Waiting in the Wings

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.

So 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.

NT 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 to early in 1999, and now, with the arrival of Beta 3 at the end of April, all Microsoft will say is that the final release is targeted for completion before the year 2000.

One of the reasons given for the project’s ever increasing time frame is the software’s ever-expanding size, which is attributed to such major changes as the addition of the Active Directory — Microsoft’s brand new directory services — and Intellimirror, a new desktop management feature.

The final product’s estimated size run anywhere from 23 million to 60 million lines of code.

“This is just huge — an operating system that’s designed to run on [everything from] your laptop all the way to a 32-way box in your datacentre, 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 Neil MacDonald of Gartner Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass.

“This happens to be the biggest operating system release ever, and the one to which Microsoft has attached the greatest ambitions,” added Dwight Davis of the Boston-based IT consulting firm Summit Strategies Inc.

So far the size and the scope of the new release haven’t proved intimidating to Edmond Yee. As manager of network operations for Vancouver-based Chevron Canada, Yee is part of a global design architect team for Chevron which is evaluating Windows 2000 as part of Microsoft’s Rapid Deployment Program. Unless there are major problems with the OS, 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. Companies such as Fastlane Technologies Inc., Mission Critical Software and Entevo Inc. are already promoting their third-party migration products, which Microsoft is also endorsing.

Yee said Chevron has looked at a few migration tools but hasn’t decided on anything yet.

As for migration plans, he said, “We’re going to create a brand new domain for Windows 2000 and slowly migrate master domains over to that brand new domain.

“We’re trying to lay down the infrastructure first –things like the server and the sites and all of the backbone infrastructure — before we do any of the workstation stuff.”

Tormi Jogeda, manager of IS and telecommunications for Toronto’s Riverdale Hospital, said while he is keeping an eye on the progress of Windows 2000 since he expects he will eventually need it for certain applications, he isn’t actively evaluating the OS right now.

“I’m not in any way anticipating making a move to it until it becomes available, and far from it – it will probably be an iteration or two down the road before we seriously look at it,” he said.

Jogeda currently has a combination of NT and Novell NetWare in his network, but he’s happy with the way NDS is working in his NetWare network so Active Directory is not a necessity for him right now.

“And since I have no compelling reason to go there, I’m not about to spend any significant amount of time trying to debug it for them.”

But Chevron’s Yee, who has invested a lot of time into the OS, is looking forward to many of the new features, especially Active Directory. In fact, ask most experts what the biggest feature of Windows 2000 is going to be and the answer is inevitably the same.

“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.”

He also pointed to the Dynamic Domain Name Server (DNS) component and all the group policies as being significant.

“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 [NT has] enterprise administrations and domain administrations, and they actually break the administration down a lot more in Windows 2000.”

Given the host of new features in Windows 2000, and the Microsoft’s ambition in attempting such a complex, high profile project, a lot is riding on the success of the launch and the solidity of the code.

If there are major problems with the operating system, Microsoft is going to come under fire from its competitors who are waiting to pounce on any problem in Windows 2000.

Companies like Novell have already been making public comments about the length of time it has taken for Windows 2000 to ship, and Unix vendors have been stressing Unix’s own reliability as compared to what they expect from Windows 2000.

Novell has also been promoting its Novell Directory Services (NDS), pointing out it has 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.

“At a certain level, people will say, ‘No big surprise – we didn’t expect them to get it right the first time. We’ll just wait for version .1 and then fix it,'” Davis said.

“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.”

The timing of the release, however, may negatively affect some partners, according to Gartner’s MacDonald.

“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,” MacDonald said.

But at the same time, he added, they’re deriving some benefit 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 in 1999. There will be some income in 2000, but he advises that the major uptake Gartner expects will happen in 2001, after Y2K work is completed.

“If [Microsoft] 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. “So my thoughts to Microsoft would be: don’t take your time, but don’t try to rush it to get it out this year. Q1 of 2000 is probably better than trying to rush to get something out that has a lot of bugs in it.”

Davis said new features are all well and good, but when it comes down to it, reliability is the underlying quality that Windows 2000 must have. Fancy new features won’t mean anything if the system is constantly crashing, he said.

“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.”

Microsoft officials themselves have admitted that reliability has been a problem with past versions of NT, and it’s something that they promise to change in Windows 2000.

“From our perspective, this product will be mission critical,” added Eric 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.”

Neil Froggatt, marketing manager for Windows NT workstation at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., added that customer comments will be crucial in determining final decisions about Windows 2000.

“Once we get feedback from our Beta 3 participants, it will give us a better sense of when the product will be available,”

Despite reassurances from Microsoft, Summit Strategies’ Davis said that when it comes to the attitude toward the OS in general, the majority of users he has spoken to are hopeful, but skeptical. He also added that 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 has taken a generation or two or an upgrade or two to resolve many of them.

Gartner’s MacDonald added that many people will install Windows 2000 just because it’s Microsoft’s new operating system, but 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 not 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.”