Microsoft's yet-to-be-released Windows 2000 has been described by many as the biggest, most ambitious operating system ever - one that will have an impact on all facets of the IT industry. But, will Microsoft's partners' patience pay off, once Windows 2000 is released? Carol Neshevich investigates.
Ever since Windows 2000 (formerly NT 5.0) was first announced, the IT industry has been anxiously waiting for its release. And waiting, and waiting.
First introduced as the operating system to follow up NT 3.51, under the code-name Cairo, it was expected to ship back in 1995. Parts of Cairo finally shipped as NT 4.0 in September 1996, with the rest expected to be released as NT 5.0. Version 5.0 was first expected out by early 1998, but as work progressed and new features kept being added, the anticipated release date moved to later in 1998, then early in 1999.
When it was announced that Beta 2 of the product was delayed in the middle of 1998, and that a third beta was going to be added before the product would be complete, it became obvious that the product would not ship until at least mid-1999. And with Beta 3 just having been released at the end of April, rumour has it that NT 5.0 - now known as Windows 2000 as a result of a marketing-based name change last September - will be shipping in October this year. Microsoft will still not fix an official release date, however, only saying it is targeted to be completed before the year 2000.
"Once we get feedback from our Beta 3 participants, it will give us a better sense of when the product will be available," Neil Froggatt, marketing manager for Windows NT Workstation at Microsoft Canada, said.
"From our perspective, this product will be mission-critical," added Erik Moll, marketing manager for Windows NT Server at Microsoft Canada. "And customers have been telling us not to bring out a product that isn't 100 per cent tested."
One of the reasons for the development time taken is the project's size, attributed to such major changes as the addition of the Active Directory - Microsoft's brand new directory service - and Intellimirror, a new desktop management feature.
The final product's estimated lines of code have run anywhere from 23 million to 60 million over the past year.
"This is just huge - an operating system that's designed to run on your laptop all the way to a 32-way box in your data centre, not to mention supporting old legacy hardware and even low-end Pentium chips, ISA buses, all the way up to state-of-the-art SMP systems," said GartnerGroup analyst Neil MacDonald.
"This happens to be the biggest operating system release ever, and the one to which Microsoft has attached its greatest ambitions," Dwight Davis, an analyst at Boston-based Summit Strategies, added.
Besides adding to the time taken to dev-elop the product, the ambitiousness of the product means a lot is riding on it.
If there are major problems with the operating system when it is released, Microsoft is going to come under fire from its competitors who are waiting to pounce on any problem in Windows 2000. Unix vendors and companies such as Novell have already been making public comments about the length of time it has taken for Windows 2000 to ship. Unix vendors have been stressing Unix's own proven reliability as compared to what they expect from Windows 2000, and Novell has been promoting its Novell Directory Services (NDS) by pointing out that it has already been around for several years and is already stable, whereas Microsoft's Active Directory is going to take a while before it has its bugs worked out.
"This operating system is going to be under a microscope and any flaws that are in it are going to be magnified a thousand-fold," Davis said.
"A lot of Microsoft competitors are waiting with great anticipation for Windows 2000, expecting it to fall flat on its face in a notable way. And they'll be ready to run with that if it happens."
He said partners also have a lot at stake, but then added that when it comes down to it, people won't be extremely shocked if there are problems with Windows 2000, and will just stick with it while things are getting fixed.
"People won't just say, 'Well, they blew it with Windows 2000, I guess we'll just switch to Unix now.' That's not a practical option." But, according to Gartner's MacDonald, the timing of the release may affect some partners.
"If you're close to Microsoft and you're an ISV and you've developed an application that requires [Windows 2000], you're hurting because you aren't going to see revenue in 1999," he said.
But at the same time, he added, ISVs are benefiting from the publicity surrounding anything to do with Windows 2000. His advice to ISVs working on Windows 2000 applications and products is not to count on seeing revenue this year. There will be some revenue in 2000, but Gartner expects the major uptake to happen in 2001.
Most customers at this point agree that they prefer to have a good, stable final product over a quick ship date.
In fact, with Y2K on the horizon, many wouldn't consider upgrading until after the beginning of the year 2000 anyhow.
