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-- by Art Brieva
Promises, promises. For three years, Microsoft has assured enterprise administrators that Windows NT Server would soon boast an enterprise directory service. After several false starts and lengthy product delays, it looks like there may be some light at the end of the directory tunnel.
Microsoft, Netscape, Novell and IBM have each disclosed their long-term directory service strategy for Windows NT Server. But to find the first true enterprise directory service for NT, look no further than Banyan Systems, whose StreetTalk directory is available now for NT.
We tested StreetTalk to let you know exactly what the product has to offer. But first, let's take a quick look at what Microsoft, Novell, IBM and Netscape have in store.
To understand the true power of a directory service, think of it as an electronic "white pages" that includes a database of users, applications, printers and other resources on the network. The database should be easy to access and navigate. For example, when a network printer fails, a user can access directory services to look up and link to an alternative printer. (For an extended description of directory services, see the sidebar "Directory Services 101.")
Windows NT 4.0 currently offers an antiquated domain-based directory service that requires extensive administration by network managers. Several vendors are preparing alternatives. Novell, for instance, is porting its immensely popular Novell Directory Services (NDS) from NetWare 4.x to UNIX and Windows NT Server, while Microsoft is integrating its Active Directory directly into Windows NT 5.0 (see the sidebar "Novell, Microsoft at Odds Again")
IBM, meanwhile, is hedging its directory bets. Big Blue is reportedly embracing Novell NDS and porting its own Directory & Security Services from OS/2 Warp Server to IBM AIX UNIX and Windows NT as part of its cross-platform server application strategy.
Also of note is Netscape's Directory Server 1.0, an LDAP- (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) compliant directory for accessing user names, e-mail addresses and other network information across the Internet or corporate intranets. Netscape Directory Server is available for SunSoft Solaris, IBM AIX, HP-UX and Windows NT networks.
Banyan's directory bid
Banyan, meanwhile, is trying to transform itself from a struggling network operating system (NOS) maker into a premier directory service provider.
Banyan's Vines, a NOS based on a UNIX kernel (though Banyan may migrate Vines to NT's kernel), shook up the networking scene about a decade ago. While some experts consider Vines' networking services superior to those in NetWare and Windows NT, Vines' popularity has diminished over the years as Banyan has failed to match the marketing prowess of Novell and, more recently, Microsoft. StreetTalk for NT could be Banyan's last shot at winning the hearts and minds of enterprise administrators.
Indeed, its floundering Vines business has left Banyan wading in a small-but growing-pool of red ink. The company lost more than $780,000 during 1996's first three quarters and, at press time, was forecasting yet another loss for the final quarter of 1996. As of this writing, Banyan was shaking up its management ranks and searching for a new CEO.
Banyan is betting that StreetTalk for NT will return the company to profitability, and ease the lives of administrators who are building and managing NT networks. While StreetTalk for NT shipped only recently, its 12 years as an application for Vines makes it a very mature technology.
Still, it's unclear whether customers will choose to pay for an enterprise directory service (StreetTalk for NT can cost up to $300 per seat), rather than receive one free with Microsoft's forthcoming Windows NT 5.0.
We tested StreetTalk for Windows NT for several weeks in WINDOWS Magazine's labs. The test network consisted of a 133MHz Pentium Compaq Proliant 1500 with 64MB of RAM and an AST server equipped with a 150MHz Pentium Pro and 32MB of RAM. We loaded NT Server 4.0 on the Compaq system, and NT Server 3.51 with Service Pack 5 on the AST system. (StreetTalk for Windows NT must be installed on a Windows NT Server 4.0 or NT 3.51 with Service Pack 3 or later. Also, the base software must be installed to an NTFS partition.) The test network also included five workstations running Windows 3.1, 95 or NT Workstation 4.0.
