A Microsoft Professional Developers Conference(PDC) has preceded every new version of Windows NT. And NT 5-don't call it Cairois no different. From November 3 through 7, Microsoft offered 4000 developers a look into the future, or at least into Microsoft's view of the future.
Some of that future affects programmers, some affects network administrators, and at least some of it affects us all. The focus of the conference wasn't entirely NT 5.0, but also the nuts and bolts of a concept that for years Microsoft has called Cairo. Cairo isn't a product; rather, it is a laundry list of things that Microsoft wants to see as part of its flagship operating system, NT, and NT's complementary set of applications, BackOffice. Not all of Cairo will be ready even by the time NT 5.0 ships--but NT 5.0 will incorporate a lot of Cairo.
What are the Cairo technologies? Think of them as support, base OS services, and client/server and database support.
Microsoft has realized that the big cost of owning a PC is neither the cost of the hardware nor the software, but the support costs--that is, the care and feeding of PCs. Microsoft answers that concern with Zero Admin Windows, which means easier and smarter setup routines and better use of the network as a place to store your desktop configuration. Your "state," everything that describes your configuration, will be stored on the network and on your PC. That way, if you need to log on to another computer on the network, your state (down to particular OS revisions and applications loaded) follows you automatically and transparently.
As the PDC briefings included no demonstrations of the new features and functions, knowing how practical Zero Admin will be is difficult. Logging off could become an hour-long process if the state turns out to be a large amount of data. (Actually, in Microsoft PDC-speak, you can't say "a large amount of data"; you have to say "a rich data set.")
Another part of Microsoft's plan to reduce PC costs combines an old idea, diskless workstations that boot from a network server, with a new idea: Add a disk! The result is a Net PC, a computer that uses its hard disk as a place to cache network information. Designed mainly as an answer to the Network Computer (NC), the Net PC is easy to build from off-the-shelf parts and will probably be a good solution for extremely net-centric PC shops. (See Mark Smith's December editorial, "Back to the Future," for a perspective on these developments.)
Base OS Services
The basic NT platform will see a lot of changes with version 5.0. People who want to build large networks with NT are currently stymied by a security model built on the idea of domains and trust relationships. Domains are independent security and control areas (think of them as countries), and trust relationships are a required precedent before any sharing can happen between domains (think of trust relationships as economic treaties between countries). Unfortunately, you can build trust relationships only between pairs of domains, one at a time: If A trusts B and B trusts C, A does not trust C unless you create an explicit trust between A and C. If your company has 20 domains, you have to build and maintain 380 (19*20) trust relationships if you want each domain to trust each other domain.
NT 5.0 will abolish that requirement with a system called Active Directory. To NT users, this new system means that you can build trees of domains with transitive trust relationships: In the A, B, and C example, A does trust C. Active Directory replaces the current centralized Security Accounts Manager (SAM) with a distributed directory similar to an X.500 directory service or, more specifically, a directory service that follows the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, or LDAP. (If LDAP is a new concept for you, look in http://www-leland.stanford.edu/group/networking/directory/x500ldapfaq.html for a useful, well-organized introduction.) You access the LDAP information with Directory Service Web Browser (DS Web), an administrator tool that will replace User Manager. The name is DS Web because NT lets you control system configuration through a set of dynamically built HTML pages, so you use Internet Explorer (IE) to manage your NT domains.
But what is a dynamically-built HTML page? In this case, it's part of another Cairo piece, Active Server, which is the generic name for Internet Information Server (IIS) versions 3.0 and 4.0 and another tool for building Web pages, Active Server Pages (ASP). With ASP, Microsoft extends the capabilities of its Web server with an old friend, Visual Basic. The ASP capability produces ordinary HTML pages, but with Visual Basic embedded in a simple, easy-to-use manner that could well revolutionize Web-based programming in the same way that BASIC simplified programming under DOS and Windows.
Client/Server and Database Support
NT 5.0 will also bring the Distributed File System (Dfs). It lets you blend several physically separate directories into one network share, even if the directories are on different computers.
