Windows 2000: Opportunity or Overkill?

To the rest of the world Windows 2000 may be just another operating system; but to Microsoft it's much, much more.

Microsoft has invested heavily in the success of Windows 2000 to entrench its position in the enterprise operating system marketplace, and fend off mounting competition from alternatives such as Linux and Unix.

It comes as no surprise then, that Microsoft views this as "the most important launch in the company's history", as described by Paul Roworth, Microsoft's product marketing manager for Windows.

The effect of Windows 2000 is not likely to be as dramatic or immediate as Microsoft would have us believe, but there is no doubt the long-term effect will be profound.

"The effect will be huge... slowly," says John Cromie, CEO of Open Software Associates (OSA). His company has developed NetDeploy Global, a product that broadens the software management capabilities of Windows 2000 and Active Directory.

The major selling point of Windows 2000 is a 20 per cent lower total cost of ownership, when used with Active Directory. But the complexity of Active Directory means that companies need to be extremely careful to set the structures up properly the first time round, or risk having to start from scratch.

"It's the Achilles Heel," Cromie says. "Novell Directory Services (NDS) is a more mature product today. But the number one rule in software is that 'standard is better than better'. Microsoft will plan more upgrades. This is only the beginning of the story - it's the 'once upon a time', not the 'happily ever after.'"Analysts like IDC and GartnerGroup are predicting a five-year curve for the uptake of Windows 2000, will the bulk migrating between two to four years, but they have little doubt it will eventually be the standard corporate desktop.

Business as Usual … for Now

Most IT managers concede they will move to Windows 2000 eventually, but many are adopting a "wait-and-see" approach.

Jann Westermann, network manager at a banking institution (company not named at Westermann's request), says his organisation would "inevitably" move to Windows 2000, but not in the foreseeable future.

"There's no fixed project implementation at this point," Westermann says. "In fact, we've barely touched on it. We've just spent squillions on the NT4 rollout, so they last thing we want to do is to spend yet more money, in order to be a post-beta testing facility."

Westermann says the risks of moving to an untested platform were greater than any perceived commercial disadvantage in not upgrading.

"We are a bank so we need high uptime systems," explained Westermann. "We can't risk anything that's not tried and tested in the marketplace. With the addition of Active Directory, it's a radical departure from where Microsoft has traditionally been. It's new technology and I don't feel comfortable they'll get it right first time. Most of their previous products have had a large amount of post-release work."

The company recently migrated from NetWare to NT4 for the primary system, and they also have some application servers running on Unix.

Westermann says he didn't foresee his company moving to Active Directory within two years, but they would start putting systems in place now to allow for a relatively straightforward migration worldwide.

"There's no disadvantage in not upgrading now," Westermann says. "It's not about having cutting edge technology, it's about a group of users who come to work and do a job and use programs like Word and Excel. They can do that now."

One area where Windows 2000 does provide an advantage over NT4 is mobile computing, and some companies are planning to adopt the new operating system initially only on their laptops.

Ivica Orsolic, network services manager at insurance company Fortis Australia, is currently overseeing the implementation of Windows 2000 on 60 laptops for its mobile sales force.

Release candidate #1 was installed in the laptops in October last year, and the company will now move on to the release version.

Orsolic says Fortis chose Windows 2000 because they wanted a 32-bit system with good security, features and mobile computing.

Previously the company primarily used Windows 95 or 98, with NT servers deployed extensively within the network.

"We were having a new business application custom-built for us, so we needed a 32-bit system," Orsolic says. "The preference was for NT, but at this late stage there was no point going to NT, when we could go straight to Windows 2000 and minimise training. It was important the training was minimal because most of our sales guys haven't really used computers before. They're in their mid-forties and quite computer illiterate."

Orsolic says the total cost of the upgrade was $300,000-$400,000. Training accounted for at least $30,000, but included sessions on Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes.

"The benefits are an eased support burden. It makes my life easier, because other laptop users are generally high in maintenance," Orsolic says. "These guys are running round the countryside, and so far it's proven to be stable and robust and fairly easy to use. They've closed a few deals simply because they could type up and print out a quote on the spot."

Windows Opportunity Knocking for ConsultantsWindows 2000 presents a world of business opportunity for qualified integrators and consultants.

Brian Walshe, marketing director for systems integration company Praxa, says he was seeing a lot more interest in Windows 2000 than he expected.

"I'm seeing 30-40 per cent more interest than I thought I would," Walshe says. "What it offers people is quite compelling. Another potential reason is most companies had Y2K lockdowns. They haven't upgraded for 12 months, and it's now time to move to the next level."

