A Look at Windows RRAS's Lifecycle

Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com) first shipped its Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS) for Windows NT 4.0 in 1997. At the time, RRAS was said to bring base-level routing and remote access capabilities to the Windows NT platform. This made it possible to deploy Windows NT machines as either software-based routers or as servers that supported dial-in and network authentication services for remote clients.

RRAS was an important first limited in scope. RRAS’s software-based routing capabilities, for example, couldn’t compete with the dedicated hardware routers from vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (www.cisco.com), which offered superior performance and an array of esoteric configuration options.

The most important thing that can be said about Windows NT 4.0’s RRAS implementation, says Shanen Boettcher, a lead product manager for RRAS with Microsoft’s Windows 2000 team, was that it effectively laid the groundwork for the more robust services that have been incorporated into Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server.

In addition to providing this foundation for Windows 2000, RRAS for Windows NT 4.0 also introduced small- and medium-sized organizations to the idea of using Windows NT as a platform for remote access services (RAS).

"It brought a lot of things to the table, like its VPN functionality, its direct dial-in capabilities, and its enhanced support for telecommuters," Boettcher says. "Because of this, it became extremely popular for small- and medium-sized companies. And NT 4-based RAS also became the leading solution for remote workers in these companies."

Black Box

Organizations that choose to evaluate either Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 for use as an RRAS platform must first resolve a fundamental question: Should they opt for a more extensible, albeit software-based, solution that lacks much of the performance and many of the specialized features found in best-of-breed hardware -- or black box -- products, or deploy a dedicated black box solution and risk being left behind as technology changes.

According to Burk Murray, vice president of marketing with RAS solutions provider Digi International Inc. (www.digi.com), opting to deploy a RAS platform such as Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 -- while perhaps a more expensive proposition in the short-term -- can often prove to have the best overall long-term value.

"If you start with a black box solution, it may cost a bit less, but you’re more than likely going to have to dump-truck it or forklift it when you want to do something else or if you need to seriously overhaul it. This is a lot more expensive than it might seem at first," Murray explains. "On the other hand, one of the very attractive things about building RAS solutions with NT or with Windows 2000 is that you can start very small and expand rapidly because it’s very scalable and it gives an IT manager who’s putting solutions together a lot of flexibility."

Because the notion of RAS itself has undergone so many changes since the introduction of Windows NT 4.0’s seminal RRAS services, Murray says software-based solutions such as Windows NT, Windows 2000, or even Linux make the most sense.

He points out that RAS today means much more than mere dial-in connectivity. Most organizations expect RAS solutions to service dial-up users, accommodate users that connect by means of an assortment of broadband technologies, and facilitate the deployment or hosting of other applications -- such as fax services.

"RAS has started to encompass any sense of communication from a server to a remote device or machine," Murray says. "But there’s so much built-in capability in Windows NT or Windows 2000 that you have a tremendously flexible platform that lets you do a number of things that aren’t limited strictly to modems."

Windows 2000 & Integrated RRAS

According to Microsoft’s Boettcher, Windows 2000’s integrated RRAS implementation offers a number of refinements over the separate RRAS add-on product that the software giant provided for Windows NT 4.0. Additionally, Redmond expects the enhanced reliability and scalability features to be a boon to organizations that want to host RAS solutions on Windows 2000.

"We are seeing from customers that they are recognizing that this is an industrial-strength product," Boettcher maintains. "[With Windows 2000’s RRAS] what you’re talking about really is enterprise-level support being delivered by a relatively low-cost PC. As a result we are seeing customers take longer looks at this for their enterprise deployment, and we expect to see even more do so in the future."

According to Ned Viands, a product marketing manager with RAS specialist Ariel Corp. (www.ariel.com ), that is what most customers are doing – looking. Ariel hasn’t seen much of a demand for RAS solutions on Windows 2000, Viands says, primarily because many of its larger enterprise customers are still evaluating the operating system before they deploy it.

"At least for the market we’re targeting -- the service providers -- the majority said that they’re going to sit on the sidelines for six to 12 months before deploying it," Viands explains. "But for people who have been trying 2000, the initial feedback is that it is much more reliable than Windows NT, and so they’re waiting for us to deliver solutions."

Viands says Ariel plans to begin supporting Windows 2000 across its product lines by the end of the year. "The reason that we weren’t in a hurry is because reliability is our -- and our customers’ -- biggest concern. Windows 2000 has to demonstrate that it’s reliable before our customers consider using it."

Digi’s Murray agrees: "Some companies are a little hesitant to try a new operating system, so in that respect Windows NT 4.0 is still a more viable choice -- at least right now."

What W2K RRAS Brings to the Table

Microsoft says Windows 2000 is its most reliable and scalable operating system release to date. Boettcher says these same qualities carry over into the operating system’s integrated RRAS services.

"There are a number of things that we did [for RRAS on Windows 2000], and these things focus mainly around security, performance, and manageability," he says.

On the performance side, Windows 2000’s flavor of RRAS brings much-needed scalability. RRAS on Windows 2000 overcomes Windows NT 4.0’s 255 port limit, extending scalability to about 1,000 ports on Windows 2000 Server and over 5,000 ports on Windows 2000 Advanced Server. This should prove to be more beneficial in large enterprise environments and with ISPs. (For RRAS's enhancements to security and manageability, see the Hands On Review.)

RRAS on Windows NT and 2000: Futures

Because of RRAS’ additional features and performance enhancements, and because of the scalability and reliability benefits that accrue by virtue of Microsoft’s design of the Windows 2000 operating system, vendors and analysts are bullish on the duo’s prospects as a combined RAS platform for small-, medium-, and large-sized companies.

"Windows 2000 really adds some of the additional features that you really have to have in a product of this class. It removes some of the existing scalability barriers, like the 255 user limit, that have limited Windows NT 4.0 in some respects," acknowledges Mary Jo Gentry, senior manager of marketing programs at Digi.

Windows 2000 and its RAS services appear to be coming into their own as the market for RAS solutions is set to explode. In 2000, for example, market research firm IDC (www.idc.com) estimates that more than 10 million Americans will work from home for at least 20 percent of the time. While still a drop in the bucket, this figure represents a huge increase over the 1 million people IDC estimates were telecommuting on a similar basis two years ago. (See sidebar on telecommuting.)

Rob Enderle, senior analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. (www.gigaweb.com), notes that as more organizations embrace telecommuting and accompanying concepts like the virtual office, RAS will become a mission-critical service. Consequently, providing RAS solutions to companies of all shapes and sizes could constitute a potentially lucrative market in years to come.

"[Windows 2000’s RRAS services] represent an improvement over what Microsoft delivered in Windows NT 4.0 on both the client and the server," Enderle explains. "Companies increasingly want to enable remote workers, so they’re going to look to vendors that let them do this in the easiest way possible with as little pain as possible. Because Windows 2000 is out there and is easy to use, it makes sense to take a look at it."