Windows 2000 Server Beta 3 Review

With the introduction of Windows 2000 Server Beta 3, Microsoft raises the bar for mid-level department servers, home/small office servers, and web servers by offering a reliable and scalable upgrade to Windows NT 4.0 Server that implements the best features of its predecessor while improving some of the more problematic areas. And like Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 2000 Server is a compelling upgrade.

Paul Thurrott

April 30, 1999

11 Min Read
ITPro Today logo

With the introduction of Windows 2000 Server Beta 3(Figure 1), Microsoft raises the bar for mid-level department servers, home/small office servers, and Web servers by offering a reliable and scalable upgrade to Windows NT 4.0 Server that implements the best features of its predecessor while improving some of the more problematic areas. And like Windows 2000 Professional (see my review), Windows 2000 Server is a compelling upgrade.

A Quick introduction to the Windows 2000 Server family
Windows 2000 Server "Standard Edition" sits at the bottom of a new family of Windows 2000 servers. It supports two microprocessors (four if you upgrade a Windows NT 4.0 Server box) and up to 4GB of physical RAM. The next step up is Windows 2000 Advanced Server, which supports up to 64GB of physical RAM, four microprocessors (8 for upgraders), and comprehensive clustering. Advanced Server, which will replace Windows NT 4.0 Server, Enterprise Edition when it is released, is ideal for SQL Server 7.0 database servers and high-end Web and file/application serving. At the top of the server food chain is Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, which supports up to 16 microprocessors (or up to 32 processors from select hardware makers) and 64 GB of physical RAM. Datacenter server is ideal for high-end clustering, load balancing, data warehousing, and the like. Datacenter Server, incidentally, is optimized for over 10,000 simultaneous users and high transaction counts.

This review focuses on the so-called Server, Standard Edition, which is commonly identified simply as Windows 2000 Server. However, all of the features in Server can also be found in the higher-end editions as well. And, of course, each of the Server family members includes all of the features in Windows 2000 Professional.

Job 1: Increased Reliability, Availability, and Scalability
When it came time to design the feature set for Windows 2000 Server, Microsoft knew that the number one request was going to be for improved reliability, availability, and scalability. In other words, Windows 2000 Server has to work 24/7, require few if any reboots, self-heal when problems occur, and scale from a single processor PC to the mightiest multiple processor server monsters used at ISPs like Best Internet and Data Return.

The first task, then was to tackle the nasty memory leak issue that's dogged Windows NT for years. The problem, as it turns out, isn't NT per se but rather certain poorly-written applications that are commonly used on NT Servers. Administrators know exactly what I'm talking about: We've all setup schedules to automatically reboot NT servers at specific times, perhaps once weekly or even once daily because of this. In Windows 2000, memory management improvements prevent applications from leaking, largely eliminating this problem. And a new kernel memory write protection feature removes the number two server reliability problem: memory access violation, which results in the infamous blue screen of death (BSOD). In my own informal tests on a single server box, I've not ever had to reboot a machine, which runs SQL Server 7.0, Proxy Server 2.0, IIS 5.0, and Terminal Services, even once: It's as steady as a rock. While I don't expect Windows 2000 to completely eliminate the problem, I suspect that it will be much better than Windows NT 4.0. 

The next goal was to reduce the number of reboots needed when configuration changes are made. In Windows 2000, configuring Plug and Play devices, changing the size of the page file or adding a new page file, increasing the size of an NTFS partition, adding or removing network protocols, installing SQL Server 7.0, or changing the mouse requires no reboot at all. Microsoft estimates that this will give Windows 2000 20% less downtime than Windows NT 4.0. And indeed, I've witnessed this minor miracle firsthand: It works and it works well.

