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Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 Technical Reviewer's Workshop Reviewed

Keith Furman and I descended on Sea-Tac, the airport serving the Seattle-Tacoma area, about two hours later than expected on Monday night. Late Monday night. Our plane had been delayed due to a storm in Phoenix, and such an event is so rare I was sure that the gods were conspiring against me. We dropped dead in our hotel room in Bellevue at 2:00 a.m., setting the alarm clock for 6:00 a.m. so we could make it into town for the conference.

Day One

Fifteen minutes later (or so it seemed), our alarm clock went off and we struggled into town. Being new to the area, we probably took the absolutely worse possible way in, but we did pass an amusing "Apple Maggot Quarantine Area" highway sign, given its proximity to the Microsoft campus, however, and that alone was worth the trip. Seattle, for those who have never been, is amazingly similar to San Francisco: it's an old-looking city with plenty of trees (that is, it's nothing like Phoenix) and it stretches out to the water that surrounds it. The waterways of Seattle, however, are much more attractive than San Francisco, as is the surrounding countryside, which features the requisite towering pines and deep green grass. You have to forgive me for waxing over this: Living in Phoenix tends to dull your senses to the color green a bit.

The Windows NT 5.0 Technical Workshop was held at the Sheraton Towers in downtown Seattle. It is what it sounds like, a rich resort with all the amenities (that is, it's everything our hotel wasn't) including its own travel center and the like. The conference was held on the second floor, amusingly set next to a Rotary Club conference of sorts that featured some interesting-looking buttons. Pressing on, we received our first shock of the day, a massive (and I mean massive) binder full of white papers and slide presentation print-outs. The paper in the binder is about 6 inches tall (think about that for a second) and the thing has to weigh about 30 pounds. We got our ID badges, binder, and a few stacks of paper than Microsoft didn't have time to collate into the binder yet and sat down on the floor to mull over this a bit. Around us, a crowd was gathering, including a few familiar faces from Windows NT magazine and other trade publications. We grabbed some drinks (as usual, Microsoft provided a nice buffet breakfast each day drinks for the duration) and headed into the conference room when the doors opened at 8:00.

The stage was done up in typical Microsoft fashion with the same hardware the company uses at tradeshows. Keith and I grabbed seats right up front but two massive display panels brought images from computers on stage to the back of the room as well. We spent the next few minutes going over the agenda and other details of the conference. A couple of interesting notes: Microsoft, as usual, provided a press room with computers and Internet access, and free phone use. Not too shabby. They also offered to ship everyone's binders home for free via Federal Express. Given the heft of this thing, I can't tell you enough how much I appreciated this, and the cost of such a gift is staggering: By my estimate, about 150 of the 181 attendees were from outside the United States.


Day One -- Tuesday, August 18

8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. -- Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. -- Introduction and Product Overview
10:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. -- BREAK
10:15 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. -- Distributed Services
12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. -- LUNCH
1:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. -- Core Architecture (Base)
2:45 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. -- Networking, Communications, & Printing
4:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. -- BREAK
4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. -- Distributed Applications
5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. -- Day-One General Q&A
6:00 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. -- Dinner Reception

Day Two -- Wednesday, August 19

8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. -- Continental Breakfast
8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. -- Setup
10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. -- Management Infrastructure
11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. -- BREAK
11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. -- IntelliMirror
12:45 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. -- LUNCH
1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. -- Hardware Support & Multimedia
2:45 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. -- Mobile Enhancements
4:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. -- BREAK
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. -- User Interface
5:45 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. -- Closing and Q&A
6:15 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. -- Closing Reception

Introduction and Product Overview

Microsoft Senior Vice President Jim Allchin opened the conference with a technical and marketing overview of Windows NT 5.0. Allchin described the history of Windows NT, including an interesting timeline that somehow manages to squeeze a major release of NT into ever year since it was introduced. The following list also includes the goals of each release:

1993 -- Windows NT 3.1 -- Micro-kernel operating system
1994 -- Windows NT 3.5 -- Size and performance
1995 -- Windows NT 3.51 -- Interoperability and compatibility
1996 -- Windows NT 4.0 -- New user interface
1997 -- Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise Edition -- Enterprise features (large memory support, etc.)
1998 -- Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server -- Legacy desktops

Based on this, it's fair to say that 1999 will be no different. Allchin told the 181 in attendance (which included representatives from 32 countries) that while Windows NT 5.0 was the most important release in NT's history, it was also just another step on the path to Bill Gates' vision of "information at your fingertips." Future releases, he said, would finish that goal. While I feel that this is a realistic view of the product, Allchin's comments to the press that day stand in sharp contrast to comments made earlier by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and president Steve Ballmer, who have described this release as something they're betting the company on. No matter: In the grand scheme of things, Allchin's comments ring truer, though they are far less exciting, I suppose.

