W2K is Better than Earlier Version, But Still Missing Pieces

Whether you love Microsoft Corp. or hate the company, Windows 2000 is the best desktop and server operating system it has shipped to date. Throughout an interminable development period, Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) added countless features and capabilities.

It’s no secret, however, that Microsoft’s best effort is hardly perfect. There are still some missing pieces that should have been included. For purposes of this review, we took a look at some of the things Microsoft could have done better.

Looking Back

It would have been nice if Microsoft released some features as Windows NT 4.5 about two years ago. Because that didn’t happen, a major hardware and software migration task is ahead of us rather than an incremental upgrade.

The Dell Inspiron notebook we used for this review has 192 MB of RAM, an 8-GB hard disk, DVD, and a 300-MHz Pentium II CPU. Delivered with Windows 98, I upgraded it to Windows 2000 Beta 3 and later to Release Candidates 1, 2, and 3, and eventually the Release to Manufacturing version. The Inspiron has performed satisfactorily with Windows 2000.

Windows 2000 Server is best left to systems with 300-MHz Pentium II CPUs and 256 MB of RAM or more. With 1-GHz CPUs on the horizon and RAM prices around $1 per MB, this isn’t the kind of show-stopper it would have been more than a year ago.

Connecting

Users who connect to multiple networks may be frustrated because they have to reconfigure the PC Card network adapter for each different network they connect to. It would be nice to be able to store multiple configurations for a single PC Card and have the operating system query us to find out which one we want when we connect to a network. We can use NetSwitcher (www.netswitcher.com) to do this. The product tries to address this problem and does a basically good job at it, but we’re really after a solution that is built in to the operating system.

Routing and Remote Access (RRAS) and Network Address Translation (NAT) are great features of Windows 2000 Server. Caveat emptor: They don’t run well on the same box. We couldn’t dial into the RAS server and use NAT to route traffic to the Internet on a DSL or cable modem. We had to use two servers to do this or painstakingly create separate configurations for each user. Microsoft calls this a feature in the Knowledge Base document Q253145, dated February 18, 2000. Since it is listed as a feature, the operating system should have warned us when we installed both on the same server. A warning would have saved many wasted hours trying to make it work.

Another place we thought Microsoft could have improved the functionality was when we tried to take a document from the desktop or a folder and drop it onto a minimized application on the task bar. The result was a message saying, "You cannot drag an item onto a button on the taskbar. But if you do this without releasing the mouse button, the window will open and you can then drag the item into the window." Since someone at Microsoft anticipated that users would be tempted to drag items onto the taskbar, we think that capability should have been built into the operating system, rather than leaving us with yet another nastygram. Particularly with the new offline capabilities in Windows 2000, this is an instance where a little change could go a long way.

Wizards and Updates

To understand Windows 2000 will take work for anyone. To understand it enough to set up some of its greatest features, such as distributed file systems (DFS) and Active Directory, will take quite a bit of research, planning, and configuration. We would have liked more wizards to automatically set up these features.

To set up DFS, for instance, users need to understand how to set up Active Directory and then use the DFS administration tool to create the root DFS share. From there administrators have to insert links to the shares that are part of a set of distributed and replicated mount points, enable replication, and then understand how to shutdown a replica for maintenance. Finally, users have to document the whole thing so that it is understood by someone else in case of emergency.

DFS is one of the shining features of Windows 2000 server, but it needs to be easier to set up. Creating more full-featured wizards for DFS and other features would go a long way towards making Windows 2000 server an obvious choice for the future.

Active Directory needs a more robust wizard. The included wizard sets up AD in a plain vanilla form, with nothing to help guide users into a structure that would support more than the simplest of implementations.

Windows Installer is a great leap forward in application deployment tools, but setting up a Group Policy Object to deploy an application using Active Directory is akin to rocket science.

Windows Update is a wonderful feature for most users but it is a bane to the corporate enterprise. Windows Update can be set to notify the user if there are any patches available and to install those patches by downloading them directly from Microsoft. A critical update to an enterprise network consisting of thousands of workstations will send network utilization through the roof. Microsoft’s answer is a Web site where we can download and distribute the updates manually.

A "Windows Update Server" add-on to Windows 2000 Server would have been preferable. It could automatically download the updates once, making them available to the internal network along with a control panel to redirect the rest of the systems to look to the local "Windows Update Server" instead of reaching out over the Internet. Symantec Corp.'s (www.symantec.com) Live Update product does this quite nicely.

That said, Microsoft’s strategy with Windows 2000 is to offer a platform on which third-party tools can be built to complete the overall operating system. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, nor does it really benefit users. We think, however, that these few changes would greatly improve the next version.