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Network O/S: Which to Use?

The dynamics of the network operating systems market are changing. So far, state and local governments seem to be exercising caution.

In the not-too-distant past, network operating systems (NOS) pretty much meant one thing: a Novell NetWare server for managing files and printers on a local area network. For some government agencies, a UNIX server could be found running a specialized application, such as
GIS. Other governments used IBM's OS/2, while a few ran large networks using Banyan Vines. But none of these competitors had more than 10 percent of the market. Novell was king. Today, however, the picture has changed.

Since it was first introduced in the summer of 1993, Microsoft Windows NT has become a networking force to be reckoned with. Outselling NetWare servers by as much as 140 percent in the summer of 1996, Windows NT has captured the hearts and minds of many IS shops, thanks in part to Microsoft's marketing prowess and NT's appeal as an easy-to-use NOS.

But while a growing number of private sector firms plan to use Microsoft as their primary network operating system vendor in the next year or so, the trend toward NT doesn't appear so strong in government. Exercising restraint, state and local government IS shops are standardizing on Novell as their primary operating system, while using NT or UNIX to run specific applications.

One deciding factor in Novell's favor is cost of ownership. In several studies, NetWare still comes out on top in terms of lower network administration costs, especially for operations and user support. But don't expect Microsoft to settle for second place, observe a number of analysts. For the first time in 1996, NT server sales topped UNIX server sales, according to International Data Corp. Microsoft's juggernaut at the desktop could also lead to domination at the server as well.

Novell's latest version of its network operating system is NetWare 4.1. Most analysts and users agree that NetWare's strength is as a print-and-file server. Novell's design philosophy, according to LAN Magazine, has been to build the fastest file-and-print server possible. To achieve that high level of performance, Novell has sacrificed stability.

For example, programs that should run as an integral part of a network operating system -- such as virus checkers and tape backups -- must be written as separate modules (known as NetWare Loadable Modules). These modules have been known to play havoc with a server's memory (RAM) and force NetWare to crash. Just about every NetWare administrator has a story to tell concerning a phone call in the middle of the night because a system crashed as a result of a third-party module bug.

But administrators say NetWare's centralized directory service more than makes up for the system's stability problems. The directory, known as Novell Directory Services (NDS), allows network administrators to manage a host of network tasks, such as changing a user's password or access rights to network software.

With version 4.1, Novell has strengthened NDS to handle network services at the enterprise level, something that was difficult to do with earlier versions of NetWare. The city of Aurora, Colo., has seen the productivity of its network administrators and users rise with the use of NDS and NetWare 4.1.

Like many jurisdictions, Aurora's network has grown fast, tripling the number of users (from 200 to 600) in one year. That created all sorts of headaches for Network Administrator Ron Forster. Network administration became fragmented and decentralized. "There was no central control, no central backup procedures and no easy way to share files with other departments," he said. The lack of control also meant more work. For example, NetWare 3.11 requires administrators to change passwords and execute other administrative tasks on each individual server.

Forster and the city's Information Technologies Department decided the only way to alleviate the problem was to overhaul the city's network by upgrading its NOS to NetWare 4.1 and centralizing all servers. In fact, the city reduced five departmental servers down to two super servers that handle all 600 desktop users in the city (the number is expected to grow to 900 by the end of 1997).

Forster has developed a single NDS directory for the entire city. Users are registered once for all servers and classified according to the building they are in. As an administrator, Forster said NDS makes it much easier to locate a user and make any modifications. The new setup has also lightened the load of the departmental network administrators. Forster now can administer the city's entire network, including the electronic mail system from his one location.

NDS has also made it easier for users to share files. All of Aurora's desktop users have access to a central shared directory, which includes common city files that contain everything from city policies to forms. "NDS' centralized directory structure has increased productivity," said Forster. "Our network users can easily share files, research information, order new equipment and update city policies from their desk rather than pass the information via interoffice mail or sneaker net."

If NetWare hums nicely as a print-and-file server, then Microsoft Windows NT really sings as an application server. NT's tight integration with desktop environments like Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 is considered a key benefit to using Microsoft's network operating system. It's also easier to run databases on NT, according to network analysts. Another factor in NT's favor is its competitive base price and ease of installation.

