Terminal Server to Become Incognito

The fate of a product often depends on its past: how well it fulfilled its promise, how it differentiated itself from competitors, and how it addressed deficiencies. As the youngest of the Windows NT enterprise tools, Windows NT Terminal Server Edition hardly had time to develop a past. Still, coming changes will dramatically impact how organizations license and deploy Terminal Server Edition.

Terminal Server has a future, but its life of freedom from the rest of Windows NT will soon cease. "Terminal Server is only a standalone product today because integration of the Citrix MetaFrame code took place after the release of Windows NT version 4.0," says Solveig Whittle, lead product manager for Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition, at Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft will make Terminal Server a base part of Windows 2000 Server to insure that the option is integrated into all Windows 2000 environments.

When Microsoft released the Terminal Server Edition of Windows NT, many hailed an apparent conversion by Microsoft to the ranks of thin client believers. Six months after its June 1998 release, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The product probably suffered most from the overhyping of alternative thin client strategies. Thin client disciples claimed their technology could be applied in almost any situation. The result was that expectations far outstripped the abilities of any shipping product.

Microsoft's thin client strategy for Terminal Server is to have applications run at the server, and simply send images of the application interface to the client. Clients can be specialized Windows-based terminals or even a fat client PC. In either case, the workload at the client is limited to drawing images on the screen and sending keyboard and mouse click events back to the running application.

The potential to reduce desktop costs by deploying thin clients caused many organizations to quickly evaluate Terminal Server. As pilot projects progressed from testing to deployment, some organizations found that the applicability of Terminal Server is limited by design and performance constraints. "Server-centric architectures are not a be-all or end-all," Whittle comments. "Terminal Server is intended to be an option, not a replacement, for application deployment strategies."

With Terminal Server, Microsoft was forced into parallel development tracks for the product. On one hand, Microsoft's initial project involved integrating Citrix code into Windows NT Server 4.0. "That's not a trivial thing when you consider that implementation of Remote Desktop Protocol fundamentally changes the way the kernel, scheduler and other core O/S components work," Whittle says.

At almost the same time, Microsoft moved to integrate Terminal Server services into the base code of Windows 2000. A administrator can find the Terminal Server services in the current beta of Windows 2000 Server.

"Beta 3 will have a full beta of the Terminal Server features," Whittle adds. "We think of the code in [current] beta 2 as really being in an alpha state."

In the short time since the release of Terminal Server, several patches and fixes have been released -- notably the fixes for IP-based denial of service attacks on Windows NT. While Microsoft remains committed to delivering patches and fixes for Terminal Server, new features will only be found in the Windows 2000 operating system.

Now that implementers have had several months to move from testing to deployment, users of Terminal Server are telling Microsoft the areas that need further development. "Of course our customers are looking for improved performance and capacity, and we're always looking at ways to make Terminal Server perform better. We have also been asked to investigate how to provide some new, local services at the client such as audio, and local printer and I/O support," Whittle says.

While these changes will help improve the client, Microsoft is also under pressure to improve management features at the server. Microsoft now relies on third-party solutions to support clusters of systems running Terminal Server. Cubix Corp. (www.cubix.com), for instance, provides Balanced Cluster Service software for scaling, load-balancing and fail-over in Terminal Server environments. Microsoft's Whittle acknowledged that customers are asking for shadowing and related functionality at the server.

It’s too early in the beta testing phase to tell what new features will appear in the version of Terminal Server that will ship with Windows 2000. "I can't commit to specific features," Whittle says. "But [management features] are something we're looking very closely at."