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Special reports - The origin of the species - December 1999
As this the end of this century awaits us, Andy O’Brien looks back at the birth of NT and charts its evolution into Windows 2000
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NT Diary
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October 1988 Dave Cutler joins Microsoft, and a Windows NT development team is formed
August 1991 Microsoft demonstrates NT at its Windows Developers Conference
October 1991 Comdex hosts the first public demo of NT
September 1993 Windows NT 3.1 is released
September 1994 Windows NT 3.5 is released
June 1995 Windows NT 3.51 is released
August 1996 Windows NT 4.0 is released
September 1997 Windows NT 5.0 Beta 1 is released
December 1997 Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack is released
August 1998 Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 is released to testers
October 1998 Announcement made that Windows NT 5.0 is to be renamed ‘Windows 2000’
April 1999 Windows 2000 Beta 3 is released to testers
July 1999 Windows 2000 Release Candidate 1 is released to testers
September 1999 Windows 2000 Release Candidate 2 is released to testers
February 2000 Windows 2000 is released!


NT is not new, its roots can be traced back to 1975 when Digital started development of VMS. The Digital link comes from Microsoft’s hiring of David N. Cutler. He was responsible for VMS on the DEC VAX, to head a team of developers who’s aim was to design an operating system to run business applications. Cutler insisted on bringing 20 VMS developers with him and their knowledge and experience was instrumental in shaping NT. (An urban myth exists that Windows New Technology – WNT – was, in fact, named after VMS; move one letter on alphabetically from VMS and you get WNT.) The original plan for Microsoft’s 32-bit operating system was that it was going to be OS/2 version 3.0, but Microsoft and IBM stopped the joint development of OS/2 and Microsoft was left with the technology.

NT’s first public showing

NT’s first public showing was eight years ago, in 1991, three years on from when development first started – and only seven years after MS-DOS 1.0 was first shipped. Granted, it didn’t go on public release until September 1993 but it takes a while to write over six million lines of code.

Windows NT 3.1 (named to keep in line with Windows 3.1) was released in September 1993 and was priced at 395.00. It needed a fast 386, or equivalent, at least 12 MB of RAM (ideally 16 MB) and at least 75 MB of free disk space. (Compare this to Win2K Professional which needs a 166MHz Pentium or higher, 32 MB of RAM as a minimum, and a 2 GB hard disk with at least 650 MB of free space).

Windows NT 3.1 and Windows NT Advanced Server 3.1 brought significant changes to Operating System power with a wide range of features: micro-kernel architecture, pre-emptive multitasking scheduler, Intel x86/MIPS support, support for the Win 32 API, support for DOS, 16-bit versions of Windows, OS2 and POSIX applications, domain server security, file and print services and Windows NT file system to replace the age-old FAT. NT was also designed to be hardware independent, which brought it within the reach of an, as yet, untapped audience for Microsoft.

Microsoft upgraded its first release one year later with NT 3.5; supplied as Windows NT 3.5 Workstation and Windows NT 3.5 Server, and in 1995, Windows NT 3.51. Requiring less memory, it had better OLE support and higher performance. But, performance was not high enough – that was the price of reliability. Much of the stability that NT boasted was thanks to the operating system’s architecture. Each application that NT hosts runs in what is called user mode, whereas the NT Executive runs in kernel mode which means, in simple terms, that the codes running in each level cannot bump into each other. Applications cannot clash as they run in different address spaces and the NT executive, although sharing address space with running processes, is protected by the difference between user and kernel mode. This means that an application cannot corrupt data or code in the Executive and was a major advantage in comparison to Windows 95 which houses most of its operating system code in the same space as processes. In NT, an application can crash itself, but the OS is safe as it cannot get to the NT code and data.

Moving house

In order to try and offer the best of both worlds, reliability and high performance, Microsoft enhanced NT 3.51 in August 1996 with NT 4.0. Seen as a major upgrade, Microsoft aimed to reduce memory requirements and encourage performance. One way of achieving this was to move many of the application program interface (API) services out of the Win32 subsystem (where Win32 applications called upon them to open files and create windows etc.) and place them in the operating system kernel.

This new architecture was expected to enable huge increases in performance as it required far fewer switches between layers in the execution of a command. With the majority of code and data implementing the Win32 API services mapped into the address of every process, the need for shared memory buffers and server threads no longer exists, thereby freeing up memory.

Out with the old

Whilst answering the prayers of much of the IT community, NT 4.0 disappointed those who were expecting PnP support, the migration of around 100 of the most popular Win95 applications and object-oriented additions to the NT file system. With this release of NT, Microsoft stopped supporting 386 processors requiring a 486 or greater CPU, at least 12 MB of RAM and 108 MB of hard disk space (although independent tests suggested twice these figures for optimal performance). By now there were over 16 million lines of code. NT 4.0 saw four service packs and one option pack which added public key and certificate authority functionality, smart card support, improved SMP scalability, clustering, COM, reliable synchronous and queued transaction support, streaming media features, and more of a focus on Web technologies.

Six months after the release of NT 4.0, a group of developers at Microsoft were told that the next incarnation, NT 5.0, would be released in the first quarter of 1998. In September 1997 NT 5.0 Beta 1 was released and Bill Gates announced that he was betting the farm on NT 5.0.

This latest incarnation saw enhancements that would benefit server users, making the management and day-to-day operation of the system much more simple. The most talked about innovation was the Active Directory, NT’s new directory service, which was based on the CCITT X.500 and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and is an extensible database of information. A major breakthrough in system administration, it can maintain information on security, users and servers in the network and replaces the Security Accounts Database in NT. NT 5.0 also came with improved security, network management and integration with Internet Explorer, bringing users closer to the Web. The Beta 2 version, released in August 1998, brought IntelliMirroring, which allowed a server to store applications, profiles and personal data thereby increasing the ease of use.

What’s in a name?

Not only was Microsoft changing the features and functionality of its operating system, in October 1998 it announced a name change too. From now on Windows NT5.0 would be called Windows 2000 and Bill Gates announced that: "Windows 2000 is the most significant upgrade in the history of Microsoft". Most of the Windows 2000 talk in the industry has been focussed on its release date, rather than its features and at the time of writing, there is still no definite date for release and conflicting stories abound. Bill Gates, at the end of August, was "pretty sure" that it would ship this year, and indeed it probably will as Microsoft has named December 5th as the date for release to manufacture. So, although Windows 2000 will technically ship this year, the users will not get the software until two months afterwards.

Most users are not worried about the uncertainty surrounding the release date as the majority are not holding anything back in the wait. A recent Windows NT & 2000 explorer survey highlighted the UK’s comparative ambivalence to the release date. Over 350 NT sites were questioned and 26% of respondents did not know when they were going to install Windows 2000 and the next highest figure was 19% of people who plan to install it within a year of its release. A clear indication that there is no sense of urgency for at least 45% of NT sites in the UK.

So, what are we waiting for? Windows 2000 should live up to expectations, with Beta 3 going out to almost half a million customers, 140,000 developers and 100,000 channel partners around the world, any problems should have been ironed out and holes should have been filled. Even if they’re not, the future for Windows 2000 is pretty secure. There will probably only be two more NT Service Packs released and Microsoft has stopped development on NT already. Training has now switched its focus onto Windows 2000 from NT and with these obstacles in place, Microsoft is sure to deter people from using NT for much longer than they have to.

All we can do now is to sit back and wait as Microsoft continues its death march.