After the history lesson, Allchin and Windows Product Manager Yusuf Mehdi, along with Windows NT Product Manager Mike Nash, gave a general overview of Windows NT 5.0. If I came away with one general theme for Windows NT 5.0, it would be this:

Windows NT 5.0 is aimed at the corporate user, not the home/consumer user.

Please read that a few times to yourself. While it's true that many people (myself included) use NT at home, Windows NT 5.0 will not supplant Windows 98 as the home operating system of choice. Microsoft does promise that the next major version of Windows NT after 5.0 will include a consumer version, but 5.0 is not it. This is, of course, a way to cover their tracks: While NT 5.0 (particularly Workstation) will, in fact, be a better OS for many home users, the company is focusing this release on corporate needs and features. Most specifically, it will not be providing the same level of compatibility with home/consumer apps that Windows 98 does.

Goals for Windows NT 5.0
Allchin iterated through a list of goals for Windows NT 5.0. These include: 

  • Improve overall quality Make incremental deployments possible (and easy) 
  • Improve ease of use 
  • Support next-generation applications (integration of the Web and Win32) 
  • Lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) Add key Windows 98 features (emphasis mine)

Given that list, here are the major features of each edition of Windows NT 5.0 (not that each succeeding edition is essentially a superset of the one before it):

Windows NT Workstation 5.0
Microsoft stressed that Windows NT Workstation 5.0 is for corporate users, not consumers. Key features include:

  • Personalized menus from Office 2000
  • Internet Explorer 5.0 integration
  • "One-button" synchronization for mobile users
  • Faster than Windows 98 on systems with 32MB RAM or more (yeah, right)
  • Best of Windows 98: hardware support, multimedia capabilities, DirectX 6.0
  • TCO: Setup Manager, SysPrep tool, etc.
  • End "DLL Hell" -- not solved in current release (5.0), but getting better.
After the Workstation overview, there was a demonstration of NTWS' ability to work offline in a mobile user scenario. These features, which I will get into in some detail later in this review (or in a subsequent technology showcase) are killer. Windows NT 5.0 Workstation blows Windows 98 away in this area.

Windows NT Server 5.0

Windows NT Server 5.0 is billed as the "ultimate NOS." Key features include:
  • Better performance for File and Print servers
  • Quota support ala UNIX (woo hoo!)
  • CPU throttling and other new features in IIS 5.0
  • IE 5.0 + IIS 5.0 = Best performance (this isn't marketing hype, it's true)
  • Better performance/flexibility for Applications servers
  • Streaming media and unified communications for Communications servers
  • Incremental deployment
  • Centralized management (distributed as well)
I should note that at this point, Tanya van Dam gave a killer demonstration of Exchange Server/Active Directory automatic replication, which is bi-directional. Microsoft also has Novell DS-->Active Directory (one-way currently) replication working. Very nice.

Windows NT 5.0 Networks

Yusuf Mehdi effectively demonstrated why the combination of Windows NT Workstation 5.0 on the client and Windows NT Server 5.0 on the server offered the best possible combination of features with IntelliMirror.
  • Combined, these two operating systems offer the absolute best platform for any corporate site.
  • IntelliMirror: Store user profiles, Favorites, documents, and the like on a server
  • Directory-based administration
  • Machine replacement -- roaming users will automatically have access to everything, regardless of where they login
  • Directory-enabled applications
  • Web-based line-of-business (LOB)
  • Integrated communications
This is a subject I will definitely be writing about at length in the future.

Other editions and the "Server" vs. Services issue

Curiously, the Enterprise Edition was not discussed. If you're wondering, the Terminal Server Edition has been removed as a separate product with NT 5.0 and is available as an optional component of Windows NT Server 5.0, now known as Terminal Services. In fact, many "servers" have been renamed in 5.0 to more clearly label their position as a component of Server. For example, Internet Information Server is now called Internet Information Services and Transaction Server is now called Transaction Services (since renamed to "Component Services" --Paul).

