NT Behind Closed Doors

The story you are about to read is true. However, the names of the agency and contact person have been changed to protect the innocent (and to avoid any perceived endorsement of Windows NT on the part of the US government). Any relationship between the persons mentioned herein and any persons living or dead is not coincidental, but let's be discreet and not notice.

NT Behind Closed Doors
During the early 1990s, the US Department of Defense (DoD) used a network mix of UNIX, DOS, and Macintosh systems. Because various divisions of DoD employed different file formats in this mixed-network environment, they couldn't share necessary information. For example, the file formats the intelligence analysts used were incompatible with those the graphics support personnel used.

Standardizing the Desktop
In 1992, DoD switched to Sun Microsystems (Sun)-based stations to help ensure that all its users had compatible file formats. At that time, UNIX was the obvious choice for a stable, powerful operating system, and it was easily compatible with DoD's existing Silicon Graphics (SGI) servers.

Even with DoD's best intentions, the transition to a standard networking platform didn't go as planned. The graphics support personnel kept their Macintosh systems because their software wouldn't run on the Sun systems. To make matters worse, the intelligence analysts had to run MS Windows-based programs on the Sun stations using slow emulation programs for most of their work.

Despite these setbacks, DoD decided to use a UNIX-based platform because it was the most viable solution at the time. The switch to the Sun stations might have worked if additional native software had been available. After assessing the current and future needs, some parts of DoD began looking for the next robust operating system--one that supported native software with compatible file formats for all the parties involved.

Shifting to NT
The graphics division of an unnamed, Virginia-based DoD agency (and no, it's not CIA) is adding NT to its UNIX-based network. This particular agency provides information about present and future capabilities of other countries' ground forces. In support of this mission, the agency prepares presentations to explain its findings. The analytical staff prepare the intelligence information, and the graphics support staff create slides, maps, and other visual supplements to the presentations. Because these two groups share files with each other and with other DoD centers, file format compatibility is important.

The agency decided to implement NT because the operating system supports the high-end software that the graphics support personnel use and the business applications, such as word processors and databases, that the intelligence analysts need. The agency will initially deploy NT only in its graphics division. Tracy Wagner, who is coordinating this division's UNIX and NT integration, believes this change is part of a growing movement within the intelligence community to use NT, and that this integration will make information sharing within the intelligence community easier.

After spending the money on the Sun stations and training the graphics support staff to use them, the agency found that the decision to move to NT wasn't easy. The financial magnitude of moving to a new operating system required approval at several management levels.

The agency's NT integration has also been politically difficult at times. Wagner believes some of the decision makers who selected UNIX may be concerned about today's NT migration. She believes these decision makers are afraid people will think they made a mistake in choosing UNIX and now have to add another platform to the network, even though NT wasn't available at the time of the original decision. Wagner admits that adding NT to the rest of the network will require a great deal of tact.

Ensuring file compatibility ultimately became the most important issue in DoD's decision to go ahead with the NT implementation. The tools the graphics division needed to support the analysts' briefings and presentations were increasingly becoming Windows-based. Only NT supported all the software the graphics division needed.

As of this writing, the graphics division's migration to using NT workstations connecting to SGI servers is ongoing. The agency's commander is anxious to see concrete results from the integration by May, so Wagner is dealing with the pressure of getting the project to move as quickly as possible.

For years, the US Department of Defense (DoD) used a network mix of UNIX, DOS, and Macintosh systems to prepare information for the intelligence-gathering community. This montage of systems made sharing files and resources difficult within and among government agencies.

To make information sharing easier, DoD tried to implement a standard UNIX desktop system using Sun Microsystems stations. Unfortunately, many users were unable to run native versions of their applications on the workstations. This limitation made users hesitant to switch to the new systems. Now, an agency within the intelligence-gathering branch of DoD is trying out Windows NT on a limited scale. This agency hopes to achieve native file sharing within its agency and with other agencies and branches of the government.

DoD will test NT workstations running graphic applications during the first phase of this NT and UNIX integration. DoD selected NT to replace its Sun stations because all the applications the agency needed to run were available in native format on NT.

