Windows 98: Assimilation or Accomodation?

HANDS ON

The hoopla accompanying the release of Windows 98 has quieted a bit, but the question still remains of exactly how the new client operating system will fit into corporate networks. Earlier this year Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates said, "We're being pretty clear with business customers that Windows NT 5.0, as a desktop and a server product, will be the best choice for them, even though they'll continue to be able to buy Windows 98."

Mr. Gates’ remarks may be true, but between now and the time Windows NT 5.0 actually ships, if you buy new machines, you’ll be buying Windows 98 right along with them, whether you want it or not. Retrofitting new machines with copies of an older operating system may seem logical to enterprises obsessed with desktop consistency, but it hardly makes technical sense in the long run.

It's tempting to think of Windows 98 as a shrink-wrapped version of Windows 95 plus all of Microsoft's aggregated add-ins, patches and Internet Explorer 4.0. But that perspective misses the important new management, configuration and administration features that make Windows 98 a much friendlier client platform for corporate environments.

Our tests included installing Windows 98 on laptops and workstations, and we performed upgrades in both standalone mode and over networks. In general, the upgrades went smoother and quicker than the miserable Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 upgrade. In two cases, however, our upgrades failed, leaving the machine in a curious no man’s land between Windows 95 and Windows 98. On top of that, the facilities that supposedly allow you to revert to Windows 95 in these cases did not work for us. When contacting Microsoft's technical support about the problem, we were given the dreaded advice, "Reformat your drive and re-install." Fortunately, it didn't come to that: We solved the problem using brute force, tortuously installing support for all needed hardware and drivers, one at a time.

Once past installation, we particularly appreciated the new Win32 driver model (WDM). Unfortunately, the WDM will allow for interchangeable use of device drivers only with the release of Windows NT 5.0. But the WDM made the "treasure hunt" for drivers that match a particular device and operating system combination much easier.

We also found that the Windows Scripting Host (WSH), which allows automation of support tasks, is a nice enhancement. WSH allows users and administrators to run VBScript applications directly from the shell or command line. This means that users can automate common maintenance and administrative tasks, such as virus checking, disk cleanup or connecting to networks, by using standard scripting languages.

When updating to Windows 98 desktops, we were not faced with finding, downloading and installing patches and features as with Windows 95. Windows 98 provides an Internet-enabled Windows Update Manager that compares hardware drivers and other operating system components installed on a PC to a central Microsoft database. If new versions are available, the feature downloads the new versions automatically over the Internet. Administrators can configure the Update Manager to install updates without user intervention. For those sites using Systems Management Server to manage the desktop, we were able to successfully disable the Update Manager so that desktop management could continue to be centralized.

We appreciated the improvements in the TCP/IP stack provided in Windows 98. The older implementation was plagued by tiny default buffer sizes and strange implementation choices for important IP protocols. The new stack repairs many of those problems while providing improved performance and reliability.

Deploying Windows 98 to desktops proved advantageous in more ways than expected. However, for budget-conscious enterprises, an updated version of Windows 95 OSR 2.1 plus an installation of Internet Explorer 4.0 is an alternative that provides nearly the same functionality, only without the new management tools.

When considering whether to upgrade clients to Windows 98, the enterprise manager should focus on the administration and management tools available in the new operating system. While much of the client upgrade -- beyond Internet Explorer 4.0 -- is cosmetic, the new administration tools make managing client desktops a simpler chore. Because long-term desktop management is such an important cost for enterprise networks, the new management tools in Windows 98 may be the "hidden" features that help the operating system earn its keep in corporate networks.

Windows 98
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 882-8080
www.microsoft.com
+ Substantial improvement in system configuration and maintenance.
+ TCP/IP stack rewrite is a great improvement.
+ Easier to install and upgrade than any previous release.
+ Automation through scripting makes administration easier.
- Not a long-term option in the corporate environment.
- Adds very little value over existing releases plus patches.
- Large installation footprint (typical installation requires 195 MB free).
Price: $209; upgrade, $109.