The beta 2 release of Windows NT 4.0 introduces important new capabilities that are lacking in beta 1. These features include integrated Domain Name System (DNS), integrated Internet Information Server (IIS), support for the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM), and support for the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), to name just a few. Beta 2 also moves NT 4.0 closer to the finished, polished release, driving the final nails into the coffin (or stake through the heart, if you prefer) of the NT 3.51 GUI.
If you're looking forward to NT 4.0, here's a quick preview of NT Workstation and Server beta 2 and how they differ from beta 1. For a summary of all 4.0 enhancements, see the sidebars, "The 'Official' List of NT Workstation 4.0 Enhancements" and "The 'Official' List of NT Server 4.0 Enhancements."
NT Workstation and Server both incorporate many of the same beta 2 changes. For example, both the Workstation and Server releases closely conform to Microsoft's universal GUI, which most of the world knows as the Windows 95 interface. Although Microsoft first introduced this interface to NT as a downloadable option for 3.51 and then integrated it into 4.0 beta 1, neither implementation was close to being fully compliant with Win95. With beta 2, however, the interface so closely resembles the Win95 interface that you can hardly tell the difference--thank goodness for the product name display in the Start button list.
For beta 1 users, the two most significant GUI changes in beta 2 are in Remote Access Service (RAS) and printer setup and management. A Dial-Up Networking applet has replaced the familiar 3.51 RAS dialer. This applet is a hybrid implementation of the RAS dialer and the Win95 Dial-Up Networking folder. Similarly, the 3.51 Print Manager is gone, and print configuration and management go through the Printers folder. Screen 1 shows the new interface.
Of course, plenty of subtle differences still exist between the beta 2 interface and Win95's. For example, in the Control Panel, beta 2 still has a Services applet that is not in Win95, and the System applet in the beta 2 Control Panel does not handle the same functions as the System applet in the Win95 Control Panel. The bottom line is that once you get under the surface of the interface, you'll still find plenty of unique features in NT 4.0.
Beyond the changes to the interface, two additional--and significant--new capabilities, DCOM and PPTP, are in beta 2 for both Workstation and Server. DCOM is the long-awaited implementation of network-based COM (or network OLE, as I will forever think of it in my heart). DCOM lets you implement object-oriented client/server solutions. In these solutions, object type recognition and activation can occur over a network (as opposed to within the same NT system). For example, you can designate specific systems in your network to act as object servers for NT-based clients. (Windows NT Magazine will look at DCOM in depth in coming issues.)
PPTP, in contrast, extends the usefulness of RAS into new areas. In particular, PPTP lets you establish client/server NT connections over the Internet or over any large, wide-area TCP/IP network, for that matter. Although using PPTP is conceptually similar to running NetBIOS under TCP/IP on a RAS link, PPTP hides the issues associated with system name (NetBIOS name) discovery from the intervening network (e.g., the Internet). With a traditional NetBIOS-TCP/IP connection, the client needs access to a Windows Internet Name Service (WINS) server or a local host table, or the client must broadcast name discovery requests to contact other systems in the network. WINS servers or time-consuming broadcast messages on the Internet are difficult propositions at best. PPTP moves this process, so it occurs outside the interconnecting network. Microsoft claims that PPTP offers secure connections through the Internet, but I haven't yet seen verification of the full extent of this claim.
Two interesting enhancements to the Workstation beta 2 are Peer Web Services and support for initial system logon via dial-up networking. Peer Web Services is just another name for Microsoft's IIS running in an NT Workstation environment. I guess Microsoft is hoping the term peer will scare you from implementing an Internet-based or enterprisewide Web server on an NT Workstation system. (And while I'm talking about Web stuff, note that beta 2 includes Microsoft's Web browser, Internet Explorer--IE--2.0.)
Logon via dial-up networking addresses an NT security problem that has been present for some time. In past releases, if you use a standalone system for dial-up (RAS) networking, you have two levels of security: local logon security for the standalone system and the security you establish during the RAS logon. After the RAS logon, you end up with a mix of local and domain-based (or workgroup) security. This situation is less than ideal. With beta 2, the initial logon screen lets you log on via dial-up networking. In this case, a domain controller validates your user security just as if you were attached to a local network. This approach is clearly better for security-conscious environments.
NT Server Enhancements
On the server front, the two most interesting beta 2 enhancements are Microsoft's finalization of the DNS implementation and the inclusion of IIS 2.0. Although beta 1 introduced DNS, the graphical configuration module did not appear until beta 2. DNS converts TCP/IP names (e.g., as400.enck.com) into IP addresses (e.g., 188.8.131.52). DNS is a mainstay for the Internet (and TCP/IP in general). Screen 2 shows the NT 4.0 configuration utility, which lets you set up NT as a DNS server that is easier to use than most Unix DNS implementations.
IIS 2.0 is an easy-to-configure solution for setting up a Web server, FTP server, and gopher server or just the specific one(s) you need. All three run as native NT services (as opposed to running as applications) and share an administrative interface, as you see in Screen 3. IIS is simple to deploy and offers realworld performance--especially on a high-end multiprocessor system. NT Server beta 2 includes IE 2.0, so without going to another system or installing a third-party browser, you can test your Web services as you deploy them.
A hard look at all the TCP/IP enhancements to NT Server makes inescapable the conclusion that Microsoft is serious about positioning NT to be the Internet and intranet server of choice. With the addition of DNS and Web services to the base NT Server package, NT Server immediately becomes useful as an Internet or intranet server. Now NT can directly contend with Unix for new server applications.
Is Beta 2 for You?
Microsoft has been aggressive about getting copies of beta 2 into the hands of the public--much more aggressive than with beta 1. But having and using are two different things; the question is whether to use beta 2 for real-life applications. My advice is no, for several reasons. First, beta 2 is not particularly fast--it still includes lots of debugging code to slow it. Second, beta 2 is a time-limited release that is good for only 150 days. Finally, it is a beta release, which means you can't get immediate corrections or workarounds for any serious problems you encounter; you have to wait for the final release. Oh sure, beta 2 is fun to play with, but wait for the final release before you deploy NT 4.0 for real.