Planned Configuration
The agency's hardware platform of choice for running NT was Digital Equipment's Alpha because of its speed. Unfortunately, one of the major graphics applications the agency needed did not run on the RISC chip. To accommodate the specialized needs of the graphics division, the agency has decided to go with 150MHz to 200MHz Intel CPUs instead. The agency will use NeTpower Calisto workstations and Sparta servers for NT with 100BaseFx network cards to connect to the SGI servers (the agency plans to incorporate asynchronous transfer mode--ATM--networking next year). Each machine will contain 128MB to 256MB of RAM, Elite2 Open GL graphics cards for text and graphics acceleration, and 1GB to 2GB hard disks for local storage (the UNIX server will handle most storage).

The Calisto workstations came with NT Workstation 3.51 installed, and the Sparta servers came with NT Server 3.51 installed. The agency had to convert the Spartas to NT Workstation to get the Targa 2000 video cards to work. The agency will also add Sound Blaster sound cards and speakers to the Spartas to support multimedia production. Finally, the agency will upgrade all the systems to NT Workstation 4.0 for compatibility with the Fast Ethernet cards planned for the network.

The agency selected NT based on standalone performance during inhouse testing. Getting machines from various vendors to test in-house was one of Wagner's biggest challenges. Weeks of telephone calls produced nothing until Mike Leishman of NeTpower braved Washington, DC, rush-hour traffic and drove 130 miles to personally deliver a Calisto at 9:00 pm. Two days after NeTpower's demonstration, Intergraph's Mike Douglass followed suit with a TDZ-series demonstration.

The result of the NT and UNIX integration will be a mixed network. The graphics support personnel will run machines with NT Workstation 4.0 and connect to a central SGI server (and other servers) via a 100Mbps fiber link. Other agency personnel will have access to the same servers through a switched 10Mbps coaxial link until they can get new machines and network cards. Because the intelligence analysts mainly produce text documents (currently, they produce very little original artwork), they can live with the slower connection.

Reaping the Benefits
Although the addition of NT to the network is still in progress, the graphics support personnel have already discovered several features they like about the new platform besides its speed and robustness. Many of the graphics staff have experience with the Sun stations and Macintosh machines, but many users are new to PCs.

Many of the graphics support staff who are using the new machines are happy with the new operating system. As Wagner notes, people can transfer skills they learned on other machines or developed from working with home PCs. Instead of requiring extensive training to become productive, as was necessary with the Sun stations, the graphics support staff can be productive from day one. They still have to learn how to use new software, but learning how to use the operating system is now less of a chore.

Future Considerations
Compatibility continues to be a question. Wagner had hoped to spread the NT fever to the agency intelligence analysts. So far, only the graphics division has made the addition. The analysts are still using the Sun stations (they've been running native software for the past couple of years and getting better performance than they did with DOS emulation).

UNIX is entrenched in the intelligence community, but some agencies are seeing the wisdom of selectively incorporating NT into DoD networks. Over time, the government might replace UNIX-based machines with NT-based machines in the name of com-
patibility, but the current environment still consists of a mix of operating systems. Rivalry among the branches of government agencies is nothing new, but intensive use of computers in the military agencies is making cooperation a necessity. Now that a powerful and stable operating system with an easy-to-understand user interface is available, a departmentwide movement to NT seems possible.

Although UNIX was the best choice in 1992, the situation at DoD has changed. Wagner doesn't recommend that anyone follow the same path the agency took to get to NT. "NT fits our graphic software wish list--the latest versions of Adobe PhotoShop, the Corel suite, MS PowerPoint, Softimage 3D, and Solid Edge," she said. "Show me another platform that can give us all that and speed to boot. Although I can't say my graphics-on-UNIX experience was bad, I wouldn't want to repeat it any more than I'd want to repeat high school."

The agency has encountered challenges involving the testing phase. Because its network is secured against intruders, getting authorization to add new machines to the network is difficult, particularly when the machines are test machines that may go back to the manufacturer. To get around this problem, the agency performed the software testing in a standalone environment. This decision could lead to some networking problems that will appear only when the graphics support staff begins to use these machines in a production environment.

These caveats aside, Wagner and the rest of the graphics division are excited about the possibilities open to them with the new machines and new operating system. They've spent months determining what hardware and software they need to support the intelligence analysts, and they are excited to be moving along with the transition. Although they expect some headaches as they work to integrate a new operating system into a network that's limited to Macs, UNIX boxes, and a few DOS machines, NT appears to be the best platform for them.

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