When will Windows NT 5.0 ship?
I don't think the crowd was listening more closely to any part of the conference than the couple of minutes Jim Allchin spent discussing the release date of Windows NT 5.0. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question: Rightfully so, Allchin says that Microsoft will ship Windows NT 5.0 when its customers say its ready. Specifically, members of the Rapid Deployment Program (RDP), a group of Fortune 100 business partners, is working closely with Microsoft to ensure that the product is as good as it can be. According to Microsoft, RDP members are responsible for finding the most bugs in Windows NT 5.0 (beta testers only find 10%) and these early adopters are given a huge say in the direction NT 5.0 will take. Another criteria for shipping is that no so-called "Sev-1" bugs (that is, "showstoppers") must exist in the code before Microsoft will ship it. Microsoft will be running its 1000+ production servers and 20,000+ desktops on Windows NT 5.0 before they ship it to the public as well. This process, which is known as "eating your own dog food," ensures that Microsoft itself is in a position to be its own biggest customer. If it's not good enough for Microsoft, they won't ship it.

Moshie Dunie, a Microsoft Vice President, also discussed the company's target date for shipping Windows NT 5.0. He said that there were 5000 people working on the product within Microsoft and its development partners. The NT team is composed on sub-teams (such as "Networking," "Shell," and the like) that work with a central build, test, and management team that is responsible for "building" Windows NT 5.0 every day. Dunie says that there are far more people testing NT 5.0 within Microsoft than there are actually developing it. Dunie also provided the following list of Windows NT 5.0 milestones:

  • Beta 1 -- September 1997
  • Beta 2 -- completed August 17, 1998 at 5:02 p.m. -- focus on quality, basically feature-complete
  • Beta 3 -- full product. Focus on fit and finish, address Beta 2 feedback
  • Release Candidates -- Based on feedback from Beta 3. Essentially final code
  • Release to Manufacturing (RTM) -- Windows NT 5.0 goes "gold"
  • General availability -- Approximately six weeks after RTM

Windows NT 5.0 Beta is shipping to over 250,000 testers (45,000 technical beta testers, 25,000 channel partners, 200,000 MSDN members, and 181 conference attendees). Dunie said that our CDs (which include Workstation and Server) were being burned as he spoke: We ended up getting them late Wednesday.

Dunie suggested that Beta 3 could be expected in late 1998 or early 1999 though no firm release date was given, of course. Given the massive improvements between Beta 1 and Beta 2, however, I predict that Windows NT 5.0 will see the light of day before the end of June 1999. However, I think it's best to remember the words of Moshie Dunie, who summed up the release of NT 5.0 like so: "When customers tell us it's ready, [we will release Windows NT 5.0,] not a day earlier."

After Windows NT 5.0...
Jim Allchin briefly discussed Microsoft's plans for post-Windows NT 5.0 releases, though he stopped shorting of specifically mentioning Windows NT 5.1 (code-named "Asteroid") and Windows NT 6.0 (code-named "Neptune"). He did, however, say that future releases of Windows NT would include the following:

  • 64-bit clustering support (Enterprise Edition), better scaling, and more integrated storage
  • Consumer simplicity -- auto-everything, maintenance-free, adaptive user interface
  • Developer richness -- a full combining of the Win32 API with HTML for a new Windows presentation layer, localization independence, XML schemas, and the like
  • New markets (ubiquity) -- Embedded NT, real-time OS features, unified programming and management
In short, the mantra at Microsoft is "NT Everywhere."

Keith and Paul visit Redmond

After the first break (which ran late like everything else those two days), Keith and I left Seattle and headed across the river to Redmond to visit with some friends at Microsoft. I don't want to describe this visit in too much detail (well, in any detail, actually) because that's not what this trip was about. We only had two days in Seattle and wanted to use our time as wisely as possible. Basically, we skipped out on the rest of day one, but information from the sessions we missed will be covered in future NT 5.0 Technology Showcase articles, thanks to the mammoth binder we got. The short version of our visit is that we got to see some people, check out the sprawling campus, and just hang out. By the time night came, we were both pretty exhausted, so we ended up crashing right after dinner. What can you expect after four hours of sleep and a full day?

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