Thursday, April 27, 2000

Windows 2000

This article appears in slightly different form in the March/April 2000 issue of IEEE Micro © 2000 IEEE.

On February 17, 2000, I attended Bill Gates' kickoff of Windows 2000. I've been using beta versions for a year, but now it's official, so I can talk about it.

The kickoff was an extravagant production. Television actors provided glamour as they struggled through ghastly scripts. The captain of the starship Enterprise, for example, came on stage to complain when Gates used the word enterprise to describe his new product's target applications. The great rock guitarist Carlos Santana and his band closed the proceedings, while an army of reporters and publicists fiddled with their laptops and cell phones and pretended to enjoy the music.

Unlike Santana, the kickoff show may never win a Grammy, but the demonstrations of features and performance inspired awe among the attendees. Gates trotted out benchmarks that put Windows 2000 price/performance ahead of all of Microsoft's competitors -- and well beyond that of prior Microsoft systems. Even more impressive were the demonstrations of dynamic reconfiguration and load balancing in multiprocessor clusters. An operator at a console put machines into and out of service by dragging and dropping icons, and processor usage gauges immediately reflected the automatic rebalancing. Other demos showed how easily a user with a laptop can synchronize with a server and how effectively an administrator can control and allocate resources with Active Directory (see below).

The most impressive measurements that Gates announced were of how infrequently the systems crash. Windows 2000 seems, at least in these tests, to be much more reliable and fault tolerant than its predecessors. My own experience (see below) hasn't been nearly as good as the studies Gates reported, but I test lots of software, and I reconfigure often -- all without the benefit of a trained system administrator.

The Operating System

Windows 2000 is a family of operating systems, all targeted at business users. It does not, as you might have thought from the name, replace Windows 98. It is instead an evolution of Windows NT 4. In fact, the earliest beta versions I received were called Windows NT 5.

The bottom of the line is Windows 2000 Professional, which is aimed at business desktops and laptops and at high-end workstations. There is nothing to prevent you from using this product at home, of course, but in seeking to improve security, Microsoft has removed hooks into the hardware that many video games depend on. Drivers for many older devices have also had difficulty migrating to Windows 2000, which is another obstacle to its home use.

The next member of the family is Windows 2000 Server. It's not very different from Professional, and many users will prefer it. Microsoft intends it for use as a file, printer, communications, or web server.

For high-end server applications, Microsoft provides Windows 2000 Advanced Server. This version supports huge memories and symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) configurations. It supports clustering and rolling upgrades. You might use a cluster of Advanced Server machines to support a high-traffic website.

The fourth member of the family is Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. When Microsoft releases it later this year, it will do what the other family members do, but it will support larger memories and more multiprocessors.

I quickly decided that I needed Windows 2000 Server for the tasks I want to run, so that's the only version I have direct experience with. I'm happy with it, because its user interface is much more that of like Windows 98 than Windows NT 4, and it's easier to configure unusual network configurations. I connect my Windows 2000 Server machine to the Internet via a digital subscriber line (DSL). I have a local Ethernet, and I use the Windows 2000 Server as a gateway to give the other machines Internet access. At the same time I connect the Windows 2000 Server as a client to an enterprise intranet via virtual private networking (VPN). This configuration may have been possible with Windows NT 4, but try as I might, I could never make it work.

I won't run through all of the features of Windows 2000. You can find a summary on the Microsoft website. If you use Windows NT 4, or even Windows 98 with standard business software and devices, you'll find Windows 2000 a significantly more capable, usable and reliable product.


Windows 2000 will spawn a huge supply of third party books, and many have appeared already. I look at four good ones.

Active Directory for Dummies by Marcia Loughry (IDG,, 2000, 402pp plus CD, ISBN 0-7645-0659-5, $24.99)

Windows 2000 Registry for Dummies by Glenn Weadock (IDG,, 2000, 378pp plus CD, ISBN 0-7645-0489-4, $24.99)

It may seem incongruous to talk about anything as complex as Windows 2000 as being for dummies, but these two books, and the one that I discuss under security (below), adhere to the same formula that has made the dummies series such a runaway success. The authors know their audiences, and they talk to them as intelligent people who are just beginning to learn the subjects. While they must assume a certain degree of sophistication and general background, the authors explain everything about the topics of the books.

