It already seems as if NetWorld+ Interop 98 was months ago, although it was only just the first week of May that the show was held in Las Vegas. Fortunately, I was able to do N+I as a strafing run - in and out in less than a day.
Even so, I was there long enough to see some obvious trends. After three trips up and down the floor during the span of a few hours, I noticed the Sun booth consistently got slightly more attention than the Microsoft booth. I found it interesting that a company representing Unix and Internet standards was in the limelight this year, and I began to wonder what that might mean for the future of directory services.
Novell made sure it had a very visible presence at N+I this year. Novell has a pretty compelling story to tell, so its timing might be right on the money. It is leveraging the maturity of Novell Directory Services (NDS) against the premature hype over Microsoft's Active Directory that started last year, in spite of the fact that Active Directory isn't close to shipping yet.
Novell claims that Microsoft and its customers will have to go through years of painful adjustment to get to a point where Active Directory becomes useful. Novell enjoys rubbing it in a bit too much, but it is a realistic prediction.
It should come as no shock that Active Directory won't be much more than a layer that hides the existing Windows NT domain model. This is more of an observation than a criticism. It has to be that way. People can't throw out their domains overnight any more than Novell's customers could throw away their binderies when Novell introduced NDS.
Backward compatibility and the education process made the transition to NDS slow and somewhat painful. It will be the same for Active Directory. The first pass or two of Active Directory will probably continue to manage domains under the covers, and may even continue to synchronise information from two or more existing directory systems, such as Exchange. It could be several years before Active Directory is unified into a cohesive solution.
You may find it odd, but I wonder if Netscape has the answer. Sure, it would be difficult to argue that there is any directory technology available for PC servers that is superior to NDS, although one might make a case for Banyan Systems' StreetTalk. But did you know StreetTalk is supporting Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) now?
In fact, everyone is supporting LDAP. And that's my point about Netscape. Why not simply rally around the X.500 Directory Access Protocol (DAP), of which LDAP is a subset? The argument against DAP so far has been that DAP is too large. That's the reason the Internet Engineering Task Force put the "L" in LDAP.
So DAP is large. Does anyone really think Active Directory is going to be anything less than a behemoth by the time it works?
After all, we're talking about a company that equates a talking paper clip with ease of use and puts a flight simulator Easter egg into its spreadsheet software. (I refuse to condone this practice by giving out the keystrokes, so don't ask.)NDS supports LDAP. StreetTalk supports LDAP. Active Directory will support LDAP. And Netscape Directory Server is built on LDAP. Now of the above directory servers, which do you think is likely to have the least dead weight for an Internet-centered future?
Do you see where I'm going here? Even if Netscape has to turn its Directory Server into DAP to make it a directory service for network resources in the same sense as NDS or StreetTalk, it isn't likely to be heavier than the alternatives that support both a proprietary approach and LDAP. And if Netscape opens up the source code for its Directory Server as it did for Navigator, that would make DAP - or whatever Netscape turns it into - a de facto standard very quickly.
And that brings me back to the observation about the Sun booth. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Sun was getting so much attention. Or maybe the corporate eye is turning away from proprietary solutions toward Unix and Internet standards. If it's the latter, perhaps it's time we gave some thought to building on Internet standards when it comes to network directory services. What do you think?
Former consultant and programmer Nicholas Petreley is editor in chief at NC World (www.ncworldmag.com). Reach him at nicholas_ firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com