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Accountancy Age Feature: Windows opens to the world

Not wishing to upstage our third millennium, Microsoft waited until 17 February 2000 to release its Windows 2000 operating system under the (for Microsoft only slightly) hyperbolic banner of ‘the biggest launch on Earth’. But the market into which Microsoft’s flagship product emerges is not quite the one the company once expected.

There have been significant changes during the time it took Windows 2000 to go from drawing board to shrink-wrap. In 1996 its predecessor, Windows NT 4.0, supported multiple hardware platforms, would soon displace Novell NetWare from its number one PC server position, and even looked capable of toppling UNIX.

Four years on, we know networks are irrevocably heterogeneous, UNIX is unbowed, and Windows 2000 faces strong competition from both Novell NetWare 5 and the upstart Linux. However, this is good news for both users and Windows 2000, which can only benefit from developing in a competitive environment.

There are four versions of the operating system: Server, Advanced Server, DataCenter Server, and Professional, which is Microsoft’s mainstream business client (the operating system that runs your desktop or laptop PC).

Like Windows 98, Windows 2000 supports all the latest hardware acronyms (which needn’t concern us here), plays DVDs and allows PC Cards to be swapped at will. Unlike Windows 98, it allows the user’s desktop configuration to be locked down (so IT people can stop users messing up their own systems) and it has a robust file system which supports data encryption.

Windows 2000 is designed to be easier to use than Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and more reliable than Windows 98 – which it is. It’s especially good on laptops as it now supports power management. It is also designed to provide increased hardware support, and to simplify systems management in order to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). Its business objective, encapsulated in the name of the premium server – DataCentre Server – is to go where Windows NT 4.0 didn’t and make Windows 2000 the server on which major corporations can safely bet the business.

To these ends, Microsoft has introduced a system-wide directory of network resources called Active Directory, made extensive enhancements to the operating system’s security, networking, and storage subsystems, and imposed stricter requirements on hardware and software vendors seeking Windows 2000 approval for their products.

Active Directory is the most significant new feature. For the first time, it provides a single set of management interfaces for Windows 2000 networks. It is not installed by default but it is a prerequisite for running the new management systems, which aim to deliver the TCO savings.Although built on Windows NT 4.0, much of Windows 2000, including core services such as networking, security, and the Active Directory, is new. It has spent over two years in public beta tests, but it needs to be tested in the marketplace, and a few Windows NT and Windows 95/98 applications may not work with Windows 2000 Professional.

The first few months after the release of a new operating system is also the time when the peripheral manufacturers shake out compatibility problems that have survived the beta tests. Companies which can afford to watch and learn as the early adopters install Windows 2000 and implement their Active Directory structures are lucky.

The big question regarding a Windows 2000 roll-out is when to inject it into an organisation. The short answer is: only after solid training, careful planning, and a live trial period. To allow a smooth migration to Windows 2000, both the server and desktop client versions can co-exist with earlier versions of Windows and Windows NT. However, this is subject to certain constraints – principally that co-existing Windows 2000 servers will emulate Windows NT servers and won’t run Active Directory. Unfortunately, this means that, until an organisation upgrades all of its networked computers, it will be prevented from implementing many of the new features on which the TCO savings are predicted.

  • Terence Green is a freelance journalist

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