Like Windows NT, StreetTalk's system requirements are steep-32MB of RAM is the absolute minimum; at least 64MB is ideal. Currently, StreetTalk for NT is limited to Intel-compatible processors, but future releases may support Digital's Alpha processor. The minimal required disk space is 40MB but foreign language support requires an additional 25MB per language.
StreetTalk for NT requires Banyan's proprietary Vines IP (VIP) protocol. However, one powerful option lets you enable UDP (User Datagram Protocol) support so administrators can operate StreetTalk in a pure TCP/IP network. In other words, VIP becomes encapsulated within the UDP packet and is carried to its destination. To use UDP, Microsoft TCP/IP must be installed and working before deploying StreetTalk for NT. If you choose to forgo UDP support, the workstations will communicate with the server via the VIP protocol.
Our first installation on the Compaq system running NT Server 4.0 was flawless; logging onto the StreetTalk server from a workstation was a snap. The StreetTalk installation on the AST system running NT Server 3.51 went smoothly, but we couldn't log onto the server. The problem: Our AST system's C: drive was using the FAT file format and the D: drive was using NTFS. We converted the FAT partition to NTFS using the NT command convert c: /fs:ntfs and rebooted to let NT do its conversion. After the conversion, we logged onto StreetTalk from the workstation without any problems.
Once we logged on, it was time to create the StreetTalk Directory Assistant service (STDA) on the servers. STDA provides the collection of StreetTalk directory names and services that exist on all servers and places them into distributed directory databases. STDA is an essential mechanism that eases database searches for user attributes, as well as file and print services. For example, one user can search for another user by querying the person's title or department location. Updating the STDA with the latest network information-new user phone numbers, e-mail addresses and so forth-can be time-consuming, but the result is a single enterprise directory that can improve company productivity.
StreetTalk for NT includes several utilities for managing a directory, but most of them are still DOS-based. In fact, they're the same Banyan blue screens that have been available since StreetTalk first shipped for Vines. For experienced StreetTalk users, these screens might seem the only way to navigate a directory. There are other options, however. In Novell's NDS, for instance, the entire directory is managed by one Windows-based GUI tool, NWADMIN.
Eager to match Novell's GUI approach, Banyan has introduced StreetTalk Explorer, a 32-bit graphical interface that borrows the look and feel of Win95's Explorer. Unfortunately, StreetTalk Explorer was less than perfect as of this writing, providing only file and print services. It's available for download at http://www.banyan.com/streettalk/betaintro.html.
Even in its early state, StreetTalk Explorer offers at least one nifty feature. Specifically, it lets administrators group file services into one "virtual" directory. For example, if your department has four servers, and each server contains a CD-ROM drive, the drives can be placed into a group share and accessed via a single drive mapping.
In effect, the four CD-ROM drives appear under a single drive letter as subdirectories beneath the mapped drives.
Banyan also offers a 16-bit Windows interface called ENS MT (Enterprise Network Service Management Tool). But even with ENS MT, you must rely on SETARL (Access Rights List)-a DOS-based blue screen-to assign privileges. This is particularly annoying because after creating a file service using StreetTalk Explorer, you must jump to SETARL to assign rights for those file services.
While directory services can ease an administrator's life, they can also help Windows users (3.x, 95 and NT) find network resources more quickly. To that end, we tested StreetTalk client on each of Microsoft's desktop operating systems.
The Windows 3.x client was a bear to configure. It requires considerable memory management and patience. The drivers are included in Banyan's Client Component Suite; you'll find them compressed into three self-extracting EXE files. We copied them from Banyan's CD to the local drive of our test workstation. Next, we ran a utility called PCCONFIG to set the board interrupts and I/O addresses. While this Win3.x client uses the DOS command line to map drives to resources, it doesn't support UDP connections to the server.
For Win95 users, the StreetTalk client is a snap to install through Network Properties. Simply click on Add, then point to the Client Components Suite in your CD-ROM drive. After the installation, you might need to modify the properties of the Vines protocol if you want to use the UDP support. As mentioned, Microsoft TCP/IP must be loaded first, then you can change the settings of the Vines protocol to "IP for Windows 95." Like Win95, the NT 3.51 and 4.0 versions of the StreetTalk client can be installed by running setup from the client CD-ROM drive.
