Remote Access Service on NT Fills Need

More organizations are choosing to deploy Remote Access Service (RAS) solutions on Windows NT, but a familiar antagonist -- the specter of manageability – continues to pursue Microsoft Corp.’s flagship operating system.

Nearly 20 million salaried American workers telecommute from their homes an average of one day per week, according to the market research firm GartnerGroup (www.gartner.com). GartnerGroup expects that number to rise to nearly 65 million by 2003. Nearly all of these workers use some form of remote access to corporate systems, creating a huge market opportunity.

Microsoft has been trying to win a major chunk of that opportunity by augmenting the RAS functionality and capabilities of its Windows NT operating system. Through a baseline of RAS capabilities integrated into the operating system, and bolstered by strong third-party vendor offerings, RAS solutions on Windows NT are poised to capture a significant piece of the telecommuting market segment.

For IT managers, the telecommuting phenomenon translates into a substantive and immediate management problem. Lured in part by cost savings that can result from reduced facilities costs and by the need to attract and retain qualified candidates using cutting-edge employment policies, corporate executives are laying down telecommuting mandates to IT: Implement a scalable RAS solution that can connect legions of telecommuting end users to corporate resources.

RAS on NT Can Be an Obvious Choice

Since version 3.51, Windows NT has provided out-of-the-box RAS support. Windows NT 4.0 added more to the vanilla offering by integrating a revamped RAS service that distinguished between server-side and client-side components, as well as a new multiprotocol routing service. But it was the Spring 1997 release of Microsoft’s Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS), formerly known as Steelhead, that provided the impetus for the explosion of RAS-on-NT solutions.

Mark Evans, a network engineer with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) based in New Jersey, says he decided to leverage Windows NT as a RAS solution to provide connectivity to his company’s end users because of his familiarity with the operating system and the level of RAS functionality that NT can provide with its RRAS services.

"I’m already using NT and I know it, so it wasn’t a difficult decision," Evans explains. "With NT RAS and RRAS, it’s simple: Basically the clients just dial in, authenticate and they’re on the Internet. It’s very easy to set up and work with."

According to Al Haus, senior director of marketing with Rascom Inc. (www.rascom.com), IT managers who are handed such a directive and have Windows NT in-house will often implement a Windows NT-based RAS solution. "The first thing that an IS manager looks at is ease of installation, ease of support, and if you already know NT and have the resources in house, it’s a no-brainer," Haus contends. "To bring in a proprietary solution and then get somebody to support Cisco or Ascend is incredibly expensive."

"Proprietary services are expensive to maintain and train people to use," echoes Ryan Gilbert, director of marketing with Virtual Motion/Acotec (www.virtualmotion.com), a developer of OEM RAS management solutions used by Windows NT RAS vendors such as Rascom, Ariel Corp. (www.ariel.com) and Compaq Computer Corp. "One of the big factors when people buy an NT-based solution is that they can manage it without further employee training and at the same time leverage a browser interface or the familiar Windows GUI."

But organizations are adopting NT-based RAS solutions for other reasons as well. RAS administrators find that telecommuters need to have access to applications or data that reside on AS/400, OpenVMS, NFS or MVS data shares. To this end, NT’s status as a network operating system that provides connectivity to a number of disparate operating platforms makes an NT-based RAS solution a good choice. In the NT RAS schema, a sales representative who needs to access a sales or order-management application residing on an OpenVMS system, for example, remains unaware of the complexion of network transports and topologies that enable his or her remote connectivity. He or she has only to dial into the corporate RAS to gain access to corporate network resources.

"That’s a big advantage of the NT solution. Unlike many of those proprietary boxes you can get just about any LAN interface that you want," concurs Chris Carroll, a spokesman with Rascom. "So to the remote access end users it doesn’t matter what type of system they’re accessing: If it’s going over Ethernet the application is transparent."

Competition from Proprietary Vendors

Open system RAS products are hoping to grow their market shares at the expense of proprietary RAS solutions. As a greater number of organizations implement telecommuting or remote connectivity programs, vendors such as Rascom, Ariel and Digi Int’l Inc. (www.dgii.com), are wagering that IT managers will choose to go with what they know and implement RAS solutions across a number of different operating system platforms, most notably Windows NT.

