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Drip, Drip, Drip
NT fixes and enhancements seem to arrive weekly. This dribbleware can drown your NT workstation.
It's not often that I get nostalgic for "the good old days." I remember them too well: Just three years ago, NT users could expect poor performance, no third-party software support and incompatible networks. But at least we knew what NT version we were running.
Today, it's getting tough to keep track of NT's versions. NT 3.1 and 3.5 each went through three "service packs" or collections of bug fixes and patches on diskette-see http://www.microsoft.com/support. NT 3.51 upped this to five service packs during its 18-month life.
But NT 4.0 really takes the prize. Not only is service pack one (SP1) already out, there are at least six other downloads you may or may not need, depending on what features you rely on (see "Do-It-Yourself Windows 97" in this issue for specific NT download information). For example, RISC users will surely want the support for x86 (as in Windows 95) applications from http://www.microsoft.com/ntworkstation/x86.htm. And any NT user who browses the Web will likely want the latest Internet Explorer (instead of the antiquated version 2.0 release shipped with NT 4.0)
With all this dribbleware, it's almost impossible to tell whether your software is up to date. This is a problem, especially if you're trying to keep pace with fast-changing fields like the Internet. It's difficult enough to make sure your browser is current without having to worry about the underlying operating system.
Moreover, Microsoft has developed a worrisome (at least, it worries me) tendency to deliver new features between major system releases. The x86 support for RISC systems is one such example; another is the Cairo (NT 5.0) Distributed File System (DFS) preview (see my December 1996 column). Microsoft has deemed both of these features "previews," which mainly means you can't count on technical support. However, that doesn't apply to other components, like IE 3.0x, Internet Information Server (IIS) 3.0 and Index Server-all of which are now available for download in versions significantly more advanced than those on the NT 4.0 distribution CD.
I can imagine some of the mail I'll get: "Why are you complaining? With dribbleware, you get the new features as soon as Microsoft can post them on the Web-that's good!" Yes, but it can lead to a potentially serious configuration-management problem.
For example, I maintain Web pages for WinMag, so I'm very interested in all Internet-related NT components. I have Microsoft's Index Server and Web-based administration tools installed, and will shortly upgrade from IIS 2.0 (which ships with NT Server 4.0) to Dinali (IIS 3.0). However, I haven't bothered with IE 3.0 yet-which seems to be a good thing, now that IE 3.01 is coming out. Still, I know that many of Dinali's features depend on ActiveX support in the browser, which requires IE 3.0 or higher.
Now toss in confusion about SP1 for NT. Do I need to load it before installing Dinali? Will I have to reinstall Index Server and the Web-based administration tools after applying the service pack? I don't actually know the answers to these questions yet-the procedure with all earlier service packs was to reapply them after installing any software.
As I install more stuff, my system configuration becomes unique. That means I'm risking a configuration that may be a troubleshooter's nightmare.
Several years ago, I managed a major programming project at WinMag (for our Wintune 2.0 Test and Tune-up Kit). One of the nastiest lessons I learned during that project was that no two DOS/Windows 3.x PCs were exactly alike. Aside from obvious hardware differences (386 vs. 486 vs. Pentium, different BIOS versions and so forth), the software configuration was completely unpredictable. Different versions of DOS, sub-versions of Windows (Microsoft didn't have numbered service packs in the Windows 3.x days) and TSR combinations drove me-and the systems I tested-batty.
I can't begin to tell you how many times we'd get a bug report that I couldn't duplicate. Doing so would have required replicating the exact hardware and software combination that user had.
That project really sold me on using NT as my personal desktop system-because it was predictable. NT runs on an even wider range of hardware (RISC processors, SMP systems) than Windows 3.x, but with only two configurations (NT Server and NT Workstation)
Now, with service packs coming out only weeks-not months-after a major system revision, plus system components appearing on the Internet, NT is approaching the unpredictability of DOS/Windows 3.x. I can't prove that will negatively affect reliability, but I'm uncomfortably certain that it's not going to improve it.
