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ZAW Zeros In on the Bottom Line

-- by Cynthia Morgan

Forget the hype about plummeting prices. Given the time and money required for upkeep and upgrade over the years-commonly referred to as total cost of ownership (TCO)-PCs still ain't cheap. And it's TCO that's the driving force behind all the new devices you keep reading about, like network computers, NetPCs and Windows terminals.

But if you're looking to cut costs, you have to go beyond hardware. That's where Microsoft, the company that brought you Windows and just about everything else in software, wants to get involved. It is touting the Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW) initiative, which is designed specifically to lower costs by centralizing PC management. (The software should also ease headaches for IS managers still bewildered by a PC-centric world.) But don't expect TCO to plummet anytime soon-two major operating systems and two entirely new classes of PCs have to hit the market before we'll see any real change.

First, the kit

ZAW will roll out in several phases; the first was the July debut of Zero Administration Kit (ZAK), a collection of guidelines, automatic installation routines and management templates that work with existing Windows NT 4.0 management tools. In its first incarnation, ZAK largely prepares users for forthcoming Windows technologies, such as Windows NT 5.0, Windows 98 (or Memphis) and all the associated networked hardware. It also gets administrators used to the idea of setting network policies governing everything from default file locations to the icons on a user's desktop. Thus armed, a network administrator can quickly restore a user's desktop on a replacement system or rebuild accidentally lost files on the client.

With ZAK, you can restrict just about any Windows option in a policy (ADM) file, including installing unauthorized software; accessing network drives, resources or even the local Control Panel; modifying the Registry; and using right mouse-click property inspections. Policy files can force automatic updates to current versions of applications on the server or automatically restore accidentally deleted files and icons at the next user log-in. Policies can extend across an enterprise to remote servers or offline users. In extreme cases, the desktop can even be locked down to a single task or application, a very useful feature for kiosk or data-entry solutions.

Since policies reside on the central server and not on the local machine, users will see their own policy-based desktop-no matter where they log in. ZAK will ship with several default ADM files for typical user scenarios, and network administrators can easily customize these or build their own. Microsoft expects software and hardware vendors to begin including product-specific ADM files.

Warning: IS professionals may need to add some political skills to their technical expertise. Administrators wielding ZAK should not only know how to use it but when; for example, restricting a vice president's Internet access may not be the best career move.

What comes next

ZAK will lead the way to future ZAW innovations, including the caching of all client-side files on the server. Complete backups to the server-client applications as well as data and configuration files-are generally considered unwieldy and difficult to manage, but Microsoft has proposed using a single-instance storage within NTFS. Duplicate files, such as applications, would be stored only once; pointers to authorized apps and user preference files would be compressed and stored on the server for each user. Subsequent user installations would simply receive a pointer to that file.

If you approve of these changes, you'll be glad to know there's more to come, but it will take a while. ZAW won't make its full debut until NT 5.0 ships late this year, and NetPCs are only now rolling out the door. Standards for a second, thinner client, the Windows terminal, have yet to be finalized. Microsoft even offers the tantalizing possibility that the new machine will be based not on some Win32 flavor, but on Windows CE 2.0.

Windows Magazine, September 1997, page 54.

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