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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Industry analysts often criticize Windows NT for being behind the client hardware curve. The industry's perception of NT as a server operating system (OS) and the presence of Windows 95 as a high-volume alternative have led many users to conclude that NT isn't a good client computing solution. These criticisms are based on myth and rumor. In fact, NT has few limitations in a traditional client-computing roll. Let's look at some popular misconceptions about NT on a client system.

Myth 1: NT Is Too Big
Many NT critics are obsessed with size. Their chief argument is that NT Workstation requires too much system RAM to achieve acceptable performance. These individuals fail to grasp how the dynamics of client hardware change over time. Hardware specifications from a few years ago are no longer applicable today.

For example, most new systems ship with at least 32MB of RAM and include high-end Pentium or low-end Pentium II processors. These configurations can easily support NT as a client OS. You can purchase a viable NT client system for under $1000, and most new sub-$800 Windows 9x-based boxes will work as NT workstations.

To further fuel the debate, an extensive body of benchmark data shows that NT Workstation outperforms Win9x on systems with at least 32MB of RAM. Whereas NT's memory management scheme scales to the available memory, Win9x is optimized for low-memory system configurations (e.g., consumer PCs). As a result, Win9x's performance improves only slightly when you add more RAM to the system. NT is the right-sized client for most of today's client computing environments.

Myth 2: NT Isn't Mobile
Another popular myth is that you can't take NT on the road. Although NT doesn't support the Advanced Power Management (APM) interface out of the box, you can obtain third-party solutions.

One of the best power-management products, Softex's Power Management Controller, is an OEM option for Dell and Micron notebooks. The suite of mobile computing tools works with most APM-based notebooks and adds critical power management and PC Card hot-swapping and CardBus capabilities to the basic NT Workstation configuration. The company also produces a hot-docking utility that lets users dynamically attach and detach a notebook docking station or port replicator (similar to Win9x). SystemSoft also produces a viable APM and PC Card solution, and several notebook vendors (e.g., IBM and Digital Equipment) provide native NT drivers. You can run NT on a notebook computer and achieve excellent results.

Myth 3: NT Doesn't Leverage All Hardware
NT works best when you deploy it on high-quality, high-performance hardware. Microsoft built the OS for an environment rich with SCSI peripherals and big Level 2 caches. However, to enter the mainstream market, NT needs to leverage some commodity performance options that Win9x users have tapped for years.

A good example of one of these performance options is the Enhanced IDE hard disk interface. When Microsoft released NT 4.0, some industry experts criticized the company for supporting only the low-end IDE programmed I/O modes. However, few users realize that Microsoft addressed this concern with Service Pack 3 (SP3).

On the CD-ROM version of SP3, go to the \support\utils\i386 folder to find dmacheck.exe. You can use this utility to activate a little-known direct memory access (DMA) bus-mastering capability that Microsoft added to the atapi.sys driver in SP3. By enabling this capability, you let ATAPI invoke the higher-performance, multiword DMA mode found in most commodity PC chipsets (Intel's FX, HX, LX, and BX chipsets all have this capability).

The results of using this utility are spectacular: In addition to a sizable performance boost (between 15 percent and 30 percent), you'll see a drop in the CPU overhead needed to service disk I/O operations. DMA bus mastering works by offloading responsibility for most disk-to-memory transfers from the CPU to the DMA controller. This transfer of power frees the main processor to concentrate on more important tasks (such as running the application with which you're interacting). On a properly configured PC, you can decrease CPU utilization by up to 90 percent.

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