With Microsoft OSes, choose carefully

There are so many desktop operating systems on the market that choosing one is like
picking a card, any card. Some government users can't or won't buy an OS from Microsoft
Corp. For the many who do, here's a look at what that choice will mean down the road.


Your choice stacks the deck, either against you or in your favor. Gone are the days of
switching seamlessly between MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows 3.1. Accepting a unique file
system and hardware support today might pre-empt your software choices next year.


Perhaps that's why several surveys show one out of four federal readers of GCN still
uses Windows 3.x. It's a known quantity and can be run stably.


The GCN Lab has installed, maintained and upgraded all the current Microsoft OSes in a
networked office environment. We will summarize our experience for you. Also we'll preview
what to expect from Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0.


Gazing into our crystal ball, we see network environments in which as many as eight
different Microsoft OSes coexist on clients: Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95 OSR1,
Win95 OSR2, Win98, NT 3.51, NT 4.0 and NT 5.0.


The oldest, Windows 3.1, dates back six years. The youngest, NT 5.0, might not achieve
final release until early next year. The OSes create quite different environments, and
surprising problems can arise when they share an enterprise network.


The lab delved into the Beta 3 release of Win98 and whether any government office
should install it (see story, Page 34). We also explored the
benefits of a dual-boot PC running Win95 and NT 4.0 (see story, Page 35).


As for Win95, surveys by GCN for the past two years have consistently shown that one
out of three government users has it installed. Win95 comes in two distinct flavors: OSR1
and OSR2, also called Windows 95A and Windows 95B.


OSR is an acronym within an acronym: OEM Service Release. OEM stands for original
equipment manufacturer. The OSR you have on your PC boils down to when it was bought.


OSR1, the original Win95, dates back to August 1995. OSR2, incorporating corrections
and enhancements, came out in September 1996. Late last year, Microsoft added Universal
Serial Bus support to Win95 in what has become known as OSR2.1.


Want OSR2.1? Buy a new PC. That's the only way to get the latest version of Win95.


Want to upgrade an existing installation? Even if you have OSR2.1 on a CD-ROM, you
can't install it without reformatting your hard drive and violating your license
agreement.


Any PC with Win95 bought before September 1996 has OSR1. Any PC bought after that date
has OSR2, and any PC built after last October has OSR2.1.


Still not sure which one's on your PC? Go to the Control Panel and select the System
icon.


If you see a B after "Microsoft Windows 95 4.00.095," you have either OSR2 or
OSR2.1.


Both are remarkably stable as OSes, though not on a par with NT's stability.


OSR1 users who experience frequent crashes, particularly conflicts that point to the
file kernal32.dll, should download Win95 Service Pack 1 from the World Wide Web at http://www.microsoft.com/windows95.


If your System icon calls the OS "Microsoft Windows 95 4.00.095a," then
Service Pack 1 is already present.


About half the updated components of OSR2 are available for download from the same Web
address. But a Win95 system sings in full harmony only with preinstalled OSR2. Too bad
OSR2 isn't available as a separate product and cannot be installed on other systems
because of Microsoft's licensing policy.


One of the top benefits of OSR2 is the 32-bit File Allocation Table, which is not
downloadable. The 32-bit FAT strips out some of the 16-bit code that remained in Win95
OSR1.


Systems with less than 2G of hard-drive space benefit minimally from FAT32. On larger
drives, it can make single partitions larger than 2G.


And because larger drives tend to access files much faster, the smaller clusters of
FAT32 speed performance over 16-bit FAT.


Think of hard-drive clusters as a carton that accommodates only a certain size egg. The
smaller the drive, the smaller its clusters. Under FAT16, the default format of a 2G hard
drive makes 32K clusters.


If you write a 15K file to one cluster, 17K would remain empty although FAT16 considers
it occupied.


Let's say you have a 675K file. Divide 32 into 675 and you get 21 with 3K left over.
FAT16 writes the file to 22 clusters, leaving 29K unused in one of the clusters.


Most hard drives store thousands of files, few of which fit perfectly into
32K-divisible chunks. So FAT16 drives hoard thousands of kilobytes of storage that are
never available to users.


FAT32 is far more efficient. It has a uniform 4K-cluster structure, so the 675K file
would be written to 169 clusters leaving only 1K unused.


FAT32 must be installed under OSR2 or 2.1 using the FDISK utility. If your PC has OSR2
or 2.1, and the hard drive is split into partitions 2G or smaller, you probably don't have
FAT32.


To make certain, click on My Computer, right-click on any hard drive and choose
Properties.


If you see "Type: Local Disk (FAT32)," the hard drive is already formatted
for FAT32. If you see "Type: Local Disk (FAT)," the drive is FAT16.


Interweaving the different OSes in an enterprise starts to present a big problem when
you consider their file systems. NT 4.0 can't use files from FAT32 partitions. You can
transfer data files via the network or a FAT16-formatted floppy, but those files will not
be shareable.


Keep that in mind when you consider a dual-boot computer or file access across a
network.


Microsoft's main reason for creating another file system for Win98 instead of using
NT's File System was the memory constraint in an MS-DOS environment. The forthcoming Win98
file system preserves DOS support.


Interweaving drivers for printers and other peripherals is another big problem. Each
current OS class--Win3.x, Win95, NT 3.51 and NT 4.0--has its own set of drivers.


Win98, set for release this spring, and NT 5.0, due early next year, both follow the
Win32 driver model. The same software drivers should work with both OSes.


NT 4.0 falls somewhat short as a desktop OS because it lacks Windows Plug and Play
capabilities. Users have had to install and configure their device drivers manually. NT
5.0 is supposed to fix all that.


Likewise, some users complain about Microsoft's implementation of Plug and Play in
Win95, although it's better than no Plug and Play. Win98's Plug and Play will improve on
that. But despite the plans for driver compatibility between NT 5.0 and Win98, the new
device model is not backward-compatible.


Whatever drivers you use now will have to be replaced by new drivers under the two new
OSes.


An enterprise network environment is standard for many government workers, but perhaps
not for their OSes. Although new PC purchases pushed Win95 onto many office desks, it
never quite fit.


Whether it attached to a server running Novell NetWare, NT or other network OSes,
Win95's network support always seemed like an afterthought.


Win98 has better network support but still does not really belong on an enterprise
network as NT 4.0 and 5.0 do. NT 4.0 Workstation gives much better networkability and is
stable enough to make a good desktop OS despite Plug and Play's absence.


The manageability, stability, security and performance should be even better in NT 5.0.


Of great interest to many government sites is NT 5.0's embrace of asynchronous transfer
mode hardware and software. NT 5.0 users can run their existing network protocols and
applications over an ATM network and use TCP/IP directly over ATM media. NT 5.0
Workstation also will support IP telephony.


One of the most-hyped elements in NT 5.0 is Active Directory Services.


It will have little effect on the typical user but will ease the workload for managers
of NT networks.


NT 4.0 and Win95 OSR2 both make desktop computing easier. If your site will upgrade any
PCs in the next six months, we suggest you take a good look at NT 4.0 Workstation.


It has the best stability and performance. An exception would be for users unfamiliar
with the Windows 95/NT interface.


For them, Win95 OSR2 will have a shorter tlearning curve. Win98 will suit the home
better than the office, however.


The OS debate--which to use, which card to choose--will become moot if NT 5.0 delivers
all that Microsoft promises.


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