Windows 2000 Update

Even in beta form, Windows 2000 is powerful, stable, and easy to use

The last time I looked at a beta of Windows NT 5.0, the software was fairly rough, fairly large, and fairly unusable. NT 5.0 Beta 2 is much-improved over the previous beta (which I expected), but in terms of stability, Beta 2 is equal to NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3 (SP3—which I didn't expect). I probably won't replace my NT 4.0 setups with the beta software, but working with the code over the past few months has proven to be almost as reliable as working with a production-level release. Later builds are even more impressive.

Since Beta 2, Microsoft has renamed NT 5.0 to Windows 2000 (Win2K), and Win2K is far behind schedule—Microsoft has pushed the tentative ship date to sometime in the fourth quarter of 1999. However, several production servers at Microsoft are already running Win2K beta code, which is a testament to how polished the betas are proving to be. For this review, I used Beta 2 as a reference platform, but I’ve also booted to post-Beta 2 interim builds (all the way up to Release Candidate 0—RC0—of what will eventually ship as Beta 3—also known as build 1946), each of which is more stable and robust than the last version. So without further ado, here are my impressions of the current state of Win2K.

Easy Installation
The first thing you notice about Win2K is the streamlined installation process. Setting up the software is still a two-step task (text mode, then GUI), but now you can perform most of the process in the more aesthetically pleasing graphical mode. Like OS/2, Win2K opens a command prompt window while you install the software, letting you clean up your hard disks, bang out some prose, or even play a simple game rather than watching the hypnotic sway of the status bar.

Hardware Heaven
Even in its beta state, Win2K boasts impressive hardware support. With the Windows Driver Model (WDM) in place, independent hardware vendors (IHVs) will be able to write one unified driver for their device and have the device run on both Windows 98 and Win2K. Beta 2 supports Universal Serial Bus (USB) and FireWire devices, letting users connect the latest and greatest device types to their NT boxes. Additionally, Beta 2 natively supports new multimedia devices such as DVD-ROM drives and 3-D accelerators. Win2K will ship with DirectX 7.0 or higher, so you’ll be able to watch DVD films and play the latest graphics-intensive games without rebooting to the multimedia-friendly Win98.

Overall, Win2K’s approach to hardware support seems to have one foot in the future and one foot in the past. Most legacy device drivers run on Beta 2 with one oddity—using a video driver designed for NT 4.0 disables the OS’s power management features. By shifting from Advanced Power Management (APM) to the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI), Microsoft also introduces potential incompatibilities with notebook systems that lack ACPI support, which includes most notebooks in use today.

Of course, these hardware concerns are moot if NT can't detect the new hardware. Fortunately, Plug-and-Play (PnP) support seems solid in Win2K build 1946. I’ve thrown numerous devices at the OS—from SCSI adapters to 3-D accelerators to NICs—and the setup program correctly detected every item. I also shut down the system and added a Creative Labs DVD-ROM drive to the motherboard's secondary IDE channel. When the OS booted, the software automatically installed the drivers for the DVD-ROM, and I was able to use the DVD-ROM without rebooting.

The only hardware that Beta 2 didn't support out-of-the-box was my SoundBlaster Live! Card. To be fair, Creative Labs seems to have difficulty writing stable NT 4.0 drivers for the card, so I wasn’t expecting a beta driver (although, with the unified WDM, there’s really no excuse).

In previous NT versions, adding or removing system components usually kicked your system into a rebooting frenzy. Win2K system components are still modular, but the components snap into place without requiring reboots. In NT 4.0, 45 situations required a reboot. In Win2K, Microsoft has trimmed the number of reboot-required tasks to the following five:

  • Changing the system font
  • Changing the default system locale
  • Installing a Service Pack
  • Adding or removing a COM port
  • Upgrading to a domain controller

As a test, I installed TCP/IP support after loading the OS. I could immediately use the protocol without rebooting the computer. Also, you can dynamically load and unload device drivers, much like system services. I installed a driver for a NIC, and the system immediately initialized the hardware without requiring a reboot. Very impressive.

Trimming the FAT
Let’s face it, some existing technologies are so archaic that we should have put them out to pasture years ago. Outdated technologies are especially aggravating when superior solutions are available. The FAT file system is just one of these outdated technologies. We’ve seen several superior file systems in the past few years; High-Performance File System (HPFS) and NTFS use smaller cluster sizes and include recoverability features that you can't even retrofit onto FAT, but new machines still ship with FAT file systems.

Win2K now supports FAT32. Microsoft first introduced FAT32 in the 1996 release of Win95 OEMSR2. FAT32 is a compromise between the traditional FAT file system and HPFS/NTFS. By formatting a volume as FAT32, you lose the security and recoverability features, but you can take advantage of the file system’s smaller cluster sizes. By converting a FAT16 volume to FAT32, you can reclaim as much as 200MB from a 2GB partition. FAT32 also lets you create partitions larger than 2GB, with a maximum limit of 2TB.