Walshe says the uptake of Windows 2000 would probably follow the traditional model with a spike from early adopters at release time, a lull as the market waits for feedback, and a strong ramp six months after the release.

A lot of the interest so far had come from transaction-oriented Web sites, Walshe says.

Naren Rajasingham, a systems integrator at Advanced Computing, says he has implemented Windows 2000 for a number of large corporate clients, and has enjoyed the installation process so far.

"I like the product. I think it's neat," Rajasingham says. "It's solid and stable and works well. I haven't had any problems with installation - it's almost a fire and forget scenario. It took me a while to get used to the desktop interface because I'm used NT."

Praxa's Walshe says Windows 2000 offered new technical features like Active Directory, was far more Internet-enabled than NT and was the best operating system for mobile computing.

"Another push for use for Windows 2000 is it's by far and away the best operating system to run on a laptop" Walshe says. "It's sensational. The corporate standard is NT, but it's not very good for laptops, so most run Windows 95 or 98. A lot of people are putting Windows 2000 on their laptops, which will force their hands what they do with the network."

Walshe says Praxa had done two major and five or six smaller installations nationally, and the major challenge so far had been staff training.

"So far I've been pleasantly surprised there haven't been any major issues," Walshe says. "Right the way through it seems to have worked."

Making the Grade

The technical complexity of Windows 2000 means Microsoft certified training courses are about 50 per cent longer, but educators say demand for their services has soared since the product's release.

"We're the busiest we've ever been," says John Rutherford, NSW sales manager for Aspect Education Services. "It's purely a knock-on effect from the release of the operating system. A lot of organisations are having closed courses for their staff to upgrade their skills from NT4."

Rutherford says the majority of the training so far had been for large resellers, systems integrators and large corporations such as banks, but there had also been a strong response from developers, added Steve Ross, general manager of Com Tech Education Services.

New starters to Microsoft networking require 35 days of full-time training for Windows 2000, compared to 22-24 days for NT, and current NT4 systems engineers require at least another 10 days to upgrade their training.

"It's an extra investment of time but you have to weigh that up against the benefits," Rutherford says. "Most companies accept that they're making a huge investment. For private individuals it's a lot tougher, but it will increase their marketability, because there aren't so many people in the marketplace with those skills."

The new technical features of Windows 2000 demand a wider range of skills, including design skills to work with infrastructure, security and the Active Directory server, says Com Tech's Ross.

"It's an opportunity to skill up where the jobs are. It's a challenge but people generally want to work with products that are technically rich. Techos don't object to having more skills. If there's no change, there's no value to their skills, " Ross says.

For all the vendor hype, it seems the bulk of business users are hedging their bets until Windows 2000 is tested in the marketplace and later versions are released, but there are enough early adopters to keep integrators and consultants gainfully employed.

The product is much more technically complex than NT4, meaning longer certification training, and thus more money and opportunity for educators and training institutions.

Active Directory the Key: user

The benefits and limitations of Microsoft's new Active Directory service will be key to any company's decision to migrate to Windows 2000, according to John Cromie, CEO of Australian software development company, Open Software Associates (OSA).

"You can just use Windows 2000 as a new operating system to replace Windows 95/98 or NT," says Cromie. "But to get the benefits of a lower total cost of ownership, you also have to roll out Active Directory. That requires a lot of modelling and it's complex to get it right. There are no directory manipulation tools in Windows 2000, so if you need to fundamentally remodel, you have to start again from scratch. It's the Achilles Heel and large corporations understand that."

OSA has developed NetDeploy Global to "embrace and extend" Windows 2000 and alleviate issues with Active Directory.

Cromie claims the product broadens the software management capability of Windows 2000 and addresses issues like legacy and non-Wintel compatibility.

"With NetDeploy, anything you can do on LAN, you can do over the Internet, but Windows 2000 native can't do that. It allows Active Directory to be rolled out gradually, with gradual benefits, so you can make sure you get it right."

NetDeploy requires one terminal with Windows 2000 in order to run Active Directory, but the system can then be deployed to other platforms, including Windows 95/98, NT, Mac, Unix and Linux.

Cromie says Windows 2000 would eventually become the standard corporate desktop, but the take-up would be gradual.

"The impact of Windows 2000 will be huge... slowly," says Cromie. "Anyone who expected to see a meteor crater after the launch was wrong. In the end it's just another Microsoft product announcement. When the lights and fireworks have gone, nothing will have changed. But two-three years later everything will have changed."

- C. Fitzsimmons

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