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Running Windows 95 under Solaris -- Is it smooth sailing now?

Surprise -- Win 95/Solaris integration is much easier these days. Here we examine both the Unix NFS and the Microsoft CIFS approach

By Rick Cook

May  1997
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Integrating Windows 95 and Solaris has become a lot easier in the last year, thanks to better integration, more transparency, and more mature software. The major approaches are network filesystem (NFS) clients, such as Solstice Network Server and Solstice NFS Server from Sun, and servers using Microsoft's Common Internet File Server (CIFS). Both approaches aid Sun's vision of the network as the computer and the "Web tone." (1,900 words)

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There are two very obvious things about running Windows 95 desktops and Solaris servers:

  1. A lot of people are doing it.
  2. While it is still not painless, the process is getting easier.
Windows 95 has not been the runaway success that Microsoft envisioned. More than a year after its full release, it is still a minority among MS users. According to various market researchers, about half the desktops out there are Windows 3.x or MS-DOS, while the Windows 95 share runs between 20 and 30 percent. Still, the popularity of Windows 95 is increasing steadily, thanks to both Microsoft's marketing push and its effort to comb out the bugs and incompatibilities from Windows 95.

Meanwhile, Sun is becoming more sensitive to Windows 95. "According to IDC (International Data Corp., a market research firm), Sun became the leading midrange server vendor over the last year," says Sanjay Sinha, marketing manager for Sun's Solaris server group. "That part of our business was up 287 percent last year. More and more Sun machines are in workgroups and departments, and they need to connect to Windows and Windows 95. That's why I care a whole lot about Windows integration."

Do you want to do it? That depends. Will you have to? If your organization uses Windows on the desktop and Solaris on the server, the chances are increasingly good that you will upgrade to Windows 95.

Today, the most common method of integrating Windows 95 desktops into a Solaris environment is with NFS, the Sun-developed system for sharing files over the network. This isn't the only method, however, some companies are offering products that use Microsoft's Common Internet File System (formerly SMB) and don't require installing software on the desktop.

The latest version of NFS, version 3, doesn't have the problems that gave NFS a reputation of being a slow resource hog. The new NFS can use TCP protocol instead of UDC and contains a number of other improvements that significantly increase its performance, especially over the Internet.

This isn't exactly a new strategy. There have been NFS clients for PCs ever since the days of DOS. What is new, aside from the benefits of NFS 3, is the level of integration and ease of use the best NFS clients offer under Windows 95. However, Windows 95 is more powerful (if not more stable) than Windows 3.x, and companies can use that power to build much more tightly-integrated NFS clients that are a lot easier to install and use. To take one simple example, NFS clients under Windows 95 can use long Unix-type filenames instead of being restricted to the 8.3 filenames of DOS and Windows 3.x.

Seemingly seamless
Companies providing NFS and CIFS services for Windows 95/Solaris have put a lot of effort into making their products install and run as transparently as possible. Consider, for example, Sun's NFS client for Windows 95. To install it, one uses Internet Explorer, Windows 95's built-in browser, to access the Web page on the server. Click an icon on the page and the client downloads the binaries. Once it is on the desktop, the user merely clicks another icon for installation. That, according to Sun, is it. This is a far cry from the situation a year ago when installing an NFS client on Windows 95 could easily mean replacing the entire TCP/IP stack and then dealing with the incompatibilities of having a non-Microsoft version of TCP/IP on the computer.

In the same fashion, the trend is to make NFS and the server as transparent as possible to the Windows 95 desktop. For example, many of the products, like Solstice Network Client and NFS Client, show NFS files, printers, and such in Windows 95's Network Neighborhood window, just as if they were local to the desktop.

This trend is due to the evolution of the products. As Windows 95 has matured, companies have become more familiar with it and have been able to solve many of the problems that plagued previous attempts at Win95/Solaris connectivity.

One notable example has been Microsoft's TCP/IP stack, which comes with Windows 95. As usual, Microsoft went its own way, and as a result its version of TCP/IP didn't work with a lot of software when Windows 95 first came out. You had to either replace the Microsoft stack (which produced its own set of problems) or find software that would work with it. This produced considerable consternation (and a lot of cursing) among the people whose job it was to network Windows 95 using TCP/IP.

"Microsoft didn't focus that much on making [the TCP/IP stack] completely open and documenting it," says Sinha, demonstrating a considerable talent for understatement. "In many ways we were groping in the dark."