What can you do? Well, for one thing, it helps to know what's available. Check our NT Enterprise Web page (http://www.winmag.com/ew) regularly for news on service packs and downloads. Remember to do backups before modifying your system configuration, and don't forget to update your system's emergency diskette with RDISK.EXE.
Finally, my advice on optional system components and service packs is to go slowly. There's not much of an advantage in being the first person to install one.
Of course, sometimes a download is so compelling you have to take the risk, such as when you've just got to try a "preview" of a new operating system version.
Closer to Cairo
If, like me, you're dying for a glimpse at NT 5.0-take heart: Martin Heller previews this technology in NT Enterprise, a new WinMag supplement premiering in this issue. (If you're not receiving the NT Enterprise supplement and would like to, request it by calling 800-808-1330.)
The good news is that it sounds like Microsoft really will deliver on the true directory and distributed services promises that we've been hearing for years. I've seen demonstrations of new administration tools that will let you simply drag user accounts from one domain to another. At present, you have to delete them and recreate them-one at a time. And in the long run, "Deep Dark," my NT development team source, tells me, "We're going to make it easy for SAP to deliver a five-user version of R/3, and just as easy for Great Plains to deliver a 5,000-user accounting package!" Today, SAP's R/3 enterprise management system is effectively restricted to the Fortune 500, while Great Plains is seen mainly in small shops.
You've got questions? I've got answers!
Many of you have written to let me know that our NT Q&A #2 (http://www.winmag.com/ew) was getting stale. No problem: NT Q&A #3 is now available at the same page. This completely revised file includes NT 4.0 coverage.
You've also asked whether my book would be revised for NT 4.0. The answer is yes, and you can get more information on that at http://www.winmag.com/netnt.
And now for my monthly "Brilliant and Bogus" awards. The brilliant award goes to a preview version of Microsoft Fax for Windows, an add-on I received for NT 4.0 that provides fax support much like that built into Windows 95. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to try it yet, because of an ongoing bogus problem-NT 4.0's awful support for portable computers.
Not only does NT still lack support for Plug-and-Play hardware and advanced power management, it also has a nasty tendency to "forget" PC Card (PCMCIA) device status when power is suspended. Hence, you may be forced to reboot to use your PC Card modem. Even worse, NT 4.0 Setup now requires a local CD-ROM when you attempt to repair a damaged NT installation. Since most portable systems still lack local CD-ROM support, this can make life difficult in the extreme.
My problem with Microsoft Fax for Windows is that the only fax modems I have are PC Card devices, and the only portable I have at the moment (Samsung's otherwise outstanding SENS 810) lacks the "enabler" drivers that would get around NT's tendency to "forget" those PC Card modems when the system is suspended. I'm sure that I'll get it all working eventually, but I can assure you that life, in the meantime, is no fun.
There's something even more bogus: Microsoft's attempt to rewrite history. The grapevine tells me Microsoft has rewritten Knowledge Base article Q122920 (see http://www.microsoft.com/kb) with the following new language:
"Ten is the maximum number of other computers that are permitted to simultaneously connect over the network to Windows NT Workstation 3.5, 3.51 and 4.0. The limit includes all transports and resource sharing protocols combined."
I don't quarrel with Microsoft's right to change the rules as it brings out new versions. I don't have to like the new rules and have said so, both in my November 1996 Windows NT column and more recently online (see http://techweb.cmp.com/ntsolutions/main/highlite.htm). But I have a big problem with this attempt to rewrite history-anyone with a TechNet CD dated earlier than September 1996 can see the original text of Q122920, which explicitly excluded IP socket connections used by Internet protocols.
Microsoft's pretty good at writing software; history is another subject entirely.
Senior Technology Editor John D. Ruley is principal author of Networking Windows NT 4.0 (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). Contact John in the "Enterprise View" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, via his Web page at http://www.winmag.com/people/jruley or at the e-mail addresses here.