NT 5.0 Beta 2: A Step Toward the Real Thing

Microsoft Corp.’s latest incarnation of Windows NT 5.0, beta 2, is the first nearly complete look at the Windows NT of the future<I>.</I> Included in this beta are Active Directory, the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), and support for Plug and Play, features that, to some extent, have been implemented by many different vendors on myriad server platforms.


Microsoft Corp.’s latest incarnation of Windows NT 5.0, beta 2, is the first nearly complete look at the Windows NT of the future. Included in this beta are Active Directory, the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), and support for Plug and Play, features that, to some extent, have been implemented by many different vendors on myriad server platforms.

To anyone who has managed multi-NOS, multi-OS, and diverse heterogeneous environments, Windows NT 5.0 will seem generally comfortable, albeit quite different from Windows NT 4.0. The outward look and feel of Windows NT 5.0 doesn’t stray far from its predecessor, but the internal complexities have increased exponentially.

Putting Windows NT 5.0 Through the Paces

Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 won't run on everything that runs Windows NT 4.0. The next-generation operating system requires an Intel processor to move at 166 MHz or faster, and a minimum of 32 MB of RAM for workstations, 64 MB for servers. Compaq/Digital Alpha processors must be at least an EV4, 200 MHz and higher, with the latest firmware version installed and a minimum of 48 MB of RAM for workstations, 96 MB for servers. With RAM, more is always better, so we recommend 128 MB minimum for servers and 64 MB minimum for workstations, regardless of the hardware platform. Additionally, Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 systems need ample free disk space, along with the standard CD-ROM, supported network adapter, and a VGA or better monitor. We tested the beta version using servers with 192 MB of RAM and workstations with 64 MB of RAM, 266-MHz Intel processors and plenty of free disk space.

We built a test network consisting of two Windows NT servers, four Windows NT workstations, and two notebooks running Windows NT. Along with the Windows NT servers, we set up an Internet Information Server, dynamic Domain Name Service (DNS) and DHCP on both servers. Then we added 10 accounts to the servers for testing purposes.

What we found was a reasonably functional version of Windows NT 5.0 -- the version that can actually be used to make decisions on how and when to upgrade. Microsoft says that NT 5.0 Beta 2 is nearly 100 percent feature complete while at the same time warns that it is not ready for prime time.

New Features

Among the many new facets of Windows NT 5.0 are features specifically designed for network management, such as Active Directory Services, dynamic DNS and the MMC.

Active Directory Services, a key element in Microsoft's enterprise network operating system strategy, removes the need for numerous application-specific directories, making it easier to manage the network. Applications can add or change information in existing object schema or add new object classes. As applications and services evolve to make use of the directory, Active Directory Services will compete with NDS to become the backbone for network management, especially in large enterprises.

Active Directory Services in Windows NT 5.0 combine the best features of dynamic DNS and X.500. Since Active Directory uses DNS as the global backbone namespace, it uses DNS to look up Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) services. It also integrates DNS with directory storage and replication. Although Active Directory uses the X.500 data model, the implementation is simpler. Windows NT 5.0 uses the LDAP protocol, and a combination of Kerberos and public key security.

With dynamic DNS, all the necessary resource records for DNS clients are created automatically in the DNS database. This greatly reduces the administrative overhead required to maintain a DNS server. Furthermore, systems that get their IP addresses from DHCP can be automatically registered by Windows NT 5.0 with the DNS server. Users attempting to access these computers via a fully qualified domain name will be successful even as IP addresses change.

One of the limitations of Windows NT Server has been the inability to promote a standalone server to a domain controller without reinstalling the operating system. Backup domain controllers (BDC) could become primary domain controllers (PDC), and a PDC could become a BDC, but a standalone server would always be a standalone server. Windows NT 5.0 enables promotion of a standalone server to a domain controller. The distinction between the PDC and the BDC is gone, as all domain controllers become equal, each maintaining a full copy of the domain database within the Active Directory structure.

