Office automation equipment manufacturer Ricoh is building a wide-area network based on Microsoft Windows 2000 Server to connect its four offices in Greater China.
With plans to complete its systems simulation test by the end of this month, Ricoh has become the first site in Hong Kong to evaluate and implement Windows 2000 beta on a large scale.
Although conventional industry wisdom dictates that users should wait until the first service pack is released before rolling out an operating system, Ricoh bucked the trend simply because the timing and the price were right.
"We needed to look for an OS for the WAN that we're planning to build for our China offices, and we preferred not to wait," said Paul Lee, information systems supervisor at Ricoh Hong Kong.
For Ricoh, which is a Microsoft Select volume customer, the price for Windows 2000 was only 4 per cent higher than that of Windows NT Server, according to Lee.
"After evaluating Win2K's functionality, we reckon that the benefits outweigh the potential risks involved in using the new version," he said. So instead of playing it safe with the existing OS, Ricoh last September decided to leapfrog to the newer technology and joined Microsoft's Windows 2000 Rapid Deployment Program.
At press time, Microsoft Hong Kong had not publicly announced pricing for the Windows 2000 family, but said it will be close to that of the previous versions.
The WAN infrastructure that Ricoh is building will connect its offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong via a satellite link supplied by Hutchison Telecom. Its key functions include file and print sharing, user management and server administration.
The greatest advantage in deploying Windows 2000 Server, according to Lee, lies in the fact that its Active Directory Services, which replaces the network domain model, enables the integration of Internet naming conventions into the network's security system.
"Active Directory Services helps organize administrative information into a single, hierarchical interface. By using this hierarchical design and mapping resources in a network tree to DNS [domain name system] names, Active Directory offers an improved directory structure," he said.
"With Windows 2000, computer resources on the network, such as printers, can be named using the Internet Protocol, which replaces Microsoft's proprietary networking protocol, NETBIOS. This helps reduce administration effort and ease troubleshooting," Lee said. "Since users are already familiar with Internet names, they can intuitively locate resources on the network."
Lee said it will be difficult for him to tell immediately whether the maintenance cost for Windows 2000 Server will be significantly lower than that of the previous version, but with respect to using IP for resource location, he said he foresees that the workload of help desks will be reduced because users will require less assistance in that area.
Making life easier
Active Directory Organizational Units, meanwhile, allow domain namespaces to mirror an organization's departmental structure, so administrative rights can be delegated at the unit level, eliminating the chore of creating separate resource domains, Lee said.
Another feature that Lee applauded was the native multilingual support of Windows 2000.
"For example, due to the nature of the company, our file names can be in English, Japanese, simplified Chinese or traditional Chinese. Though NT 4.0 together with its language kit supports multilingual file names, they're not native and they need customization. In Win2K, the GUI (graphical user interface) now supports Unicode," Lee said.
As for suggestions that implementing Win2K will typically require a hardware upgrade, Lee said Ricoh's existing servers, which are currently running Windows NT 4.0, are sufficient. In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the network runs on six new IBM Netfinity Pentium III Servers with 192M of memory.
For companies with hundreds of domains in NT 4.0, migrating from the domain model to the new Active Directory might be quite an undertaking, because it basically means rearchitecting the network design by determining where existing domains fit into the new namespace. But Lee said it was relatively simple for the 80-person Hong Kong office due to its relatively small scale. "With ample planning beforehand, it took us 30 minutes for the migration," he said.
The simplicity he experienced notwithstanding, administrators do have to think twice before starting the process, because there is no fallback during the migration, Lee warned. "Once the names are fixed, they can't be changed. So plan carefully," he said.
To Lee's surprise, the existing drivers for all Ricoh-branded printers used by the offices work fine under Windows 2000. "So far they've all passed through the simulation test," he said.