Microsoft's Uncertain Embrace of Terminal Services

Microsoft’s attitude about terminal services confuses me. On one hand, the company seems to have embraced the idea of multiuser Windows. In July 1998, Microsoft came out with a multiuser version of Windows NT 4.0 to support users who want NT on the desktop but also want the advantages of a multiuser OS. The company is taking this concept a step further with Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server), which includes terminal services built in to the core OS in the form of a service that you can choose to install, such as Internet Information Server (IIS) or Network Monitor. Recognizing that having remote control of a server is a terrific administration tool, Microsoft even offers you the option in Windows 2000 (Win2K) of installing terminal services just for remote administration—after all, not everyone needs these services for application serving. Pretty cool.

On the other hand, Microsoft seems unsure whether it wants people to use its terminal services. The Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition beta version was working pretty darn well, so why not showcase it at TechEd ‘98? Microsoft could have used Terminal Server to power multimedia kiosks and demonstrated a potential application for multiuser Windows. Maybe the company didn’t want to use beta software. But terminal services technology was hard to find at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in October 1998, too, and Terminal Server was out in July. Microsoft provided a couple of introductory sessions on terminal services at TechEd ‘99, but not only were those sessions extremely basic, the presenter for one session was so unfamiliar with the topic that the audience had to prompt him—and correct him—when he didn’t know answers to simple questions such as whether Terminal Server supports session shadowing. If Microsoft wants to push terminal services, why didn’t it offer high-end presentations on the subject, as it did for other technologies?

Then there’s licensing. When terminal services first came out, Microsoft required you to buy an NT Workstation license for any computer that would access the terminal server. After realizing that people weren’t going to pay that much, the company reduced the licensing fees in February 1999, but it’s still expensive. At this point, you can essentially choose between two types of licenses: terminal server client-access licenses, which you use to connect users with accounts on the domain, and Internet client-access licenses, which you use to connect anonymous users accessing the terminal server via public networks. In other words, the Internet client-access licenses are useless to you unless you’re an application services provider (ASP). Even if your network runs across the Internet, you can’t use those Internet client-access licenses for employees, which makes terminal services expensive on a large scale.

A few days ago, I talked with someone who manages terminal services for a corporate WAN extending over much of the eastern United States. He mentioned that although he had about 1800 users, he was limiting terminal services to 400 users. "Hardware restrictions?" I asked. "No," he replied, "licensing."

People are interested in having terminal services to publish applications for their employees—no doubt about it. I like Terminal Server, and I really like how Microsoft is fitting terminal services into Win2K. I just wish I were sure that Microsoft is firmly behind terminal services, and not just supporting it grudgingly.

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