When we set up our first Windows NT 5.0 server, we first had to install Windows NT Server 5.0 in a standalone configuration in a workgroup and then install and configure the DNS. We then promoted the server to a domain controller and began creating our Active Directory tree. We easily directly installed subsequent domain controllers by specifying that they are joining the existing Active Directory tree.

Another highly touted feature of Windows NT 5.0, the MMC, replaces the User Manager and Server Manager found in Windows NT 4.0. In reality, MMC provides no actual management functions itself but acts as a host for add-ons that supply management functions. Such add-ons, called Snap-ins, are really ActiveX controls. Some preconfigured MMC tools are available on the Start menu for performing basic administrative functions, such as managing your computer or your directory. We found that creating our own tools, which requires only adding or removing Snap-ins, to be a breeze. These tools can be saved, added to the Start menu, or distributed to other administrators.

The MMC uses a Windows Explorer-like interface where the left pane, the Scope Pane, shows container objects that can be managed. In the right pane are properties and details for the object selected on the left. The Computer Management Tool included with beta 2 also provides three wizards to assist with basic hardware functions.

The MMC also serves as the host for scripts written in any language that can operate over any combination of objects in the directory, regardless of what vendor, service or application created those objects, and regardless of where those objects physically reside. In addition, administrators can create, save and exchange any number of console configurations, which enables concrete delegation of responsibilities and tasks. The goal is to let administrators create a single, customized view of all management activities.

While not as highly evangelized as some of the features new to version 5.0, Plug and Play support, which Microsoft built into Windows 95 more than 3 years ago, has finally been added to Windows NT. Specifically, Windows NT 5.0 Plug and Play support will automatically and dynamically recognize hardware, provide interfaces so device drivers can interact with the Plug and Play system, load the appropriate drivers for detected hardware, notify applications of device events, and coordinate power management for devices that support the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface.

We tested this technology in Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 on two laptops, one of the places where Plug and Play technology is most valuable, and we had no trouble with it at all. We configured the operating system on both laptops without network cards or modems. We then inserted into both laptops network cards and modems of varying types and speeds. The cards were as easily recognized and made operational as with Windows 95. Drivers loaded, and we swapped PC Cards in and out without rebooting. In other words, it worked as promised, or dare we say, as it should have in Windows NT 4.0.

Windows NT 5.0 also has a plethora of other new features and capabilities. For instance, SMTP Server, NNTP Server and NT Server 4.0 compatibility are under the operating system’s hood. Along with the Kerberos authentication, new security features include Smart Card and IPSec security enhancements. Also included are the ability to remotely install Windows NT across a network, enhanced roaming using IntelliMirror, distributed file system support, Terminal Server support and Advanced System Recovery -- all of which are useful tools for managing a LAN.

Surprise, Surprise

A few features surprised us during our testing. Some were good, others were not. Our first surprise was the release note warnings that NTFS was not backward-compatible. To safely dual-boot Windows NT 5.0 with Windows NT 4.0 requires separate partitions. Windows NT 5.0 modifies NTFS in such a way that it is incompatible with earlier versions. Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 will include a modified file system driver that will enable NT 4.0 to read the new structures.

The next surprise was the reinclusion of Server for Macintosh (SFM) support into the mainstream NT management. Windows NT 4.0 had relegated SFM to the pre-NT 4.0 compatibility utilities. The easiest way to manage SFM in 4.0 was to run the old File Manager.

Far and away our biggest surprise with NT 5.0, though, was its usability. In fact, our main problems simply had to do with operator error in understanding this complex beast.

Microsoft still has plenty of polishing to do before Windows NT 5.0 is ready for the real world. But, although it will be some time before the final version ships, beta 2 is solid enough to demonstrate that the future operating system has promise.

Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 882-8080
+ Complete, working beta.
+ Active Directory eases network management.
+ MMC provides customizable tool for managing system services and applications.
+ Plug and Play support.
- Incomplete Help files.
- Extra complexity requires extensive retraining.