NTFS 5.0 has changed little in post-Beta 1 builds. All the enhanced NTFS functions, such as file encryption, content indexing, disk quotas, and property sets, are still usable. Unfortunately, Win2K betas now require NTFS 5.0, and the software will upgrade every NTFS volume to NTFS 5.0. By default, NT 4.0 doesn’t recognize the updated partitions until you install Service Pack 4 (SP4) or copy the special NTFS.sys (included with Win2K betas) to the System32 directory.

The only file system change seems to be that the new functions are more accessible. For example, Microsoft has refined the quota system to make assigning and applying disk quotas ridiculously simple, as Screen 1 shows.

Win2K has a new defragmentation tool, licensed from Executive Systems (makers of the popular Diskeeper program). Disk Defragmenter, as Screen 2 shows, is a modified version of Diskeeper Lite that supports FAT, FAT32, NTFS, and NTFS 5.0. When I ran Disk Defragmenter against a severely fragmented 4GB partition, the new defragmenter performed as well as Diskeeper Lite. Disk Defragmenter requires a large amount of free disk space to work its magic. You'll need to keep about 45 to 50 percent of your partitions free if you want an effective defragmentation. Anything less than that amount will require the program to perform multiple passes to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, you must run Disk Defragmenter manually—you can’t schedule unattended defragmentations. Because programs such as Norton Utilities and Diskeeper include scheduling features, I doubt Microsoft will add these features to the final version of Disk Defragmenter, unless the company doesn't mind alienating some of the pioneer NT independent software vendors (ISVs).

How many files do you have in your System32 directory? The number is staggering, isn’t it? Now, how many of those files can you readily identify? If your system is similar to mine, you’re probably staring at a large list of strange files. Today’s applications tend to dump files in the System and System32 directories, and uninstall programs often forget to remove these files when you delete the application. To keep directories clean, Win2K introduces the Windows Installer Service (WIS). WIS acts as a watchdog for third-party applications. By defining and enforcing a set of rules that govern which tasks installation programs can perform, WIS forces programs to install DLLs in their private directories. You’ve heard of separation of church and state; think of this feature as separation of system data and user data.

Additionally, WIS tracks each program's installation process, so you can remove all program remnants when you uninstall that program. If your system crashes during a routine software installation, WIS logs the failure and lets the installer pick up where it left off or roll back all the changes the installer made to your system.

NT Episode 5 – A New Look
In terms of usability, Microsoft has made some minor, but initially aggravating, changes in the NT user interface (UI). The key to the new UI enhancements is customization. When I first upgraded from NT 3.51 to NT 4.0, I lamented that NT 4.0 forced me to use Explorer. Sure, I welcomed a new interface after suffering with Program Manager for years, but after working with OS/2's objected-oriented Workplace Shell (WPS), I found Explorer to be too shallow.

Win2K’s UI still doesn’t approach the depth of WPS (Explorer lacks an underlying object model), but I was pleased to discover that I can tweak the UI to work the way I want the UI to work, rather than how a few Microsoft programmers want the UI to work. For example, Win2K now includes personalized menus. By monitoring your application usage, NT detects which applications you use most frequently and gives these applications prioritized locations on your Start menu. You can also modify toolbars to include only the functions you use, and as you can see in Screen 3, the new Save As dialog box contains information to make file organization easier. Finally, Win2K has a new AutoComplete function that fills in directory paths and filenames, which makes file management less of a chore.

Other UI enhancements include a new Open With feature, as Screen 4 shows, that lets users assign specific applications to certain file types. Microsoft has added new search functions to make network file searches easier and more versatile (e.g., you can now search across multiple network drives without having to map the drives). Win2K also has built-in support for more than 60 language sets, including fonts and symbols. As a result, Microsoft might be able to ship just one universal version of Win2K and have the software run in almost any country.

Making Friends With UNIX
One trend we’ve seen in the past few years is the emergence of Linux as a viable enterprise OS. Against all odds, this free (and surprisingly well-supported) OS has become one of the premier 32-bit platforms available today. If Microsoft’s plans for Win2K are any indication, the company has not missed this phenomenon.

Shortly after the release of Win2K, Microsoft plans to ship the Windows NT Services for UNIX add-on package. The add-on software includes several key functions that let NT interoperate with Linux and other UNIX platforms. For example, the add-on package includes a set of Network File System (NFS) clients and servers that let NT access UNIX shares. Users that are proficient with UNIX command prompts will be able to work with a Korn-based command line that supports UNIX scripts. A bash-esque shell will also be available to those who need to use Unix-like commands on NT. The package also includes a new Telnet server, which offers enhanced features and additional security over the Telnet server in the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit. Finally, a new password synchronization feature lets administrators create common accounts that NT and UNIX systems can share (password changes on the NT side are automatically reflected on the UNIX machines). Ideally, the base Win2K package would contain these new features, but having the features available in a fairly inexpensive add-on package is still a blessing for administrators of heterogeneous environments.

Putting the NT in NeTwork
Microsoft has made several enhancements to Win2K's networking code that give administrators greater control over individual desktop machines. The goal is to place Win2K at the head of a centralized management paradigm that will reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a Win2K-based network.

Administrators can use the new IntelliMirror function to set up a Win2K Server system that stores selected applications, files, and settings from Win2K machines. Think of the system as a global directory replication scheme—it keeps components safe.