With Active Directory, Dfs provides fault tolerance by letting you specify fallback directories: If directory A on machine 1 stops being available, the system will automatically switch to directory B on machine 2. No, this solution is not clustering, but it's awfully simple to set up. (For more information about Dfs, see Sean Deuby and Tim Daniels, "Dfs--A Logical View of Physical Resources," December 1996.)
If you're building client/server solutions, you'll be interested to know that Microsoft demonstrated its Transaction Server, previously code-named Viper. This tool does for PC-based client/server systems what the CICS does for mainframe-based transaction systems. Designed to simplify the entire process of building a PC-based transaction system, Transaction Server generated excitement among attendees at Long Beach, as did Microsoft's announcement that a new NT API would support 64-bit memory structures in a limited fashion.
Looking Beyond IIS 3.0
Microsoft released a public beta of Internet Information Server (IIS) 3.0 in November. If you haven't rushed to the Internet to download IIS 3.0, point your Web browser to http://www.microsoft. com/iis. According to Microsoft, more than 20,000 developers, including corporate developers, solution providers, Internet content providers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and strategic partners beta-tested IIS 3.0.
IIS 3.0 is designed to simplify building both server-based Web applications that feature rich and dynamic content, and custom turnkey solutions that work with any Web browser. IIS 3.0 includes support for multimedia streaming, enhanced dynamic indexing, and improved site management for corporate intranet and Internet sites. The new version is compatible with a variety of third-party tools, including the Microsoft Visual Basic programming system, Borland IntraBuilder and Delphi, Powersoft PowerBuilder, and Micro Focus Visual Object COBOL.
What's New in IIS 3.0:
Active Server Pages is an important new feature of IIS. Previously known by the code name Denali, Active Server Pages lets you combine HTML, scripts, and components to quickly build powerful Web-based applications. Active Server Pages includes support for Visual Basic Scripting Edition and JScript and is compatible with any active scripting engine including Perl, Rexx, and Python, and other CGI-based languages. Additional built-in functionality includes easy Web access to enterprise-quality databases such as Microsoft SQL Server. Wizards, browser capability detection, content navigation, and application state management components are also included.
Microsoft NetShow provides an open software platform for delivering live and on-demand multimedia content over the Internet and corporate intranets. You get live multicasting of audio and data and on-demand streaming of stored audio, video, and "illustrated audio" (audio synchronized with images, URLs, and scripts). Highly efficient streaming media engines scale to thousands of users. In addition, NetShow supports the ActiveMovie Streaming Format, which allows advanced multimedia authoring and synchronization.
Microsoft Index Server 1.1 is a built-in search engine that provides full-text or property-based searches, hit highlighting, and retrieval of all types of information in any format, including HTML and Office or text documents. The index is dynamically updated when documents change, and security is tightly integrated with NT.
The FrontPage 97 Web authoring and management tool server extensions offer one-button publishing and graphical site management tools to keep information organized. These extensions are fully integrated with FrontPage 97 for the desktop.
Java virtual machine (VM) is included in IIS 3.0. It lets you run Java-based components on the server.
On to K2
Before Microsoft could put its gold seal on IIS 3.0, the company was already working on its next-generation Web server, code-named K2. Release of this version is expected by the middle of 1997.
K2 will expand on IIS 3.0 in several ways. K2's management console will expose settings traditionally buried in the Registry, so you will be able to program the server at higher levels. The K2 console provides access to features such as the pooling of Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) connections and their timeouts, the caching of Internet Server API (ISAPI) applications, and filter mapping. The administration console will also let the administrator view the virtual name space with a Web browser.
K2 technology will link Internet standards more tightly to NT. For example, K2 will let Internet-based X.500 certificates access NT directories, opening them up to intranet or Internet users.
K2 will integrate Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) into NT 5.0 Server. As a result, you will be able to create virtual private networks over TCP/IP networks.
As these functions move IIS toward the role of an application server, tighter integration with NT's transaction processing will be a priority. The Transaction Server will be native to NT 5.0. IIS will sit one ring outward from that layer.
IIS 2.0 continues to ship as part of NT Server 4.0. IIS 1.0 for Windows NT Server 3.51 is also available at http://www.microsoft.com/iis.
