Guest column: Should you stick with NetWare or choose NT?

We use NetWare 4.1 for file and print services and have more and more Windows NT servers for database and Web services. We use Novell Directory Services (NDS), but probably not as thoroughly as many people do. What I want to know, please, is if I should upgrade to NetWare 5, or just move entirely to NT since that's what so many people seem to be doing. We're used to supporting both environments, so I'm not sure if there'd be any benefit to using only NT. What is involved in migrating from NetWare 4.1 to NT 4.0? Do you think it's worth it?

S. Steinberg

Brooks: Well, thanks for the question. Now we're sure to get plenty of nasty mail no matter what we say.

Not to dither, but I think my first piece of advice is to wait a bit. Between the year 2000 and the upcoming NT 5 (a.k.a. Windows 2000) release, I don't see any reason to make a wholesale move to NT 4.0. You don't mention how many users your network supports; if it's more than a few hundred, you would probably be pretty unhappy with NT 4.0.

My next piece of advice is to get on the NT beta program, if it's still possible. There's no substitute for hands-on experience when making this kind of decision. Practice a few migrations in a lab environment before even thinking of doing such a thing in production.

Now, your actual question boils down to this: Should you abandon NetWare? I've been a huge NetWare fan since Version 2.12 (hey, I remember WSGEN for creating clients), and there are some things NetWare simply excels at. And NDS is a stable, mature technology compared to Microsoft's upcoming Active Directory.

I'd also be wary of making any decision without a clear picture of the benefits involved. Administering one system is definitely nice, and if you use Microsoft clients on the desktop, there are definite advantages to going with an NT back end, especially with Windows 2000. But the trick is implementing that stuff; if you haven't really leveraged NDS, what will be different with NT?

So, I'd say stick with NetWare for at least the next year, unless there's some compelling reason to make the switch. To hedge your bet, start playing with early versions of NT 5 and see what you think. Finally, talk to your application vendors (especially for any applications that integrate with NDS) and see if they're planning a migration path. Once you get a clear picture of the costs and difficulties involved, then you can decide if it's worthwhile.

Pace: About five years ago, many had a pipe dream of reducing their network to a single OS and standardising it for all needs. At this point, the haze is clearing and the realisation is that you usually end up running the operating system that best fits your applications. Who has time to wait for the next killer application that is going to increase business and drive profits to be ported to the OS of choice?

I see nothing wrong with staying in the environment you have. You should, however, start to leverage NDS to reduce administration hassles. Doing things that way, for the time being, will allow you to decrease administration nightmares, avoid forcing a drastic change and the retraining involved with migrating to a new OS -- as well as increase the value of the investment that you currently have in both NetWare and NT. Perhaps a year or two from now, you may want to make a change to Active Directory if all the applications you support are integrated with it -- for now that's just wishful thinking. After all, NDS, which has been here for many years, is still far from being integrated into most applications.

Also on the horizon is NetWare 5.1, which includes a vast number of enhancements designed to make it more of an application server. However, you are still faced with choosing the OS that is correct for the applications, rather than the opposite. Look to Novell's NDS for NT as well as directory synchronization products, such as Synchronicity from NetVision (www.netvision.com). Those products will allow you to manage your systems from a single platform while still gaining the benefits from the OS that is correct for the applications you need.

Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com. Mark Pace is a senior analyst in the Test Center. Send your questions for them to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.

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