Savvy users can tap StreetTalk DOS-based utilities like SetDrive and SetPrint to map drives to network resources or route documents to a different printer. Win95 and NT users can browse the network and map a drive through the Banyan Network, which is identical to browsing via the Network Neighborhood icon found on the Win95 or NT 4.0 desktop.
Cause for concern
Our biggest technical concern with StreetTalk for NT is its noticeable performance hit when copying files to a Banyan share. We identified this problem after taking the following steps. First, we created a Microsoft Networking Share on an NT server and mapped a drive to the share from a Windows 95 client. Next, we created a StreetTalk file service and set it to the same subdirectory on the same server. From the same Windows 95 client, we mapped a drive to our Banyan share. At this point, we had redundant shares to the same subdirectory on the same server. When we copied a 20MB file from the Windows 95 client to the Microsoft share, it took 35 seconds. When the Banyan share was substituted for the Microsoft share, that same task required an unreasonable one minute and 30 seconds. Banyan says our 32MB memory configuration might have created the performance bottleneck, though the company's engineers were still reviewing the issue as of this writing.
Despite some of StreetTalk's limitations, it's clearly a better tool for managing NT networks than Microsoft's current domain approach. And thanks to the heritage of StreetTalk on Vines and now StreetTalk on NT, Banyan is arguably the world's most experienced provider of directory services. It's also a good bet the company will address StreetTalk for NT's shortcomings, considering the Goliaths it's facing in Novell and Microsoft.
Existing Banyan customers migrating to Windows NT need to consider using StreetTalk for NT. Even if Microsoft delivers its new directory service this year or next, it won't offer StreetTalk's maturity. Also, since StreetTalk is a Win32 application, it should provide investment protection by installing onto the next version of NT.
For organizations that have already implemented domains, StreetTalk is worth a look. But the safest bet is delaying a buying decision until Microsoft and Novell deliver their respective NT directory alternatives.
Sidebar -- Directory Showdown
Product: Active Directory
Company: Microsoft Corp.
Price: Free with Windows NT 5.0
Platforms: Windows NT
Pros: Expected to be tightly integrated with Windows NT 5.0 and Microsoft BackOffice; public and private key security
Cons: Will only run on NT; won't likely match the features of StreetTalk or NDS for several years
Product: Directory & Security Services
Price: OS/2, $3,999 per server; AIX UNIX, starts at $4,700; NT pricing not set
Platforms: IBM AIX UNIX, OS/2; Windows NT version planned
Pros: Potential solution for industries (banking, finance, retail) with mixed IBM and Microsoft environments
Cons: Small market share and mind share among developers and users
Product: Netscape Directory Server
Company: Netscape Communications
415-937-2555 (corp.), 415-937-3777 (indiv.)Circle #843 or visit Winfo Online
Price: Per server, $995
Platforms: UNIX, Windows NT
Pros: Publish user names, e-mail addresses and other information on intranets; integrated with Netscape SuiteSpot
Cons: Windows NT version in beta test as of this writing
Product: Novell Directory Services (NDS)
800-NETWARE, 801-222-6000Circle #844 or visit Winfo Online
Price: Free with NetWare 4.x; price varies by platform
Platforms: NetWare 4.x, UNIX; Windows NT version to ship this year
Pros: NDS on NetWare is the most popular network directory service
Cons: Microsoft has so far failed to help Novell integrate NDS with NT
Company: Banyan Systems
800-2-BANYAN, 508-898-1000Circle #845 or visit Winfo Online
Price: Per desktop, $60 to $300 depending on network size
Platforms: Banyan Vines, Windows NT
Pros: Based on mature technology available for more than a decade
Cons: Steep price; Banyan's recent financial losses could cause some users to avoid StreetTalk