A New Prescription for NT Administrators: XLNT

Hands On

System administrators who move from Unix, OpenVMS or other mature operating systems to Windows NT invariably notice one thing: the Windows NT native command language and scheduler are not up to the task of day-to-day administration. Entire books have been written on the topic of building effective system management tools from the native commands provided by Windows NT, but they strike many as working too hard to prove a point.

What’s needed is an effective replacement for Windows NT’s weak command shell and feature-poor "AT" scheduler. Clearly Microsoft understands the inherent weaknesses of Windows NT’s CMD.EXE command line processor. The Windows Scripting Host (WSH), a powerful but underutilized script execution facility in Windows NT 4.0, was released to provide scripting services for both Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 9x. While WSH is remarkably powerful, some system administrators look for an approach that combines WSH’s power with relatively simple syntax and command structure. Those administrators should take a look at the XLNT command and scripting language from Advanced Systems Concepts.

For those who have worked in the OpenVMS environment, XLNT will seem like an old friend: The scripting language is based on Digital Equipment Corp.’s DCL language. The commands and syntax in XLNT are similar to those found in DCL, but that is where the similarity stops. XLNT is a rich command language clearly designed with Windows NT administrators in mind.

XLNT comes in a variety of editions for both Intel and Alpha processors, and is currently supported on Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0. Windows 2000 support is expected to follow. The standard edition provides XLNT’s basic set of commands while a professional edition adds a development environment, script debugger and a utility to compile scripts into an executable image. These executable images can then be run on any machine that has a copy of XLNT’s Run Time License Edition.

XLNT, which is short for eXtended Language for Windows NT, installed easily on our Windows NT Server 4.0 system. Once the software was installed, XLNT provides the option to install a network command interface, an RPC service and a batch queue service. Once completed, the XLNT installation process creates its own program group. The makers of XLNT have thoughtfully provided SMS installation support in the form of unattended answer files for each of the XLNT editions.

A "$" With Some Kick
While some administrators will be initially unimpressed with XLNT’s dowdy "$" prompt, closer examination reveals a powerful environment for managing the Windows NT environment. As an example, we tried converting a VBScript-based utility that deleted all files older than seven days, with an extension of "*.TMP" from all user directories and converted it to XLNT. The VBScript utility had more than 130 lines of code -- our XLNT script had five.

One of the reasons for this is XLNT’s superior string manipulation facility. With standard Windows NT commands it’s all but impossible to extract useful information from the output of commands. XLNT provides "lexical functions" that allow you to request, extract and use a tremendous amount of information from the system. While the lexical functions will be familiar to users of OpenVMS, many of the functions provided in XLNT are Windows NT specific. We were able to use the lexical functions to write a short script that generated a list of all domains and machines in our network and compare it to a master configuration. Exceptions were placed in a text file and mailed to the network administrator using XLNT’s MAIL SEND/SMTP command.

As an administrator of many Internet services, this reviewer especially appreciated the inclusion of FTP specifications in addition to UNC file names. For instance, an hourly update of a production Web site was automated by simply using the XLNT COPY command with an FTP URL as the destination. Another helpful feature for remote administration is the support of an /ON qualifier for many of XLNT’s commands. This allows you to execute a supported XLNT command or script on a remote machine without having to install a second copy of the product.

Two administrative tasks in the day-to-day work of a Windows NT manager cry out for automation: user and printer management. XLNT provides a SECURITY command that allows administrators to script any task that would normally be carried out using User Manager. While the graphical User Manager utility is fine for occasional administration of user accounts, large-scale additions are better done through an industrial strength script. The SECURITY command allows you to make additions and changes to any Windows NT user, group, or policy. XLNT also supplies a MANAGE command for creating and manipulating printers on machines.

One thing we would like to see in future editions of XLNT is a native capability for managing and communicating with other processes on the system. A typical repetitive task for Windows NT administrators is the execution of a utility, the sending of a command to the window opened by the program and then the closing of the window. XLNT provides an interface to the Windows Scripting Host as a way to control program execution for utilities that support WSH. Unfortunately, many basic Windows NT utilities aren’t supported by WSH. It would be more useful to have a mechanism to control program execution built into XLNT.

It’s tempting to view XLNT as nothing more than a port of an old command language to Windows NT. That sells the tool short. XLNT gives system administrators the ability to script sophisticated, repetitive tasks. It’s as easy to use as CMD.EXE and, with its ability to interface to WSH, it has all the power and flexibility a Windows NT administrator needs to provide effective solutions for day-to-day management tasks.

XLNT for Windows NT Version 2, Service Pack 2
Advanced Systems Concepts Inc.
Hoboken, N.J.
(800) 229-ASCI

+ Full featured scripting for Windows NT
+ Support for remote script execution
+ Excellent tools for user, group and policy management
+ Interface to WSH allows control of WSH-aware applications
+ FTP URL support for scripted Internet file management

- No support for event-driven interprocess communication
- Doesn’t allow scripts to control non-WSH windows
- Debugging utility appears in professional edition only

Price: About $595 for the Professional Edition; $375 for the Standard Edition with Batch Queue Services; and $249 for the Standalone Standard Edition. Quantity discounts are available.