"If it came out with something in September or October, I think very few people would be motivated to do anything anyway because of the Y2K scenario," said Brian Deegan, vice president of Toronto-based Trimark Investment Management.
Edmond Yee, manager of network operations for Vancouver-based Chevron Canada, is part of a global design architect team for Chevron which is evaluating Windows 2000 in conjunction with Microsoft, as part of its Rapid Deployment Program. Unless there are any major problems, Chevron will be deploying it when it is released in accordance with its agreement with Microsoft.
However, Microsoft is going to be flexible in light of Y2K.
"We do have an escape clause for Y2K issues," Yee said, explaining that if any major issues come up, Chevron can defer its testing to a later date.
According to Yee, migration will also be an issue that will need close attention.
"We're going to create a brand new domain for Windows 2000 and slowly migrate master domains over to that brand new domain," Yee said.
"We're trying to lay down the infrastructure first, so things like the server and the sites and all of the backbone infrastructure, before we do any of the workstation stuff."
However, Yee is looking forward to a lot of the new features, especially Active Directory. In fact, ask anyone what the biggest feature of Windows 2000 is going to be, and the answer is inevitably Active Directory.
"Active Directory is probably going to provide the most benefit for the largest number of companies," said Summit Strategies' Davis. "Those who have existing directories based on earlier versions of NT have had a hard time managing them - they have a lot of limitations that exist in NT directory services."
The new Dynamic DNS component and all the group policies are also important to Yee.
"The security component within Windows 2000 is very important to us," he added. "We're looking at management as well - how we can better manage things in a tiered management scheme. Basically, they have enterprise administrations and domain administrations, and they actually break the administration down a lot more in Windows 2000."
Summit Strategies' Davis said new features are all well and good, but when it comes down to it, reliability is the underlying thing that Windows 2000 must have, adding that fancy new features won't mean anything if the system is constantly crashing.
Microsoft officials themselves have admitted reliability has been a problem with past versions of NT, and it's something they promise to change in Windows 2000.
"People have not been thrilled with the reliability of Windows 2000 up to this point," Davis said. "And Microsoft has a lot to prove with Windows 2000 to show that it can, in fact, create this substantially new operating system and at the same time make it much more reliable that NT 4.0 Service Pack 4."
He said it's been a hot issue of debate - whether or not Microsoft can deliver a product with so many millions of lines of code and still deliver higher reliability than it had in the previous product.
When it comes to the attitude toward Windows 2000 in general, Davis said the majority of users he has spoken to are hopeful, but sceptical. He said if Microsoft manages to get Windows 2000 out with minimal problems, it will be proving history wrong.
"Historically speaking, anything of this magnitude - even things of half this size - have come out with some severe bug issues, and it's taken a generation or two, or an upgrade or two, to resolve many of them."
Gartner's MacDonald added that while many people will install Windows 2000 just because it's Microsoft's new operating system, he urges companies to actually look closely at the product before committing to it.
"Make sure you look at what's driving you to migrate, other than the vendor telling you to," he said. "If it will help you serve your customers faster, or better, or make more widgets per hour - those are good reasons.
"But [don't migrate] because it's the latest and greatest, or 'My vendor told me to do so' or 'I want to get retrained' - those are not the right reasons."
What's in it?
Windows 2000 Server will include new features aimed at increasing scalability through: further symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) optimisation; support for physical memories greater than 4GB and up to 64GB on some systems; clustering enhancements; and sorting for commercial data-warehouse and data-mart applications.
It also has enhanced security features such as a security configuration editor, Kerberos authentication, a public-key certificate server, smart card infrastructure, IP security protocol and an encrypting file system. There are also various new features in the areas of file and print, file system support and storage management, networking and communication servers, and application servers.
On the desktop side, Microsoft claims Windows 2000 Professional will be the "easiest-to-use business desktop yet", due to improved help and search capabilities, richer error messages and easier capabilities for users to configure their systems with a set of intuitive wizards. It will include support for laptops via plug-and-play power management, as well as support for DVD and the Universal Serial Bus devices introduced with Windows 98, such as scanners, printers and mouse products.
The Intellimirror feature is also one that is gaining a lot of attention. It's a new desktop management feature which consists of application distribution, user data synchronisation between the client and server, and better distributed application and user policy management.