Compared to NetWare, NT is loaded with extra protocols and network services, such as TCP/IP, remote access and system backup. NetWare uses the IPX protocol, which some people, including Forster, have criticized for taking up more bandwidth than TCP/IP.

In Cincinnati, where Novell is the network standard, NT has managed to find its way on to 20 percent of the city's local area networks, according to Herbert Rennekamp, manager of information systems for the Regional Computer Center, which oversees computers for the city and surrounding Hamilton County.

Rennekamp calls NT an "application-driven technology. We try to buy packaged solutions here, not customized solutions." As a result, when a vendor proposes an application that runs on NT, the city doesn't try to change specifications or customize the application to fit NetWare, which happens to be the predominant operating system in the city and county.

Forster has also found that vendors are selling applications that run on NT, not NetWare. "We're not looking at NT to replace NetWare at this time, but we are looking at it for applications. For example, we're going to buy a new computer-aided dispatch system and all the leading vendors have written their software for NT."

While it may appear that Windows NT is going head-to-head with NetWare as the standard operating system for print and file servers, some analysts believe it poses an even bigger challenge to UNIX. Both operating systems share similarities. NT and UNIX are 32-bit multitasking operating systems for servers. Both run on a variety of hardware platforms, such as Intel, Digital's Alpha, PowerPC, MIPS and RISC.

But differences between the two abound. UNIX has been in use for over 25 years, making it a mature and relatively stable operating environment. In contrast, NT is only about three years old. UNIX comes in several different versions, and each is slightly incompatible with the other. NT, on the other hand, is produced by one vendor, which some consider both a blessing and a curse.

Forster sees NT as a challenge to small UNIX applications at the departmental level. In fact, this is beginning to occur in imaging, a technology that has caught on in government as a workgroup and departmental application. Imaging vendors, such as Wang and FileNet, once dedicated to UNIX as their operating system of choice, began last year to develop strategies that support NT. Today, NT is rapidly taking over as the NOS for imaging applications.

Meanwhile, UNIX is expected to maintain its hold on the enterprise server market, providing the strength to handle transaction processing applications in a distributed environment across an entire state agency or local government. Analysts cite the ability of UNIX to scale systems beyond the capabilities of NT. For example, it's not unusual for UNIX to run multi-processing systems with more than 100 processors. That's something that neither NT or NetWare can handle today.

Windows NT, NetWare and all the variations of UNIX may predominate in the NOS market, but they aren't the only ones. IBM OS/2 and Banyan Vines are two other network operating systems with small bands of dedicated, sometimes fiercely loyal users.

Banyan Vines has long been known as a NOS that strongly supports enterprise-sized networks. Its StreetTalk directory has been emulated by Novell's NDS. In a readers' survey published last November in Computerworld Magazine, respondents rated Vines higher in scalability than NetWare, NT or OS/2. Vines was also rated highest in terms of ease of use by end users. It received the second highest rating for reliability. "That reliability translates into lower support costs, for which Vines received the most favorable rating," reported Computerworld.

However, the article went on to say that the same market forces that are driving users to NT and NetWare are also driving users away from Vines. "It's very stable, and we have few downtime problems, but support from the company is where it's lacking," Brenda Markham, a systems analyst at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told Computerworld. The department will migrate to NT in two years.

The IBM OS/2 Warp Server is another NOS that consistently receives favorable ratings from its users. The network operating system is considered to have a technical edge over the others in the field. Its strengths include excellent print-and-file server capabilities, strong management utilities, standards-based directory and security services and very good application server capabilities.

But OS/2 lags when it comes to independent software vendor support. As a result, organizations are not showing much commitment to IBM's network operating system (unless they have a large installation of IBM equipment).


PROBLEM/SITUATION: The market for network operating systems has grown in recent years with the rapid acceptance of Microsoft's Windows NT.

SOLUTION: State and local governments need to weigh costs, support and performance when they choose a network operating system.

JURISDICTION: Aurora, Colo.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

VENDORS: Novell, Microsoft, IBM, Banyan.

CONTACT: Ron Forster, 303/739-7740; Herbert Rennekamp, 512/352-4739.

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With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.