In addition to targeting their audiences accurately and not taking anything for granted, the dummies books enhance communication in other widely known but less widely used ways. Their page layouts, font selection, and clear illustrations draw readers in. The icons for warnings, tips, technical details, and other aspects of the text are consistent from book to book, so the more dummies books you read, the easier it is to find the information you're looking for. The informal and slightly humorous tone of the books helps establish a rapport between author and reader, despite the highly formulaic structure.

Another great strength of the dummies books is that they are task oriented. They identify the tasks you're likely to wish to perform, and they show you how to perform them. Yet the authors don't restrict themselves to a cookbook approach. With each task they give you the background to understand what you're doing and why you're doing it. This technique is sometimes called just in time learning, and studies show that it is an effective way to learn.

Blatantly stealing Apple's famous catch phrase, the dummies books proclaim themselves a reference for the rest of us. And in fact, in addition to their tutorial elements, they contain many aspects of good reference works -- starting in every case with an excellent index. The Active Directory book also has several helpful appendixes.

The registry book contains information every Windows 2000 user should know about. The registry is an evolution of the registries of Windows NT 4 and Windows 98. If those were always a mystery to you, read this book now.

The Active Directory book may be more interesting to administrators than to average users. Active Directory centralizes resource allocation and control. It is a database of configuration information, some of which would have been stored in the registry under Windows NT 4. The book leads you through the daunting task of setting up directory services for an enterprise. 

Given the important role Windows 2000 will play over the next few years, I recommend that you spend a few hours reading these books and getting the ideas straight now. That knowledge is bound to pay off as time goes by. 

Inside Windows 2000 Server by William Boswell (New Riders,, 2000, 1496pp, ISBN 1-56205-929-7, $49.99)

Boswell's book is very different from the dummies books. It contains a great deal more detail, but you may have to dig harder to get it out. It is definitely more of a reference work than a tutorial. Although it contains many how-to procedures, it is not fundamentally task oriented.

The book has an attractive and readable layout, and its binding allows it to lie flat when open to almost any of its 1500 pages. It is comprehensive and clearly written. While I can't attest to the accuracy of everything in it, it does list three technical reviewers.

If you're a system administrator, you need this kind of reference book. This one seems like a good investment.


I became a regular Internet user in the early 1980s, but I never worried much about security until recently. This was not because the threats weren't real. I remember reading a congressional report on databases and invasion of privacy more than 30 years ago, and the threats were scary then. And if you want to see how that aspect of the problem has developed, read Simson Garfinkel's new book Database Nation (O'Reily,, 2000, ISBN 1-56592-653-6, $24.95).

While I think the kinds of threats that Garfinkel describes are more ominous, I'm concerned here with the kinds of threats you can reasonably do something about on your own Windows 2000 Server machine, namely, the threats of unauthorized access to your machine and to other machines on the networks your machine connects to.

Windows 2000 Server Security for Dummies by Paul Sanna (IDG,, 2000, 378pp plus CD, ISBN 0-7645-0470-3, $24.99)

If you're a system administrator, this book will lead you through the basic steps you can take to protect your system without totally disconnecting it from the world. Like the dummies books I describe above, this book leads you through the tasks you need to accomplish, supplying you at each stage with the information you need to understand the procedure you're following.

If you're responsible for the security of a Windows 2000 Server system, reading this book is a really good idea.

I found another excellent resource for securing Windows-based systems (not necessarily Windows 2000). This is the website of Gibson Research of Laguna Hills, California ( When you go to this site and the first thing you see is your name on the screen, you know you have work to do. Steve Gibson leads you through some simple steps that will greatly reduce your vulnerability.

One of Gibson's recommendations is to use the Zone Alarm 2.0 personal firewall, which you can obtain free from of San Francisco, California. I downloaded this product and have been using it more or less successfully. Zonelabs does not certify the product for the configuration I'm running, and so I don't blame them completely for the occasional blue screens of death that occur when the program fails to handle kernel mode exceptions properly.

Using Zone Alarm has been very revealing. It quite regularly reports probes from unauthorized IP addresses. I'm still tweaking the settings and learning to use it effectively, but I'm happy to have it running, despite the occasional crashes. It's certainly a product worth investigating, and you can't beat the price.