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Connectivity by Rawn Shah

Microsoft steps further into NT-Unix integration

The software giant enters a niche market with Windows NT Services for Unix, a new product designed to make life in a mixed environment a little easier

December  1998
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Microsoft is now offering NFS services for Windows NT Workstations with the Services for Unix (SFU) Add-On Pack to NT 4.0, at a comparatively low price of $145. In this first version of SFU, Microsoft introduces resource sharing and remote connectivity through common Unix services such as NFS and Telnet. Find out just how useful each of these features will be. (1,500 words)

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In the beginning, Microsoft adamantly declared that Windows NT would replace Unix. Back then, looking at the rate of NT deployment, many were convinced this was going to be the case. However, after seven years of trying, Microsoft must admit that NT hasn't yet achieved that goal. The next generation of NT makes a few hard-earned concessions to Unix, by shedding some of the limitations of NetBIOS and moving over to TCP/IP-based system services like those available on Unix, such as host naming and application service lookup.

Still, IT departments are calling for a higher level of sharing and compatibility between servers of both types. This is where several companies have come in and filled a niche. The story actually begins years ago, back in the days of Windows 3.1, before TCP/IP services were available at all with the basic Windows operating system. Small vendors began by creating custom TCP/IP protocol stacks based on their own network device drivers. Next, Novell and Microsoft each came out with a common driver model. From there, the two big vendors proceeded to focus on higher levels, such as a protocol stack with more features and client applications for TCP/IP networks.

Among the first simple applications was a Telnet client to connect to a Unix server and a Network File System (NFS) client to mount remote Unix drives. Soon, Novell and Microsoft each came out with more complex and friendly application suites, moving away from archaic command line settings and messing directly with boot files. Companies such as FTP Software and Beame & Whiteside flourished for years in this niche market, mostly ignored by top vendors like Microsoft and Novell, each of which had plans for protocols of its own.

In 1992, a common software API, Windows Socket 1.0, was designed and built to allow third-party developers to build network applications to run on any of these protocol stacks. Microsoft's release of a TCP/IP protocol stack with Windows for Workgroups and version 3.11 sounded the death knell for some of the smaller companies. Given the choice between a free protocol stack or a several-hundred-dollar package from one of the small vendors, users found there was no contest at all.

Some of the competition managed to hang on by focusing on network applications built on top of the protocol stack. Now that they didn't have to worry about writing their own protocol stack, they were free to expand their software application's role. A commonly available network stack and standard API allowed third-party developers to come out with some interesting and important applications, such as Gopher, Mosaic, and later Netscape Navigator. Other vendors, such as SunSelect (a Sun division that created PC-NFS) and Hummingbird Communications, focused on applications like NFS, network printing, and PC-based X Windows environments for Win3.x, as well as the new NT system. In fact, 32-bit Windows NT provided the opportunity to build more complex software like that available on Unix. Some vendors, such as Mortice Kern Systems, even built Unix-like environments on NT to ease migration between environments.

In both Windows 95 and NT 4.0, common TCP/IP applications such as Telnet, FTP, and ping are part of the system, albeit in rudimentary versions. There was still a market for NFS, Unix-based network printing, X Windows, and several other tools and, until recently, most of these were in the hands of a number of companies.


Enter the dragon
Today, Microsoft has realized that its plan to completely replace Unix won't succeed and it may have to consider another approach; namely, bridging the gap between Windows and Unix. The release of Microsoft Windows NT Services for Unix (SFU) as an add-on to NT 4.0 represents one such concession. In an effort to move quickly, Microsoft has licensed software from Integraph Corp. and Mortice Kern Systems Inc. to add some of these services to NT workstations and servers.

The $149 SFU Add-On Pack for NT provides applications and services on the NT side that have long been in demand by Unix administrators working in a mixed environment. The pack focuses on NFS services, Telnet connectivity, password synchronization, and Unix shell scripting.

