With Internet commerce and a growing global economy, network operating systems are as critical to the nation's economy as highways or water pipes. Unlike roads, though, there are no uniform construction standards or methods.

As a result, government agencies face a formidable array of questions and decisions. Should their networks run on UNIX, NetWare, Windows NT or a newcomer, such as Linux? And what should be the role of government in shaping the future network operating environment?

Microsoft Windows operating systems and applications are so pervasive that they are the de facto standard for government, business and home computing. The next major release, Windows NT 5.0 -- to be called Windows 2000 -- positions Microsoft to capture the network operating system market as well.

Saturating the Market

"Windows NT was first released five years ago as a specialized operating system for technical and business needs," said Jim Allchin, Microsoft's senior vice president of the Personal and Business System Group. "Windows NT will be the basis for all Microsoft PC operating systems, from consumer products to the highest-performance servers."

Microsoft will market a desktop version and three server versions.

At press time, a third beta version of Windows 2000 was scheduled for an April release, and Microsoft said desktop and server versions of Windows 2000 -- including Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server -- will be available in October.

The Competition

As an operating system, NT appears to have a major advantage: supports all client/server solutions, from file and print services to network infrastructure and management application services. Microsoft has gained momentum by integrating applications and the OS, bridging the once-dissimilar worlds of desktop and server.

"It's all about cost," said Kevin McNeilly, associate director for the Arizona Telemedicine Program. "Typically, NT base workstations are less expensive than UNIX workstations. And the other factor is the availability of applications, widely available word processing, office tools -- most of those applications are available for Windows but not necessarily for UNIX."

Serving the Law

Law enforcement agencies in Oakland County, Mich., are using an NT-based computer-assisted dispatching system called the Court and Law Enforcement Management Information System (CLEMIS) to access criminal background information such as mug shots, crime-scene photos and case information from emergency vehicles and police cruisers.

According to Joe Sullivan, CLEMIS project team manager, the goal is to have a criminal justice database accessible to police officers in the field. The CLEMIS mobile data computer system functions on cellular digital packet data. It includes a Printrak system that fully interfaces with GIS and incorporates features such as open query to allow police officers access to such databases as NCIC and the jail management system.

Smart Security

Security and privacy are important issues for government agencies. Smart cards can provide identification, authentication and nonrepudiation for secure transactions.

NT supports secure login by smart card, which requires a card and a PIN. "That allows government agencies to provide controlled access to their Web information," said Stuart Vaet, product marketing manager of Spyrus, a security company based in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting some pilots using Spyrus' PKI product, along with Netscape commercial Web products for secure access to Web site information for law enforcement.

Telemedicine

Yuma State Prison, in Yuma, Ariz., has installed telemedicine to reduce health-care costs and the risk of escape. According to Joseph Scalzo, telemedicine program manager of the Arizona Department of Corrections, "In order to break even -- and that includes all personal charges, T1 rental and equipment, etc. -- we have to do nine cases a month. The system has been in operation about a year and has performed over a hundred cases."