When mainframe and minicomputers provided the backbone of business computing, there were essentially networked environments in the sense that “dumb” terminals shared access to a single processor (the minicomputer or mainframe), printer (or printers) and other peripheral devices. Files could be shared among users because they were stored on the same machine. Electrical and operational connections were available in common and shared applications, and implementation of new hardware, software and users was a simple task so long as a single vendor was used. With the proliferation of microcomputers in the business environment, information became distributed, located on the various hard drives attached to personal computers in an office, and difficult for other users to access. Today, network systems which connect disparate hardware, software and peripherals are commonplace, but the communication program which makes using these systems has not kept up with the demand for such environments, although a number of companies are now participating in the field. This research considers two of the most popular network operating systems (NOS), NetWare by Novell and Windows NT by Microsoft, and considers which is appropriate for business applications.
Network Operating Systems
Operating systems are the interface between individual programs and the user. Through the operating system, the user is able to name files, move them and otherwise manipulate them, and issue commands to the computer as to what the user wants to do. Network operating systems are similar to this, but exist (as the name implies) in the network environment. Thus a network operating system is used to issue commands to shared devices, and to provide a background against which scarce resources are divided among competing users. Ideally, the network operating system is transparent to the user, who is only aware of the ability to share information and resources. An efficient NOS can make the difference between a productive and an unproductive office, and between workers who are difficult to replace when they leave and those who are likely to be familiar with the NOS of choice.
Despite their importance, network operating systems have faced challenges in the market because of the diverse hardware requirements that they must meet. Because of this, several different operating systems have been developed, some of which run in place of traditional (single-user) operating systems, and some of which run in addition to these systems. OS/2, for example, provides a multi-user environment without requiring a separate operating system.
NOS development gained widespread acceptance when companies such as Artisoft (which manufactures Lantastic) introduced client software which worked with a variety of servers. This made software manufactured by companies such as Novell (which required special client-side networking software) vulnerable, and Microsoft’s Windows 95 quickly became the client software of choice in the market (although not always among analysts) when it was introduced since it can interface with a number of different server systems with complete transparency to the user. This is the same concept used to develop OS/2 Warp Connect.
Because of the current state of the market, having 32-bit capability is a requirement in most network environments. The various NOS alternatives need to offer a strong file and print base, since that is how most users access and use the networks. Application services, which includes the ability to run messaging, database, and other server-based applications efficiently in a client/server network is an essential requirement of most modern networks. Multiprocessor support is an essential component, as is fault tolerance, high-quality development tools, and application support from third-party vendors.
Hardware integration is also a key issue since the NOS should be able to run on hardware which is readily available at reasonable rates, and which is likely to continue to be available in the future. Both the type of processor and the ability to use more than one processor are important considerations in this regard. A related issue is the networking infrastructure, which includes the ease of use of the network transfer protocols and how well the server software processes multiple LAN adapters and internal routing.
In addition, directory and naming services should be easy to use, and multiple operating systems (such as DOS, Macintosh, Unix, OS/2 and Windows 3.x as well as Windows 95) should be supported given the diversity of most network environments and to offer the greatest flexibility to systems. Remote-access and Internet-access is also important since many users in networked environments use the network to access systems outside their own environments.
Other criteria to be considered when choosing a NOS system is the after-sale support and the acceptance of the product in the market. After-sale support is important because any product is likely to require assistance for its users regardless of how well designed it is. Both Novell and Microsoft have a variety of support programs available, including 24-hour telephone support as well as support through Internet sources.
Novell’s Web site offers fax-back service and a list of frequently asked questions (although they are not identified as FAQs) and an extensive help facility for all of its products. The support page can be reached directly, and provides comprehensive support information. If the user cannot resolve technical support issues over the Internet, telephone support is available.