Open system RAS solutions are positioned in opposition to "black box" proprietary offerings from vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (www.cisco.com) and Ascend Communications (www.ascend.com), both established players in the traditional RAS space.

Many of the vendors in the open systems space are clamoring for share by claiming that RAS solutions running on open systems -- such as Windows NT -- offer functionality in line with more seasoned proprietary systems. Analysts and industry watchers caution against acceptance of such rhetoric.

According to Brian Jacobs, a senior systems engineer with Southern Data Systems Inc. (SDS, www.sdsinfo.com), a manufacturer of enhancement products for Wang minicomputers, RAS services on Windows NT lack some of the functionality and many of the features that are common to more scalable RAS offerings from proprietary vendors. Jacobs practices what he preaches: As an administrator charged with managing the RAS connectivity services for SDS’s technical support staff, he leverages a proprietary solution based on a Cisco RAS server as the backbone of SDS’s RAS infrastructure.

"NT RAS doesn't, by default, provide usage summaries by bandwidth or by account. As far as performance is concerned, if you try to scale it to the extent of 48 dial-in connections, you’ll slow everyone down to the point of almost total uselessness," Jacobs contends. He notes that other features such as chargeback and event notification services are absent from NT’s native RAS feature set. "[RAS on NT] works -- but given the availability of more scalable solutions that work much better, it’s just not right for some of the more demanding situations," he adds.

Lee Doyle, vice president of networking at International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idcresearch.com) says that the greatest impact of Windows NT RAS solutions will be felt at the departmental level. "I think that you’re going to see strong shipments and good growth, specifically in the area of targeting the demand for six-port departmental applications," Doyle says. "Over time, the port density will grow, but it’s certainly not going to be to the level of scalability required by the big Internet service providers and corporate RAS programs, where in addition to scalability, reliability is also key."

NT RAS and the Enterprise

Whether Windows NT RAS solutions are deployed at the departmental level or as the backbone of an ISP or enterprise RAS infrastructure, somebody has to manage them once in place. While ease of installation and tight integration with the operating system may have prompted IT organizations to implement NT-based RAS solutions in the first place, many IT professionals are discovering the management tools provided natively with Microsoft’s RRAS don’t cut it in real-world usage.

Third-party vendors have taken on the task to flesh out NT RAS’s management capabilities. Because RRAS supports operating system hooks and standard APIs, third-party vendors can code their applications to leverage Windows NT’s underlying RAS infrastructure. A series of management products – including RAS manager from NTP Software and Remote Access Manager from Virtual Motion/Acotel -- now provide more granular management services, similar to those found in black-box, proprietary RAS solutions.

Looking Forward: RAS and Windows 2000

Today the most feasible implementation environments for RAS solutions based on Windows NT 4.0 and Microsoft’s RRAS are at the departmental level with a modem pool not exceeding six ports, says IDC’s Doyle. "[NT-based RAS solutions are] very much at the lower end of the market, at the departmental level, and they’re really taking out the six-port, Shiva-type market," Doyle explains. "NT RAS has not made, and is not expected to make, a significant impact on the service provider side."

But this could change with the launch of the Windows 2000 operating system, which many vendors say could prove to be the single biggest boon to RAS solutions.

According to Ken Hilliard, CEO of Virtual Motion/Acotel, Windows 2000 will further bridge the gap between NT-based RAS solutions and proprietary products from Cisco and others, which feature granular management and security options not available with existing NT-based RAS offerings.

"With [Windows 2000] you’ll have the ability to set system policies based on user identities. For example, a capability that will allow you to place limits on use and idle time," Hilliard explains. "That’s just one example among many, but nearly all of the basic RAS management functionality that many ISPs or enterprises require will be there in [Windows 2000]."

Finally, Microsoft’s release of an embedded version of the Windows NT 4.0 operating system -- shipping now -- and the forthcoming release of an embedded iteration of Windows 2000 that will follow the base Windows 2000 operating system, are expected to bring black-box, proprietary RAS vendors such as Cisco and Ascend into the RAS-on-NT fold. "NT is a great opportunity for proprietary vendors to stay in the wiring closet [with an embedded black-box solution] and at the same time offer some of the cost/support benefits of NT," Hilliard says. "Companies that are traditional black box companies will be able to offer very nice solutions at the low end of the spectrum based on Windows NT. We think that embedded NT is probably going to prove to be the best way to do RAS on NT," he says.