If you do encounter problems, the system restarts more quickly and a new "kernel mode only" dump option reduces the time required to create a dump file because it's no longer writing the entire contents of RAM to a file. When you want to debug the problem, a Safe Mode boot option (similar to what you'd see in Windows 98, actually) allows you to boot into a clean Windows 2000 environment so you can isolate the offending application or service. And Windows 2000's Check Disk (chkdsk) is three times faster than it is in Windows NT 4.0 SP4. Check Disk (similar to ScanDisk in Windows 98) scans the hard drive for errors after a hard stop or reboot, and this was a source of frustration in Windows NT 4.0 because of the amount of time it took to complete. I haven't seen this feature yet in 2000, however, because my server has been extremely reliable so far.

Windows 2000 Server supports up to two CPUs on a clean install (no previous OS) or four CPUs if you're upgrading from a Windows NT 4.0 system with four CPUs. Why Microsoft has backed off from full four CPU support is unclear, but I suspect it has a lot to do with a desire to spread the Windows 2000 Server family out a bit more. There were probably few four CPU systems around anyway and those customers would be better off with Advanced Server. 

One of the most exciting new features in Windows 2000, believe it or not, is the new file system, NTFS 5.0. This little wonder supports all of the features from NTFS 4.0--compression, per file security settings, and the like--while adding performance gains and a host of new features. Perhaps most important among these is disk quotas, which allow you to manage storage usage on a per-user basis, similar to UNIX (Figure 2). You can set disk quotas, disk thresholds, and quota limits for all users or separately for individual users. And Microsoft has even added the capability to monitor and report disk space usage on a per-user basis. This is a most welcome addition to NT/2000.

So given all of these additions to Windows 2000, does the system achieve its goal of better reliability, availability, and scalability? I think the answer is obviously yes. While Windows 2000 will still not scale quite to the upper levels of multi-processing UNIX boxes, it is firmly entrenched in the rest of the market Windows 2000's reliability and availability will need to be assessed over time for a more accurate picture, but the initial analysis is excellent. Microsoft clearly has a more stable and secure system on their hands.  

Easier Management
Another key goal for Windows 2000 is to simplify the management of the system. In Windows NT 4.0, a variety of separate utilities were made available through the Administrative Tools group that provided access to user and group administration, disk administration, and the like. But this was a confusing mess since each program did things its own way and the shear number of administration programs was confusing. I wish I could say that the situation is better in Windows 2000, but it isn't. It's different, certainly, but it's definitely not better.

What we're stuck with in Windows 2000 is a slightly smaller list of Administrative Tools and a single monster tool, "Computer Management," (Figure 3) that simply gloms all of the most-often used tools into a single Microsoft Management Console (MMC). The MMC is used in Windows 2000 as the central receptacle for administration "snap-ins," and while it's a good idea in theory, in practice you get confusing groups of tools like Computer Management. This little monster (which can also be quickly accessed by right-clicking My Computer and choosing "Manage") contains about three dozen separate tools in one hard-to-use console. Included are performance logs and alerts, user and group managers, system information, Services, shared folders, Components, three Event viewers, the Device Manager, and much, much more. The good news, of course, is that you can make your own custom MMC consoles if you'd like. So, for example, if you need just Services and Device Manager on a regular basis for some reason, it's easy to create a custom console with only those snap-ins. But the single Computer Management console, which was clearly created to simplify matters, does just the opposite: It makes it hard to find the tools you really need. Quick: I want to manage Internet Information Services 5.0 (IIS). Is this found in Computer Management or a separate IIS tool?  (Answer: Both.  Grrr...).

Of course, the MMC isn't without merits. Aside from the previously-mentioned custom console ability, the MMC provides a somewhat consistent interface between all of the various admin tools. And you can administer remote Windows 2000 servers with this tool as well; you're not limited to the local machine.