Microsoft has an extensive Web site which is also easy to use and largely intuitive. Its support page can also be reached directly, and it allows users to query the so-called “knowledge base,” which contains information on identified problems with Microsoft products. Users can also employ Microsoft Wizards, which are similar to “guides” that the company has built into its programs. An extensive support program (similar to Novell’s) is available in addition to the Internet, and neither company has an advantage in this area.
Acceptance of the product in the market is important because no one wants to purchase a product which is likely to be obsolete in a few months or years. Obsolescence is important from a technical standpoint, since the goal is to have a system which can be expanded and which receives dedicated resources from its manufacturer. However, it also important that a company select a product which is the industry standard (or close to it) in order to reduce its training time for new employees, and make it easier to hire employees in the future. By selecting a NOS which is widely accepted in the market, the company will spend less time training new employees in its use, and will be more likely to find employees who are already familiar with its operation.
NetWare (from Novell) offers more features and flexibility in its file and printing services than Windows NT. But its efficient file-server software has been a double-edged sword for Novell because NetWare’s developers did not focus on writing code for multiple processors or for RISC processors, because NetWare works so well on the Intel processor. However, database and applications servers, which are critical parts of a modern networking environment, often make use of multiple processors and the special advantages of RISC processors. Novell’s developers have only recently begun to focus their efforts in this direction, and are now offering a multiprocessing version of NetWare called NetWare SMP.
NetWare SMP still houses applications in NetWare Loadable Modules (NLMs), which can be unstable and are difficult to program. However, Novell recently announced its partnership with Sun Microsystems to integrate Sun’s Java with NetWare as its application framework.
Nonetheless, NetWare provides a strong combination of excellent file and print capabilities with powerful directory and naming services. For running network database and messaging applications, however, NetWare falls short of Windows NT Server, because NetWare cannot run on any processors other than Intel. To get multiprocessing capabilities, companies must purchase a separate product, NetWare SMP 4.1. Both of these Novell products still run applications in NLMs, which are potentially unstable and difficult to program.
When it comes to application services, Windows NT Server offers strong support for multiple as well as non-Intel processors along with abundant APIs, and applications from third-party application vendors. In addition, Windows NT uses a domain naming and security setup. Similar to the naming service offered by Novell, the domain system gives users easy access to the network, but only after an exchange of verification information takes place between domain servers that “trust” each other.
Windows NT servers are make using the Internet Protocol (IP) easier than NetWare does; IP carries the “favorite” sorting tags of the powerful Internet working routers, while NetWare IPX does not convey all of the routing information of IP. The situation has improved, however, now that NetWare provides NetWare/IP. Recognizing Novell’s strong presence in the NOS market, Microsoft has also adopted Novell’s network transport protocol, IPX/SPX, yielding software flexibility on servers and extended options in extensions to the network.
Microsoft Windows NT Server 3.51 offers a combination of good file and print capabilities, excellent application services, and optional messaging, database, mainframe connectivity, and management applications contained in Microsoft’s BackOffice applications suite. The products that make up Microsoft BackOffice integrate well with one another and with the Windows NT Server to provide many of the functions a network operating environment needs.
However, Windows NT Server lacks powerful naming services. Windows NT Server’s naming services are based on domains, each of which can contain only one defined organization. It is possible to link domains so that users in one domain can easily access the files and services of another. However, the process of setting up and managing these links is more complex and cumbersome than working with NetWare.
Because of the way in which network operating systems are currently written, and because of the strengths and weaknesses of NetWare and Windows NT, neither solution is the appropriate solution for every type of business or every type of network environment. Instead, the type of environment in which the NOS will be placed determines the correct product. If the organization is using a local network only to store word processing and spreadsheet files and to print, then either NetWare or Windows NT offers a reasonable alternative as the NOS of choice since both handle these functions with ease.
If the system includes a number of geographic locations and information and requests for functions is passed among sophisticated applications, a richer and more robust environment is needed. A number of organizations have turned to combining network operating systems in order to support these more sophisticated needs. In these situations, the users gain the strengths of both systems while eliminating their weaknesses (the domain dependence of Windows NT, for example).
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