Another IntelliMirror feature lets administrators remotely install Win2K components such as system files and desktop tools. You can even install a complete Win2K system on a remote computer, providing you have a proper Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) setup.

To help you keep track of programs, Win2K enables application assignment. When you install an application on the server, you set the application as public or private (public applications appear on the user’s Add/Remove Programs list). By selecting the authorized program, end users can install the application on their system. Alternatively, systems administrators can assign applications to users on a specific or general basis. This function hooks into WIS, so applications can also detect new upgrades. When the server offers a patch or upgrade, the application will automatically retrieve and apply the upgrade when the user opens the program.

To make network resources easier to navigate, Win2K uses the Distributed File System (DFS), which replaces shares with one global directory tree. All shares and servers in the workgroup or domain are on this logical-branching paradigm, so using network devices is more intuitive than in earlier NT versions.

New authentication and cryptography modules (Kerberos and Public Key, respectively) enhance NT's security. Kerberos lets two users exchange private information over a network by using ID tokens. Public Key runs similar to pretty good privacy (PGP). Public Key uses two keys—a public key and a private key—to encrypt information. If you don’t have both keys, you can’t play.

NT, Meet the Internet
If you’re a Web aficionado, Win2K has many features you'll like. For starters, Win2K will ship with Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 or higher (you can download IE 5.0 Beta 2 from Microsoft’s Web site, but the version included in the Win2K beta seems more stable). Everyone who installs Win2K will automatically receive the benefits of a state-of-the-art Web browser. These benefits include a cleaner UI, a more polished version of AutoComplete, refined function bars, enhanced search facilities, and full HTML 4.0 support.

HTML 4.0 support is probably the most important feature in Win2K. Microsoft has finally dropped its proprietary WinHelp format in favor of the open HTML standard. As Screen 5 shows, Win2K now displays Help files as Web pages. You can even right-click the Help text to view the HTML source code.

This HTML-centric design also applies to the rest of the system. When you select Search from the Start menu, you'll see three options: Search for Files and Folders, Search on the Internet, and Search for People. This feature sounds similar to a standard NT 4.0 or IE 4.0 feature, but Win2K goes beyond the capabilities of NT 4.0 or IE 4.0 by using HTML for its search facilities. Enterprising Web junkies could conceivably create their own replacement search tools. Microsoft's move toward HTML doesn’t necessarily mean that Microsoft is adopting open standards for all aspects of Windows, but the move is a step in the right direction.

Other Enhancements
Microsoft has also improved Win2K's boot process. Win2K supports several diagnostic boot tools. In addition to the default Last Known Good boot option, Win2K has a true Safe Mode (booting with the bare minimum required to run the OS), Safe Mode with Networking (just what it sounds like), and Safe Mode with Command Prompt. This last option will be familiar to OS/2 users. The Safe Mode with Command Prompt option lets users boot to a command prompt, rather than the GUI. Why is this feature useful? If a rogue program has ever corrupted your desktop, you know how hard getting to your data can be. Booting to a command prompt makes salvaging your information and fixing your system easier.

When you log on to the system, you can build automation routines with the refined Windows Scripting Host (WSH). Because WSH is a frame for other scripting languages, you can use either Visual Basic, Scripting Edition (VBScript) or JavaScript to build your programs.

Win2K's Dark Side
Although Win2K has many good points, the software still has several downsides. First, Win2K is a resource hog. Task Manager shows that my Win2K Server build 1946 installation uses more than 120MB just at boot-up. Win2K is still a beta OS, and as such, contains tons of debug code—and my Win2K installation included everything—but the program’s size is still something to consider. The new features come at a price, which probably shows up as a Pentium II on your invoice. The old 166MHz Pentium that you souped up to run NT 4.0 at a reasonable speed won’t make the millennium cut. You can count on using a 300MHz Pentium II with 64MB of RAM as a realistic minimum for running Win2K comfortably.

The new UI might also be disconcerting to those of us who cut our teeth on NT 3.1. Although the new UI is easier to use than NT 4.0's UI, certain tasks require some finger-numbing contortions. Just compare Explorer to File Manager. File Manager lets you copy and delete files with minimal effort, while Explorer requires near-Herculean finger dexterity to do the same things. Having a using a single window to manipulate files on separate drives just isn’t intuitive.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Win2K
Ultimately, Win2K represents the end of the line for the desktop-based Win9x OS. By incorporating Win9x's most popular desktop features into a more robust architecture, Microsoft can finally begin to kill the line of code the company started more than a decade ago as Windows 3.0.

Believe the hype. Even in beta form, Win2K is stable, powerful, and works equally well on servers and high-powered desktop machines. I’ll be upgrading to Win2K because the OS lets me do my work and play with the latest multimedia toys without having to worry about crashing.

You can consider Win2K to be Windows for the masses. Microsoft has created an NT OS that’s compatible with most hardware on the market. With Windows' user-friendly features on top of the NT code base, we finally have an OS that’s easy to use and stable. Now, if only Microsoft would settle on a concrete ship date.

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