows 2000 has 80% of the market would be understandable, but I don’t think that’ll be the case at the end of 2001 - I expect it will be more like 40%. Secondly, there’s a broader question about the whole issue of exam retirement. At the moment, NT 4.0 qualified MCSEs can ‘upgrade’ to MCSE 2000 status by taking the accelerated exam track. What this decision means is that after 2001 that will no longer be an option: your NT 4.0 exams will no longer count towards an MCSE. It’s a high-handed decision. I can understand Microsoft treating the sales channel in this way - arguably it comes with the territory - but extending it to all MCSEs is hard to justify."

Phil Edwards