When Roel Pieper, president and CEO of Tandem Computer, announced his company's Internet Transaction Processing (ITP) initiative amid all the lights and sounds that a Broadway business show could muster, he made the following remark: "NT? Stands for 'Needs Tandem.'" He was referring to the partnership between Tandem and Microsoft. And these announcements, made at the beginning of November, are in many ways the end of the first act in an "I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine" arrangement that began in May 1996.
Tandem wants a gateway into the high-volume market for its transaction processing servers, famous in high-end financial IT infrastructures for scaleability, availability, and "as near as you get to 100 percent" fault tolerance. Once and for all, Microsoft wants to shed the persistent rumors of Windows NT Server's questionable scaleability and availability that keep echoing around the ears of financial service IT managers. The combined profile of the two companies seems ideal to create a perfect solution to the problems of a burgeoning world of massive-volume transaction processing.
NT in the Financial Services Community
NT Server has had a shaky start in trying to penetrate the IT departments of financial service organizations. Two main factors are at play in the ambiguous response to its presence in the server market. The first is the position of ensconced, legacy mainframes, which over many years have successfully supported mission-critical applications and databases. Getting into these trusted and proven back office environments is hard for NT. And the second factor is the availability and scaleability crisis. Adding to this burden for NT is the high speed with which Microsoft brings products to market. Such speed rings a bell of caution in the conservative minds of IT banking professionals. No one in this sector wants to risk being first, so the word has been, "Don't be a Microsoft guinea pig."
However, over and against this cautionary note sounds the mighty voice of the Microsoft marketing machine, which has undoubtedly beaten the efforts of IBM, its main rival. The result is conflicting conversations in the corridors of IT departments. On one hand, the IT director wants to stick with OS/2 because it is known and robust. On the other hand, business managers are nervous that OS/2 will fall to NT, so that two or three years down the line, they will no longer find applications or support for the legacy system. The push here is for Microsoft.
The one area of financial service IT in which NT can already claim success is the branch network. This much will please Microsoft developers because NT Server is explicitly designed as a network operating system for file sharing, applications support, communications, and increasingly, Internet and intranet sites.
Precise statistics to support these suggestions are difficult to find. Various surveys have considered the penetration of NT Server across horizontal markets. For example, International Data Corporation's recent Server Operating Environment Forecast Update reported that, with 1.5 million units, NT will surpass NetWare as the market leader for server shipments by the year 2000. At that point, estimates suggest NetWare will have 1.4 million units in the market, UNIX will have 928,000, and OS/2 will come in a poor fourth with 498,000.
With a slightly different focus, in Client-Server Platforms: Systems and Software for a Distributed Future, Business Research Group has reported that NT will be the server of choice for mission-critical applications within two years. However, this report does repeat the warning that "NT Server may become vulnerable as companies attempt to scale to increased numbers of users, servers, and locations."
These figures are probably too generous as a measure of the financial services sector alone. Microsoft's figures on the market can serve only as a guide because they do not differentiate between back office applications and clients at the desktop, which have been markedly more successful. But in the retail banking sector, Microsoft claims to hold 28 percent of the market in the UK and US, rising to over 70 percent in Scandinavia.
Against this background, you can appreciate the significance of the Microsoft Wolfpack cluster standard for NT's future. The importance of failover solutions that rely on clustering (a group of independent systems working together as one system) to deliver scaleability and availability cannot be overemphasized. The 1992 FIND/SVP Strategic Research Division estimated that system downtime costs US business $4 billion per year. The subject of downtime in the securities industry is even more sensitive, because the average event results in losses three times the size of such losses in, say, the retail industry, at $450,000. Microsoft's strategic announcement to support online banking at the end of 1995 recognized the business advantage to financials of having a single, scaleable operating system underpinning a delivery infrastructure. And so good reasons lie behind Tandem's participation in Wolfpack.
Tandem and Microsoft
Tandem made its name with the delivery of continuously available OnLine Transaction Processing (OLTP) solutions and currently holds 70 percent of the global market. Within the financial sector, Tandem's NonStop Himalaya NonStop Kernel and Integrity UNIX systems run 75 percent of all cash dispensers and 66 percent of credit card systems. In addition, 40 of the world's busiest stock exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange, run on Tandem machines.
