Upgrading Servers - Worthy, but Costly

SAN MATEO (02/07/2000) - We've heard the hype about Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000, and we've watched the ship date slip. After testing Windows 2000 at last, I can report that it was well worth the wait. Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server are not only easier to install and administer than Windows NT 4.0, but they also offer considerably faster performance.

Large-scale deployments will benefit greatly from Active Directory (AD). It offers a highly scalable and easy-to-administer directory system for all Win2000 applications and services. Also, the advancements made in reliability, specifically with clustering and built-in load balancing, mean less costly downtime for mission-critical applications. These new features make Win2000 a better alternative in the enterprise to NT.

Unfortunately, the high costs -- many thousands of dollars, in most cases -- of migrating to the new server OS may cause many businesses to shy away from it immediately.

I recommend taking the middle road: Deploy Windows 2000 slowly, bringing its power and flexibility into your environment without the exorbitant costs of a one-time migration. Buy new servers with Win2000, but keep most old servers running NT 4.0. This way, users can be trained incrementally and bugs can be worked out without causing expensive downtime.

After many months of delays, Microsoft has come through with a strong upgrade to the Windows NT Server platform. Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server are solid products, earning a score of good. Unfortunately, higher hardware requirements and steep migration costs mean a slow move to Win2000 for most businesses.

The most significant enhancement is AD, which is integrated into every part of the Win2000 model. It allows for all applications and services to communicate with one information directory.

Windows 2000 Server

The Server edition provides a basic level of network functionality for a reasonable price. It offers a full suite of network services, including file and print, Web, and FTP services, and support for a wide range of application services such as e-mail and database servers.

These services have been updated and performance optimized for modern server hardware, giving Win2000 a performance edge over NT. And the integration of AD greatly increases Win2000's scalability in large environments.

Server is a good fit for most situations requiring NT Server 4.0. But for higher-end implementations, the load balancing and fail-over capabilities of Advanced Server make it a better choice.

Server's price is reasonable at $1,199 with 10 client-access licenses or $599 to upgrade. The costs associated with upgrading existing hardware and software to Win2000 compliance make it a better option for deploying with new servers.

I upgraded an existing NT 4.0 server running on a Hewlett-Packard NetServer LX Pro with quad Pentium Pro 200-MHz CPUs and 512MB of RAM to Windows 2000 Server.

It had been my domain controller, so all of that information was migrated into AD. I found that Win2000's performance on this machine was more than 22 percent faster than NT Server 4.0.

I connected to the new server from several client machines. I could log on using my old domain username and password. I had seamless access to NT 4.0 servers in the original domain, even though the domain controller used AD.

I set up Microsoft's DFS (distributed file system) on the new server and created a DFS drive. I pulled in shares from several servers under the DFS share. I was impressed with the ease with which I could set up distributed file services. This will be a major benefit for organizations that use several file servers but want centralized access to information.

Windows 2000 Advanced Server

Advanced Server adds several enhancements to all of the features of Server. On the hardware side, it supports as many as eight CPUs; Server supports four.

Also, Advanced Server can address as much as 8GB of RAM using Intel's Physical Address Extension (PAE) technology; Server can access only 4GB.

Advanced Server offers also several additional software features. Network load balancing allows incoming traffic to be distributed to several servers, providing quicker response time and making it easy to expand capacity. Also, two-node server clustering protects critical applications from downtime, allowing servers to fail-over. This will help keep costs down in mission-critical environments and ensure that service is available to your users at all times.

Advanced Server is a good fit when high server uptime is a critical consideration. It gives users a reliable server and excellent performance on high-end hardware. With support for eight CPU servers and as much as 4GB of RAM, Advanced Server has the horsepower necessary to run large mission-critical applications.

Unfortunately, the additional power costs a lot more money. Advanced Server is $2,800 more per server for new installations and $1,400 more for the upgrade than the Server edition.

I installed Advanced Server on a Gateway ALR 7200 server with dual Pentium III 550-MHz CPUs and 512MB of RAM. In performance tests on this system, Advanced Server was more than 32 percent faster than NT Server 4.0.

With another Advanced Server machine set up, I installed Network Load Balancer.

It was easy to configure. This feature is perfect for high-load services such as Web and FTP, allowing a group of machines to share the load.

Looking ahead

A third version of Windows 2000, the DataCenter edition, will be designed for high availability data center use. It promises even higher performance levels for enterprise-level applications, supporting more RAM and CPUs. DataCenter is slated for release in Q2 of this year.

According to an October 1999 study from the Gartner Group, many IT administrators believe that they must upgrade to Win2000 because NT 4.0 will no longer be supported. Microsoft will continue to sell and support NT to retail customers until the end of 2001 and through 2004 for Select and Enterprise customers.

Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server are high-quality follow-ups to the Windows NT family. Extensive enhancements in both directory services and system performance make it a good choice for new implementations. However, the high costs of migrating existing environments to the Server platform and more advanced system requirements will limit its usefulness for the near future in many existing environments. Consider deploying Win2000 on a server-by-server basis instead of undertaking a massive, expensive one-time migration to the new OS.

Senior Analyst Kevin Railsback (kevin_railsback@infoworld.com) has administered and tested NOSes for eight years.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server

Business Case: The high costs of moving all existing servers to Windows 2000 will limit its immediate adoption. In the long term, Windows 2000 Server editions will be worth the investment, but rolling them out slowly will reduce overall costs.

Technology Case: Windows 2000 Server offers a good combination of networking services for most situations, and Active Directory is a good update to the older Windows NT domain system. The addition of clustering and network load balancing makes Windows 2000 Advanced Server a good choice for high-availability situations.

Pros:

+ Much wider range of hardware support

+ Windows Terminal Services integrated into the OS+ Support for eight-way systems and as much as 4GB of RAM in Advanced Server+ Active Directory fully integrated into all aspects of the OSCons:

- Few current applications optimized for Windows 2000- Significantly higher cost for Advanced Server editionCost: $1,199, Server ($599 upgrade) with 10 client-access licenses; $3,999, Advanced Server ($1,999 upgrade) with 25 client-access licensesPlatform(s): x86-compatible server hardwareMicrosoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.; (425) 882-8080; www.microsoft.com

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