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-- by Joseph C. Panettieri
Windows 98 will finally ship early next year, but when it does, don't expect Microsoft to spend too much time celebrating. By then, the company will have its sights set on delivering Windows NT 5.0. And the new NT might be good enough not only to bump Novell and Sun Microsystems from their server perches, but also to battle Windows 98 for your corporate desktop.
NT 5.0's schedule trails Win98's by 30 to 90 days, and insiders expect NT 5.0 to arrive in the second quarter of 1998. At press time, the first 5.0 beta release was slated for delivery at the Professional Developers Conference in San Diego on Sept. 22. Like 4.0, the beta will have two versions: NT Workstation and NT Server.
NT Workstation 5.0
NT Workstation 5.0 will inherit a hefty amount of code from Win95 and Win98, including support for Plug and Play, Advanced Power Management, the Windows Driver Model and Win98's Active Desktop technology, which marries the Internet to your desktop and file system (see Cover Story). It will also boast several new enterprise features, such as IntelliMirror-a technology that can copy your NT Workstation 5.0 data, applications and custom operating system settings to a server (running NT Server 5.0) for safekeeping.
Despite an increasingly similar code base, there are still major differences between Windows 98 and NT Workstation 5.0. Win98 is married to the x86 instruction set and offers better support for 16-bit applications and legacy hardware. NT Workstation 5.0 supports both x86 and Digital Alpha processors, and it scales across multiprocessor systems. Of course, those differences could disappear by the year 2000, when Win98's successor arrives with NT's kernel deep inside.
This summer, Microsoft finally acknowledged what others have long thought obvious: that NT Workstation, rather than Win98, is the "strategic direction" for corporate desktops. If you're a corporate buyer, NT Workstation could be a better bet for you than Win98, says Paul Maritz, Microsoft vice president-provided you meet three conditions. First, all your applications must run on NT. Next, your hardware and peripherals must work with NT. Finally, you must have at least 32MB of RAM on all your systems. (Visit http://www.microsoft.com/windows/platform/info/how2choose-mb.htm#strat for details.) If not, says Microsoft, go with Win98.
NT Server 5.0
The stakes are even higher with NT Server 5.0, which features sweeping architectural changes. While the enhancements are needed to gain greater scalability, there's a delicate balance here; if the changes prove too severe, administrators might just decide to hold the line with NT Server 4.0, Novell NetWare or Sun Solaris.
The biggest question mark surrounds NT Server 5.0's new directory system, dubbed Active Directory. Like Novell Directory Services (NDS), Active Directory is a hierarchical interface for managing users, file services, print services and applications across a network.
NT Server 4.0's directory, by contrast, is a flat-file system that scales poorly across enterprises. And taking no chances, Microsoft is partnering with systems software vendor Computer Associates to deliver a suite of directory migration tools. One of these tools, called DS Migrate, will shift NetWare 3.x and 4.x servers to Active Directory. Expect DS Migrate, along with the NT upgrade, to arrive next spring.
Of course, Windows NT is still the province of network administrators, and it has only a fraction of the market share of Windows 95. But with the emergence of NT 5.0, all that could change.