The announcement in November was the culmination of a series of moves between the two companies in recent months. In September, Tandem announced a set of automated storage-management solutions, designed in part to improve the cost effectiveness of transaction processing on clustered NT Server-based systems. In August, Tandem and BEA Systems signed a licensing agreement under which Tandem will extend its open systems strategy for OLTP over the next few years by using BEA TUXEDO transaction monitor middleware as part of the NT cluster servers. And most recently, in line with the ITP commitment, Microsoft and Tandem have published a Java specification for Transaction Internet Protocol (TIP), for tying transaction processing systems together across the Internet. This specification is now in the open market for comment. The November event unveiled the boxes at the heart of these developments, a new S-Series line of servers in two families, one Himalaya and one NT. These products are due to start rolling out in the first half of 1997.
Two Tandem technologies are key to the success of the alliance. The cluster interconnect technology, ServerNet, and the middleware solution, ServerWare.
Tandem refers to ServerNet as a system area network (SAN), a network that runs inside the computer. At its core, this system is designed to tackle the problem of latency, the bugbear of log jams, which are too familiar to those who need to manipulate gigabytes of data and handle thousands of online transactions per hour. Analysts recognize that though ServerNet is similar to packet switching interconnects, Tandem's solution is significantly different from bus-oriented systems. It adopts the "fabric" approach: Data can bypass a server's processor and memory units in a series of any-to-any links through high-speed connections and smart switches. If a system is under a heavy load, ServerNet finds alternative paths for basic I/O operations such as memory fetches and peripheral accesses. And the performance of the technology is impressive, tackling the most critical of system bottlenecks--memory buses--and eliminating up to 30 percent of unwanted cycles in some I/O applications. In addition to its offerings, Tandem is working with Wolfpack partners to make ServerNet the de facto industry standard for connecting clustered NT Server-based systems, and then to license the technology to Microsoft.
ServerWare is the set of cross-platform database, memory, and transaction processing software for clustered systems. The technology will run on any computer that supports either the NonStop Himalaya server's NonStop Kernel OS or the Wolfpack clustering software, but Tandem believes ServerWare will work best on ServerNet-enabled computers.
ServerWare supports a variety of approaches to transaction processing, from API to object-oriented approaches. Tandem believes this capability makes ServerWare a rich application environment and hopes it will become a solution magnet for transaction processing in NT solutions. The company recognizes that the 22 years it has taken to build the base of major clients running business-critical cluster computers will be out-stripped in the next two years when Compaq (another partner in the Wolfpack project) and Microsoft build a base of 100,000 clustered computers. With this scenario in mind, Tandem has released ServerWare for use on competitor Wolfpack cluster systems (as well as on its own) by licensing the technology to Microsoft. This way, all solutions can run ServerWare.
The deployment of these two technologies is designed to directly address the financial services community's NT concerns by providing an opportunity for an unprecedented level of robustness and scaleability in the NT environment. With an eye on the future, both Tandem and Microsoft have made clear that they also have their sights on the expected further leap in volume requirements as a result of online personal financial services, including Internet banking. This development will necessitate the transactivating of the Web.
The Internet's future, with its demands for effectively unlimited transaction processing capability, is merely another leap up the ladder of online volume demand. When the next wave of NT Server-based products with clustering becomes available next year, Microsoft will be at the helm, meeting the necessities of 24 * 7 availability and scaleability.
With Microsoft and Tandem now committed to clustering and with additional solution announcements, such as the NT-based Merchant Server for credit card transaction processing (online shopping will be worth $6.6 billion by 2000), Microsoft's competitors will have to work hard indeed to outrun the Wolfpack.
Novell Plays Microsoft's Giveaway Game
Meeting Microsoft on its own playing field, Novell is now offering Novell Directory Services (NDS) for free. UNIX vendors, application developers, or Internet service providers (ISPs) can have the NDS source code at no cost if they include NDS in their products. A binary version of NDS for Windows NT will be available to OEM partners early this year.