NT workstations can now mount Unix volumes using the NFS client. Correspondingly, both NT workstations and servers can now export NTFS drives to Unix workstations using the NFS server. Because the file properties map so easily between the NFS standard (which is based on the Unix filesystem model) and NTFS, there is little lost in the way of file permissions and ownership. On the Unix workstation side, user accounts and passwords needed to mount the NFS-exported NTFS volumes are those in the Security Accounts Manager (SAM), on the NT Server. On the NT workstation side, users with the right to mount network drives can access Unix NFS volumes through Explorer, just as with any network-shared Windows drives.

The Telnet daemon/server that comes with SFU allows remote users to connect into an NT command shell using the Telnet program. Because they are actually at a command prompt in NT, they can run any character-based program to which they have access. However, since character-based applications for NT are mostly for administrators, administrators will likely get the most out of this setup. User authentication runs through SAM. The number of logins is limited by the number of client licenses running on the NT Server. On NT Workstations, this is limited to 10 active sessions only.

SFU now includes one-way password "synchronization." This allows your NT system to export user accounts and passwords to a Unix server anytime this information is changed or added. A single password change on an NT workstation is now automatically pushed to the Unix server. In effect, this sends a remote command to execute the chpasswd command on the Unix system. This can come in handy for the NFS services, especially for those users who mount NFS volumes often. It's a fairly simple automated task, but it does help in creating a single-login system for NT users.

With the licensed Mortice Kern Systems software, you can now have a KornShell installed on your NT system. You can develop identical KornShell scripts for your Unix and NT system at the same time. However, not all Unix command line programs are available in this version, so you're still limited to running mostly NT command line programs.

Both Intergraph and Mortice Kern Systems offer full versions of their products as well. Intergraph offers AccessNFS Gateway, which allows you to NFS-mount a Unix volume and then re-export that volume as a Windows drive to other Windows clients; AccessNFS is available for Windows 95 and 98 systems, but is left out of SFU. AccessNFS Gateway also allows your NT server to re-export Unix printers to Windows clients. The full MKS Toolkit includes a number of other command line tools not available with SFU, including some for NT administration (userinfo, groupinfo, member, su) and security (change and list acl, show sid), Web development (a CGI system, HTML document differentiation), text file manipulation (Unix awk, assoc, file type commands), tape utilities (Unix tar, cpio, dd, mt), and mail utilities (for SMTP and IMAP mail).

Is it worth it?
At $149, the package is definitely worth the money for the NFS client and server software alone. At one time, such software came in separate packages costing up to $500 each. As recently as September, Intergraph valued its software at $400. The shell tools, however, aren't very significant. The one-way password synchronization is nice if you have NT-based NFS users. But honestly, this is a fairly simple script to write if you know how. On the KornShell, it isn't likely you'll be able to create exactly the same scripts on both Unix and NT systems unless you go for the full MKS Toolkit, a separate product. A Telnet doesn't buy you much either, if all your applications are graphical. Remote administration through a text interface is nice, but there aren't many standard NT tools that work in the command shell anyway. In short, $149 isn't much to pop for a good NFS client and server; you can pretty much ignore the rest of the features.

Microsoft has made some headlines with this great new announcement about Unix integration, but upon examining the product you'll find it isn't anything too new or exciting. However, this doesn't bode well for those vendors currently selling NFS tools for any Windows system. It's very likely that they, like the TCP/IP protocol stack vendors of the past, will disappear unless they can develop new applications or find new ways to leverage their products. Whatever the case, their prices will probably drop.

So what's left for these vendors? Probably X Windows emulation. But even those vendors should be wary. Microsoft hasn't decided yet whether it will bundle an X Windows system with the next version of NT Services for Unix. The question isn't so much one of developing the software, because Microsoft will likely license it from another company or just buy it out. The question is whether Microsoft's next move will interfere with long-term plans for widescale NT application usage.

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About the author
Rawn Shah is an independent consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He has written for years on the topic of Unix-to-PC connectivity and has watched many of today's existing systems come into being. He has worked as a system and network administrator in heterogeneous computing environments since 1990. Reach Rawn at

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