Microsoft still hasn't been completely open about its implementation of TCP/IP, Sinha says, especially for the advanced functions, but adds "now we are over the hump." Sun and most of the other major players in the networking market have worked hard at deciphering the Microsoft stack and figuring out how it works. As a result, Sinha says, the Sun clients now work well with Microsoft TCP/IP.


The Microsoft way
Not everyone who wants to share files and services with Windows 95 uses NFS. The other major approach is to use Microsoft's own Common Internet File System (formerly Server Message Block, or SMB).

Many companies offer CIFS connectivity to Solaris, among them Sun itself. The Santa Cruz Operation has SCO VisionFS; Digital Equipment Corp. has included CIFS connectivity in Pathworks; and FacetCorp sells FacetWin, a CIFS server for Unix systems.

Conceptually CIFS is very similar to NFS. It provides access to files and services over the network and makes them appear transparent to the user. One of the major advantages of CIFS is that it comes with Windows 95 and doesn't require installing an NFS client on each Windows 95 machine. (However some of the products, such as FacetWin from FacetCorp, do require installing a terminal emulator on the client machines -- although that is done automatically over the network.)

Another advantage of a CIFS server is ease of upgrading. "When changes occur with other applications, system administrators have to go to every PC once again," says Bill Demers, marketing administrator for FacetCorp. "With our product you just load the CD on the Unix server and everyone is up and running in a matter of minutes. That can have a big impact when the network is a wide area network and the administrator can't get to every PC in a timely fashion."

CIFS's ease of installation on the clients is counterbalanced by the need to install a CIFS server on the Unix machine. Of course it is easier to install one piece of software on the server instead of one on each client, but this is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that NFS servers are standard with everyone's implementation of Unix. In theory (and pretty much in practice) once an NFS client is installed it can be used to access any NFS server, either locally or over the Internet. A non-Microsoft server will need to have CIFS installed before CIFS clients can access it.

How much difference this makes in practice is unique to each situation. While NFS clients can access any NFS server, they may need to be configured differently for a new server, especially on a different version of Unix. The installation of CIFS is much less of an issue with the newer NFS clients than it used to be. According to FacetCorp, the performance differences in the two filesystems are overshadowed by the differences in implementation. Finally, companies like Sun are now offering CIFS access as well.

A dividing market
Another striking trend with NFS and CIFS products is the growing division into two markets. On the high end are products like Solstice Network Client, which aim to do everything for the user. On the low end are products like Solstice NFS Client and WinNFS from Network Instruments, which provide only basic functionality.

Most of the low-end products offer file and printer services at a lower price. WinNFS takes the process a step further and only offers file access with no NFS printer support. WinNFS sells for $49 a seat while Solstice NFS Client is $79 a seat. Solstice Network Client is $300 a seat. Solstice NFS Client is designed to provide only file and printer services while Solstice Network Client adds Netscape Navigator, an IMAP4 e-mail client, and an X server.

Of course the price leaders are the various freeware NFS clients available over the 'Net. Also freely available is the Samba CIFS server for various versions of Unix. (Although Samba's originator, in Canberra, Australia, does ask that you order him a pizza if you like the program. Instructions for international pizza ordering are to be found in the Samba FAQ. (See Resources.)

The Web tone and the future
Meanwhile NFS isn't standing still and neither are the NFS implementers. Recently Sun turned the definition of NFS over to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the closest thing to a standards body for the Internet. From now on IETF will define and guide NFS, which should enhance NFS' reputation as an open standard.

According to Sinha, the IETF has established two major objectives for the next major revision of NFS. The changes are expected to improve performance and security over the Internet and to make NFS much more Windows-friendly by supporting native Windows protocols. Although Sun is no longer in charge of NFS, these goals fit closely with Sun's vision of the future of computing, and especially the idea of Web tone.

"Web tone" is Sun's term for the network functioning as an information utility; always available and functionally indistinguishable from applications and data running on the user computer.

"Solaris is the Web tone for network-centric computing," says Sinha. "As a Windows 95 user you should just care about the desktop. The fact that you're being serviced from a Solaris server should be transparent to you. Solaris provides that availability as well as seamless additional capacity, scalability, and performance."

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About the author
Rick Cook is a regular columnist in our sister publication, NetscapeWorld. He divides his time between writing about the Web, computers, and high technology, and novels. Reach Rick at

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