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Cisco throws its support behind Microsoft's directory service vaporware

What about Novell's NDS and Sun's Java Naming and Directory Interface?

By Robert E. Lee

June  1997
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San Francisco, CA (June 1, 1997) -- Ownership of the global directory services market is at stake. In a surprising May 7, 1997 announcement at Networld+Interop Spring 97 Ed Kozel, senior vice president and chief technical officer of Cisco Systems stood up with Jim Allchin, senior vice president of the personal and business systems group at Microsoft and declared that "Active Directory is the standard." The following presentation left little room for understanding why Cisco has thrown its support behind Microsoft and a technology that is still under development and not even in beta yet.

A number of thoughts immediately began racing around the room during the announcement and afterwards at the Novell booth as the implications of this statement materialized. Clearly Cisco has a significant portion of the Internet and corporate networking infrastructure. With the announcement that the Cisco Internetworking Operating System that powers all of the routers and switches would be enhanced to support Active Directory as the directory services standard, questions arose about the impact to Network Information Service (NIS(YP)), Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI) and Novell Directory Service (NDS). What would happen to the ongoing involvement with JavaSoft and Cisco on the Java Naming and Directory Interface? Would Novell be left out in the cold with its Novell Directory Services? Will this partnership really last?

Industry reaction
The announcement hinted at a possible failing in Novell's NDS strategy, as Cisco is the undisputed leader for products at the physical layer of transport. Wilson Raj, with Novell's Internet infrastructure division, acknowledged that Cisco plays a major role at the physical transport layer of the NDS model and that the endorsement appears to weaken the NDS model. In a subsequent release on the Internet, Novell iterated that it made the first physical integration of directory services announcement in March 1997 with the Internet Engineering Task Force standard RADIUS.

Sun's chief scientist for networking, Bob Bressler, stated that the development of the JNDI represents the first platform-independent solution brought to the market that incorporates NDS, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), NIS(YP), Domain Name Service (DNS) and others. The model calls for an industry standard interface that bridges platform-independent development to all of the local directory services implemented in client and server operating environments. NDS is recognized as a leader in the model for global directory services, and JNDI is recognized in its the ability to bridge platforms for a uniform access model.


James Staten, industry analyst for computers and peripherals at Dataquest, says that NFS is not robust enough for global directory services, just as LDAP falls short. Staten sees NDS as the real solution, which is deliverable now across many platforms. Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and others either have or are porting this technology to their Unix platforms. Novell states that "75 to 85 percent of all shipping Unix servers will have NDS integrated, distributed, and supported in 1997 -- at least six to nine months before Microsoft delivers its directory."

"It's vaporware -- a figment of Microsoft's mind" Staten says of the Active Directory services. Since this technology is not expected until Windows NT 5.0 releases, followed by the Cisco port to the Unix platforms sixty to ninety days later, there is no tangible product today. Bressler was "a little surprised" at the announcement and that Cisco had "put a stake in the ground so early" on the directory issue. He indicated that Sun would not counter the effort, but instead would continue to focus on developing standards-based, platform-independent solutions like JNDI, drawing the market to the solution Sun sees as best.

Certain realities
As much as platform independence is desired, which platform are we discussing? If it is the client, the platform today is Windows and will remain so for a number of years -- so this platform is the one to develop for now. If the server is the focus, then again Microsoft comes in approaching the number one spot. While not there yet, at the current sales and implementation rates, there will be in excess of 5 million Windows NT servers in the market by the year 2000. This will create a dominant platform to which all others will have to interoperate.

When Active Directory does come to market (ignoring the "if" suggested by many others), Microsoft has the marketing clout to make it a de facto standard to be incorporated by everyone else. Staten observed that if Novell were to embrace Active Directory early, then NDS across all platforms could serve as the foundation to global directory services. Unfortunately, Novell does not have the track record of making this happen and to date Eric Schmidt, CEO of Novell, hasn't indicated any change in direction in this area.

Where does that leave you today? Of course you must focus on the real standards and products available now. LDAP, NDS, NIS(YP), DNS, and so on are real internetworking directory services currently available on many platforms. The development timeframes for JNDI and platform integration of these technologies are being accelerated in response to the Cisco and Microsoft initiative. While Cisco and Microsoft wield a heavy hand at the standards bodies, their efforts are subject to public review and approval; plus their development timelines place this announcement and strategy into the realm of good thoughts without much substance. It will require tangible development efforts on both sides to make the technology real even in 18 months -- a window open to JavaSoft and Novell to strengthen the JNDI and NDS markets. The real battle will begin if the Cisco/Microsoft alliance survives and real products are actually delivered.

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About the author
Robert E. Lee is a technology consultant, speaker, columnist, and author who has been in the computer industry for 20 years. He specializes in networking, Internet strategies, systems analysis and design activities, and has participated in the Windows NT and Internet Information Server betas since the start of those products. Reach Robert at

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