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Special reports - Getting better all the time - Sept 1999
Microsoft seems to be listening to its corporate customers. Ian Murphy sees what it has come up with in Windows Terminal Server 2000.

Since Microsoft launched Windows NT 4.0 Server Terminal Server Edition (WTS) last year, the product has consistently received good press. There are several reasons for this. Firstly it did actually fill a hole in the Microsoft product line and a multi-user operating system provides NT with some of those missing Unix-like features that Microsoft has long wanted.

Secondly, it provided a working solution to management of users and therefore fitted extremely well with the Microsoft push on Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Specifically, it allowed customers to control the desktop and deploy applications in an extremely controlled manner. Thirdly, it actually worked straight out of the box. Sure there were some problems and Microsoft was not exactly quick to address or admit to some of these but compared to the release of other Microsoft operating systems, this was an exercise in expertise.

For and against

Whilst there were several reasons for Microsoft to get good press, there were also several reasons for criticism. The first was the licensing model, which seemed to take forever to be clarified. The second was the poorness of the built-in Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Whilst the licensing has been addressed for now, Microsoft has relied on partners to provide a fully featured client. The launch of Windows 2000 seemed to provide a good opportunity for Microsoft to address both of these issues and to add some additional functionality, yet it would appear that Microsoft has missed the point entirely.

Another major headache was the fact that WTS was not actually part of the core Windows NT 4.0 product line, it was slapped on top after a lot of work by Microsoft’s main partner, Citrix. Although the final result has performed better than could have been expected, it has meant that significant care has had to be taken when working with WTS. One of the big issues has been that of service packs. Service packs have never been a happy area for Microsoft at the best of times but because of the way that the multi-user engine was linked to the underlying operating system, it became impossible to apply standard Windows NT 4.0 service packs. This resulted in a number of early problems for those who didn’t read the small print and a significant wait for the WTS service pack 1, which finally shipped in April this year. In addition to some specific WTS components, it also included the necessary fixes to bring WTS up to Windows NT 4.0 service pack 4. There are no plans to provide another service pack in order to bring WTS in line with Windows NT 4.0 service pack 5.

Server and Advanced Server

In Windows 2000, WTS (or Terminal Services as they are to be called) will find itself absorbed into two different products, Server and Advanced Server. The first major benefit of this is that the service pack issue is removed at a single stroke. This will mean that IT departments can run a single set of builds and apply service pack fixes as and when. To assist in making this painless, Microsoft has also changed the way that service packs are to be treated allowing slipstreaming of service pack components and this should allow builds to be maintained over a long period without the need to keep changing setup scripts.

The split between the two products also allows Microsoft to concentrate on how best to position the server products. Advanced Server will incorporate server clustering and load balancing making it the ideal platform for corporate application servers. For Terminal Services, provision of decent load balancing along with a separate clustering solution is critical to the success of server farms. Few major users of WTS run their servers in isolation because any failure of the server is likely to result in all the users being unable to access any data and applications. Load balancing allows for users to be spread across servers to ensure as high availability as possible as well as to allow users to be transferred to a working server when one partner fails. However, this comes at a significant cost and with Microsoft working this into a core offering that will be supplying this service to other parts of the network, it will be an attractive proposition to corporate network managers.

Licensing for Terminal Services

One thing that hasn’t really been talked about much has been the new licensing for Terminal Services. In this, Microsoft has been extremely clever. Windows 2000 will contain a number of additional components such as new networking services and the inclusion of Terminal Services. Poor reporting has initially led many people to believe that Microsoft was likely, therefore, to be bundling these services inside the core operating system. Make no mistake, this is not the case and nor was it ever intended to be. Until the recently released Windows 2000 Beta 3 RC1 shipped to developers, the licensing model was broken for Terminal Services. Now it has been fixed, we are finally able to see how this will work.

Windows 2000 is designed to be a single common binary product that will save Microsoft having to maintain several different code bases. As such, you will get Terminal Services when you purchase Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server, however, you will only have a limited degree of access. This access will be for 30 days only and if you have not purchased a licensing key at the end of this time, you will find your users locked out.

Terminal Services management

Management with Terminal Services will now be carried out via an MMC (Microsoft Management Console) plug-in. This means that only those administrators with Terminal Services installations will need to add the plug-in and others will be able to keep their desktop uncluttered. The Microsoft Installer and Systems Management Server (SMS) will also be adjusted to properly support Terminal Services. This is an area where a lot of changes are needed because WTS at present must be placed in single user mode before any software is installed on the server. By bringing these elements and the new Terminal Services together, corporate support departments will be able to plan and roll-out applications and updates during normal working hours, rather than wait until all the users have logged off.

Improvements to RDP are also taking place in order to allow Microsoft to take back some of the market perception that the current WTS is almost unworkable without the Citrix MetaFrame protocol and other utilities. The management of the user protocols has, until recently, been left to the two key third party suppliers, Citrix and NCD. There is an increasing amount of overlap between the Microsoft enhancements to RDP and that done by NCD so when Terminal Services becomes available, we will finally see just what real potential there is in RDP.

For Microsoft, the key improvements include the ability to shadow users for support and training as well as printer redirection. With the current emphasis on Windows CE, Microsoft has also decided that it needs to make high speed serial connectivity a priority for synchronisation of diary and contact lists. There have also been improvements to the overall performance of RDP although with Beta software, it is difficult to evaluate just how much these have improved. Clipboard redirection has also been added, which is important to those users who will be mixing both local applications and Terminal Services. Finally, in keeping with its security-orientated approach to Windows 2000, Microsoft has decided to allow protocol encryption.

Drive mapping missing

The key component that is missing from the client support is drive mapping. Microsoft doesn’t seem to understand why, for mobile users in particular, drive mapping is a key issue. Support departments have spent a lot of time educating users about drive letter. The RDP client, at present, makes it very difficult to write information to the local computer and I have seen users being taught to use the Network Neighbourhood to copy things from their RDP session to the local computer. Overall, the plans for Terminal Services are a significant improvement over the existing product and whilst there is undoubtedly room for additional improvements, it appears that Microsoft is making an effort to listen to corporate customers. What must happen, however, is that the pricing of Terminal Services must be kept low in order to allow certain vertical markets such as education, to afford to take advantage of the features.

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