Grand visions in computing require simplistic explanations. Pity they don't work that well. In the 1980s, IBM's majestic breadth of operating environments was supposed to be unified under its famed Systems Network Architecture. SNA was to bring all IBM's technologies together. Well, eventually. Uh, sort of.
Now it's Microsoft's turn to give us grand visions of rationalisation for a platform strategy that's getting (intentionally) out of control. This week, the company will announce Windows XP, an addition to an operating system line up that includes Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows CE, Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Windows 2000 Data Center and even little ol' Windows Me.
Microsoft's simple solution to its operating systems proliferation problem is said to be Active Directory. Its duty will be to keep all the user, resource and application information current, distributed and managed among whatever you've got on your network. Even if it happens to be cross-platform. (It certainly is nice when Microsoft recognises the real world.)That's why Active Directory is based on LDAP, Kerberos, MAPI and other industry standards. But because Active Directory insists on controlling down to the network protocols, it will play nice only on a network where it's the master and all other directory servers and services are slaves. If you chat with system administrators or surf the Windows chat boards online, you come across consistent complaints about how hard it is to get Microsoft's Kerberos to work right. You also hear about the nightmare you'll face if you try to install Active Directory when your domain name server happens to run on Linux, Solaris, NetWare or anything else. Horror stories abound.
Microsoft's answer is simplicity itself: You'll have none of those problems if you just move all of your IT operational management to Active Directory. That's just what IBM said when you complained that your Unix-based Internet services didn't mesh well with SNA.
No one talks about SNA much these days. Coincidentally, not many people are doing much with Active Directory these days either. Although Microsoft announced last week that it will reach the 1 million mark this month for Windows 2000 server licences, the company is uncharacteristically modest about how many Active Directory installations it has so far. Some reports say as few as 15 per cent of all Windows 2000 upgrades include Active Directory in their rollouts.
Like IBM's grand vision of SNA, Active Directory is a simple, monolithic answer to a complex, heterogeneous problem.
So far, most users think it's the wrong answer. l Mark Hall is Computerworld's West Coast editor. You can contact him at email@example.com.