NT without NT

Because my life is pretty boring, I’ve been wondering how vendors integrate the Microsoft PC world with their own proprietary or Unix environment? Until the last couple months, most PC serving products I’ve seen had password synchronization or other problems integrating with a vendor’s environment. Many products needed special software loaded on each client PC.

DEC Pathworks is a classic case. It allows a DEC OpenVMS or Digital UNIX system to act as a PC file and print server. The first version was a great idea in 1987, but it was buggy and the documentation was a joke. Each new version made things worse, and each new Microsoft product made Pathworks more complex. By early 1994, the server management user interface was worse than awful, and the required client software needed about 16 floppies. What a mess!

In 1997, we gave a presentation to the Minnesota Regional Digital/Compaq user group titled, "The 12 Step Recovery Program from DEC Pathworks." It was a tongue-in-cheek speech about our frustrations dealing with DEC Pathworks over the years. DEC’s product manager was there and, needless to say, she was not happy. I’m not sure which made her more mad -- when we told the audience that Pathworks was junk, or when we said they should all get rid of Pathworks and buy Windows NT.

We had a little talk afterwards, and she told me a new version was coming soon that would fix the problems of the older versions. Yeah, right, I thought. How many times had I heard that story over the prior 10 years? But this time, she meant it, she said, because this new version was based on AT&T’s Advanced Server for UNIX. I asked her to send me a beta copy, and I told her we would take a look at it. She made a comment about how ignorant I am, and I haven’t heard from her since.

The new version of Pathworks eventually shipped, and we took a close look at it. Surprisingly, I like it. It really does integrate the good stuff about OpenVMS with the good stuff about Windows NT. Client PCs no longer need special software other than standard Microsoft clients, password synchronization works, and new DEC Pathworks servers look to the outside world just like Windows NT 3.51 servers.

Here is some nifty integration. All nodes in an OpenVMS cluster can have concurrent read/write access to everything. This means all nodes running the Pathworks product -- up to 31 nodes -- can dynamically load balance and provide redundancy. The cluster maintains a single shared event log, SAM database, and Share databases. The whole cluster presents itself to the outside world as a single virtual server, and when a client connects to this virtual server, the physical server with the most capacity to handle the request takes care of it. If a physical server dies, the client reconnects to the virtual server -- called a cluster alias -- and another physical server takes over. Native Windows NT will not offer this kind of load balancing and redundancy for at least two years.

Another neat idea: The server management interface is command-based. This means a network manager can write real scripts to add/delete users, to handle shares, and to take care of other chores. Imagine a college that needs to turn over 1,000 users every semester. A system manager can write a script to handle the job, without using any third party products.

I have a couple small beefs. A Pathworks server can only be a primary or backup domain controller in a Windows NT domain. I wish it could also play a member server role. I also want a version of Pathworks that emulates NT versions 4 and, soon, 5.

If there’s hope for DEC OpenVMS, surely the various UNIX’s offer similar products, right? Sun recently announced Project Cascade, which makes a Solaris Server look like a Windows NT Server -- but nicely integrated with Solaris’ nifty features. Other vendors, including NCR, HP, SCO, Siemens, ICL, Bull, Data General, and Auspex, offer similar products -- all based on AT&T’s Advanced Server for UNIX.

What’s going on here? Can we really have a viable, supportable, Windows NT-based network without a real Windows NT Server? The answer is a qualified yes.

Evidently, Microsoft sold a source code license for Windows NT to AT&T as part of a deal to develop the CIFS (Common Internet File System) initiative. This was an effort to make Microsoft’s file sharing technology an industry standard. The result was AT&T Advanced Server for UNIX, which AT&T, in turn, shared with the rest of the industry.

Wait a minute: The mean, monopolistic Microsoft sharing source code? That concept is enough to make Janet Reno’s head spin. Let’s applaud Microsoft for this enlightened self-interest. And let’s all lobby Microsoft to keep up the good work by sharing future versions of Windows 2000.

Could this be the beginning of a future with choices and standards? --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.