Snap-in Modules Make W2K Learning Curve Steep

Windows 2000 will be an adjustment for IT departments. In addition to learning Active Directory, one of the biggest differences of Windows 2000 compared with NT 4.0 will be the 30 or so snap-in modules for the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) that will be important facets of the operating systems.

As Microsoft built its Windows 2000 operating system fleet, the company licensed or acquired a variety of third-party technologies to be included with the OS.

"Microsoft realized ‘Hey, we’ve got 30-some million lines of code and we have Y2K coming. We can’t get this out the door alone,’ so they went on a buying spree," says Laura DiDio, operating systems analyst with market research firm Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com). "They can’t do it all, even if they are Microsoft. No one company could."

A lot of the tools are for the management of Windows 2000. Most of the management tools are provided as MMC snap-in modules.

"The message that Microsoft is trying to get out is ‘we have an all-star lineup, so we can’t fail,’" DiDio says.

Other software vendors employ this practice as well. ERP and management framework vendors, for instance, build their extensive programs in a modular fashion so customers can pick and choose which modules to use. Framework products, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView, benefit from the modular approach by the heightened credibility they gain by supporting a number of modules for different products.

MMC is designed to simplify and unify day-to-day system management tasks. It hosts tools -- composed of one or more applications -- displayed as consoles and built as snap-ins. These snap-ins assign functionality that allows single-seat control, monitoring and administration of network resources.

MMC enables system administrators to create tools to delegate specific administrative tasks to users or groups. Saved as MMC console (.msc) files, these custom tools can be sent by e-mail, shared in a network folder or posted on the Web. They can also be assigned to users, groups or computers with system policy settings. Further, snap-in tools can be scaled up and down, integrated into the operating system, repackaged and customized.

Administrators, for instance, can build their own tools by starting with an existing console and modifying it or adding components as needed, or they can create an entirely new console.

Despite these benefits and the legitimacy the modules provide to Windows 2000, some downsides exist, including a steep learning curve and a longer time to full deployment and realization of the system’s benefits.

Analyst houses are recommending that customers wait until the operating system proves itself stable before widespread deployment, which may be more than a year after it ships. A study conducted by International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com) shows that organizations of all types and sizes plan to wait from six to 18 months before widely deploying Windows 2000.

Whether companies implement Windows 2000 immediately or follow the advice of analysts, the learning curve will be additional time it takes to fully deploy the operating systems.

A big part of the transition to Windows 2000 will be addressing the daily administrative routines that IT departments face, and every IT department has its own needs.

In addition to learning the base operating system -- which consultants suggest companies should already be preparing for -- IT departments will need to learn the snap-in modules and how they work with Windows 2000 to fulfill daily administrative needs.

"Microsoft can’t predict which snap-ins each customer will need, so they provide a lot of choices," says Eric Cone, senior technical architect for the infrastructure services and support practice at Metamor Technologies (www.metamor.com).

Even though there are about 30 snap-in modules, customers do not need to use all of them. Rather, they can pick and choose the ones they need. For instance, there is a snap-in for Public Key security: Companies that don’t use Public Key security don’t need that particular snap-in.

Also, customers can consolidate a number of snap-ins and collapse them into a single MMC interface, thus building an interface that may have, for example, 10 nodes representing 10 snap-ins.

"Because all the snap-ins follow a defined format, once you master how to deal with one -- in terms of how to navigate through it and work with the interface inside the console -- the foundation is already built for learning the other snap-ins," Cone says.

Although customers do not have to learn all the modules, they do have to familiarize themselves with the process, and learn the products to reap the rewards that the modules provide.

"We won’t really see the full benefits of Windows 2000 or these modules for a while because they still have to be melded together," Giga’s DiDio says.