While we're on the subject, the Control Panel is another mess in Windows 2000 (Figure 4). Though the Control Panel has been ostensibly "cleaned up" in the name of simplicity, it's not really any cleaner: In Windows NT 4.0, I had 27 icons in Control Panel. When this Server was upgraded to Windows 2000, there were 23. But this seemingly "simpler" Control Panel isn't simple at all: "Telephony" and "Modems" icons have been consolidated into "Phone and Modem Properties" while the previously separate "Sounds" and "Multimedia" icons have been made one in, yup, you guessed it, "Sounds and Multimedia." This isn't simpler, folks, it's just different. My understanding of the Control Panel was that Microsoft was working to move most of that functionality into MMC consoles, effectively leaving the Control Panel as a shadow of its former self. Clearly, that's not happening.

On the other hand, Microsoft has made some fundamental and powerful changes in the way networks are managed. In Windows NT 4.0, you could choose between peer-to-peer ("workgroup") networking and Microsoft domain networks, where logins and user information would be centralized to a single Primary Domain Controller (PDC) and one or Backup Domain Controllers (BDCs). The system was pretty powerful, but suffered from three basic problems: It wasn't very scalable, it wasn't very flexible (there was no way to demote a PDC to a standalone server without completely wiping out the system and reinstalling, for example), and it was based partly on an out-of-date Microsoft-centric naming service (WINS) that bore no relation at all to Internet standards.

Enter Active Directory (AD). This massive upgrade to Microsoft networking builds on true Internet standards such as DNS to provide the sort of integrated directory services that previously would have required an expensive add-on such as Netware. Management of Active Directory is completely policy-based, and users, groups, computers, applications, and other network resources are collected into a single management point. The AD is scalable, hierarchical, and relatively simple, assuming you're up on such Internet routing miscellany as DNS and BIND. But because it's based on these Internet standards, AD is ready for the future. In an AD network, the PDC/BDC concept is done away with in favor of straight Domain Controllers that can be demoted to and promoted from standalone servers at will, without reinstalling. I'll be writing up at least one Technology Showcase on Active Directory in the near future, but suffice to say it's easily the most important and exciting new technology in Windows 2000 and it's a winner.

File, Print and Web services
Keeping with the tradition of the all-in-one solution of Windows NT, Windows 2000 offers a slew of integrated services that really make the OS complete. Heading up this list are Internet Information Services (IIS, the Web and FTP server), COM+ for component services, better printer services with Internet Printing Protocol (IPP) and UniDrive 5 printing support, and Terminal Services for full GUI terminal emulation. Terminal Services, especially, is a key feature that will be covered in a separate review (Figure 5). The other features have been tweaked since Windows NT 4.0, but they were good to begin with. 

IIS in particular is a world-class product (Figure 6) and the new version offers a new Active Server Pages (ASP) engine that speeds script-less ASP document loading. And with the inclusion of COM+, we're one step closer to the future of Windows computing, Windows DNA, where the user interface is a combination of Dynamic HTML and the Win32 API and the file system becomes a relational database. COM+ adds support the componentized distributed applications that make today's monolithic applications look sick in comparison. I'll be covering COM+ in a future Technology Showcase; I'm also writing a COM+ book for IDG that will be published next winter.

Windows 2000 Server Beta 3 is clearly a worthy upgrade to Windows NT 4.0. Other than Active Directory, there's nothing really earth-shattering about this release, but a slew of small and obvious improvements--the disk quota support in NTFS 5.0 springs instantly to mind--make it even more compelling. And when Windows 2000 Server is used together with Windows 2000 Professional on the desktop, things really come together with IntelliMirror user settings and network installs of new Windows Installer-based applications. 

In many ways, Windows 2000 Server is less radical than Windows 2000 Professional, if only because Professional will be used more directly by far more users. But Server's under-the-hood improvements more than make up for any perceived lack of change. When you look hard enough, you realize that this release is positively brimming with improvements. And each of them, in their own way, contribute to the greater good that is Windows 2000 Server.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

Sign up for the ITPro Today newsletter
Stay on top of the IT universe with commentary, news analysis, how-to's, and tips delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like