In-Depth

From the Trenches: At Home with a Win2K Network

Do your homework! Setting up a small network running Win2K is just the ticket if you want hands-on experience immediately.

Say you're curious about Windows 2000 and want to get a jump on learning about it. But your company remains perfectly happy with NT 4.0, thank you, and has no interest in installing the new OS for some time to come. Or maybe you want some hands-on time with the product as you prepare to upgrade your MCSE. Consider setting up a network at home and installing Win2K--if you're like me, you'll also learn some things you might not have expected.

In the Beginning

I first decided to build an NT server and a home network as a study aid in my pursuit of the MCSE. It turned out to be the right decision because it's nearly impossible to achieve any measure of competence in Microsoft products without actually using them. Many software products today can be learned on-the-fly; operating systems--especially Microsoft operating systems--need a lot more work before they're truly intuitive. Because the component specifications were up to me and because I wanted to try something a little different, I built a dual-processor server. (This would later prove to be inspired.)

Windows NT Server 4.0, when loaded on a multi-processor machine, loads a different kernel than in the single-processor installation. It also offers unique options, such as the ability to set processor affinity and differences in Network Monitor; these options are also offered by Windows 2000. But Win2K, as I would later learn, has a huge appetite (and support) for processors and memory. Multi-processor machines will need to become commonplace if Windows 2000 is the future.

Building the Server

I'll give you some details on my server, named MooseServer, which I built from scratch. I've found that if you do a little research and consult Microsoft's Hardware Compatibility List (or HCL, found at www.microsoft.com/hcl), you can intelligently buy hardware at local computer shows and assemble systems yourself. In this way you save a lot of money (compared to a ready-built Dell or Gateway system), and at the same time get a much more powerful and robust computer. Incidentally, you'll learn a lot about hardware.

MooseServer was born with dual Intel Pentium II processors (333MHz) on an ASUS motherboard with on-board SCSI, 524M of RAM, two Seagate Ultrawide 4.3G SCSI disks, and one 10G IDE disk (I'll explain why a little later). MooseServer also has a 3COM 56K voice/fax (hardware) internal modem (see "A Note About Motherboards and Modems"), Number Nine Video with 16M of VRAM, Python 4mm DAT SCSI tape drive, LS-120 IDE 3.5-inch drive, standard 3.5-inch disk drive, a SoundBlaster and its IDE CD-ROM drive, a Plextor 24X SCSI CD-ROM drive, and a 10Mbps network interface card (NIC) connected to a Thinnet Ethernet LAN. (I use Thinnet rather than CAT5 for shielding because I also have high-powered transmitters for amateur radio.) External to the server is a standard keyboard, Logitech cordless wheel mouse, 17-inch ViewSonic monitor, and an APC SmartUPS 450.

I built this in July 1999, incidentally, when memory prices were at a low point. All in all, I'd estimate conservatively that I saved 50 to 60 percent over a pre-built system, not to mention the improvement in quality, since I didn't cut corners.

The IDE disk drive was necessary because, as I discovered, Windows NT doesn't recognize and therefore can not install on a system with only multiple wide-SCSI drives (bummer). NT does recognize a single wide-SCSI drive system, but I needed the second drive; the work-around was to install an IDE in addition. After I installed NT on the IDE drive, NT magically recognized the two wide SCSI drives. I considered creating a mirror set, but haven't gotten around to doing it yet.

I was also careful to specify Intel processors because Microsoft operating systems are designed to operate on Intel (although yes, there are some AMD-based processors on the HCL). But other processors, in my experience, have incomplete functionality that results in miscellaneous mysterious crashes and corruption. On a serious system, avoid using Intel's Celeron processors, which are cost-reduced, cache-deleted CPUs.

I configured and installed NT Server (with Service Pack 5) with the usual amount of pain and suffering; however, it remained relatively stable and served its intended purpose quite well.

A Note About Motherboards and Modems
An interesting aside on ASUS motherboards: I learned the hard way that ASUS motherboards don't support SCSI CD-RW drives. I went through at least six SCSI CD-RW drives from three manufacturers before I learned about this deficiency. I then changed over to an Abit BX6 motherboard on my workstation machine and solved the problem.

There are basically two types of modems, hardware and software (also called Winmodems). The difference is that the software modems, although less expensive, use the system CPU as a resource, which hurts system performance. The hardware modem has its own CPU and is relatively transparent to the system.

And Then Came Win2K

Fast-forward in time to the point where I decided to install Windows 2000 Server, Release Candidate 2 (RC2). Because I had NT Server with SP5 loaded on the IDE drive, I decided to change the boot option in the BIOS from IDE to SCSI. That meant the system would boot from SCSI drive 0, ignoring the OS on the IDE drive. Conceivably, this would leave my NT system intact and boot up the newly installed Win2K each time instead. If I wanted to run NT, I could always interrupt the boot process. Unlike NT, Win2K supports multiple wide-SCSI drives at installation, which is a great relief. Using the FDISK utility from a DOS boot disk, I set up a 2G partition on SCSI disk 0. This partition was for Win2K.

I had learned from my studies that for Windows 2000, Microsoft requires 685M and recommends a 1G partition. However, Microsoft is known to be ultra-conservative in requirements specifications, so I decided to use a 2G partition for increased flexibility and peace of mind. Besides, I had the space.

A little note about FDISK: some versions, including the one I was running, aren't capable of dealing with NTFS-formatted partitions. If you have an NTFS partition and your NT OS isn't useable, a DOS utility called DELPART will delete the partition. At one point during the setup of the 2G partition for Win2K, I became so frustrated I brought up Windows 95 and loaded a third-party product from PowerQuest Corporation, Partition Magic 4.0, to clear an NTFS partition. It appeared to work but really didn't. Later, I found out that the more recent NT service packs (4 and 5) introduced some "format" changes, which meant that Partition Magic needed a patch to actually function (the patch is available at www.powerquest.com/downlwd). Meanwhile, Partition Magic 5.0 has been released and doesn't require a patch.

Now all I had to do was drop the Windows 2000 Server CD in the IDE CD-ROM drive and boot up. Of course, to do this you must have the CD-ROM boot option specified in the BIOS. Installing Windows 2000 takes about an hour--about the easiest OS install I've ever done.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has apparently continued its trademark "interference tradition" with Windows 2000. (Although, to be fair, this was RC2--this may have been fixed in the final release, although I find it doubtful. This isn't a problem Microsoft's target customers would encounter since I was using multiple operating systems.) In spite of being loaded on its own disk drive, Win2K managed to make NT Server on the IDE disk totally unusable. I couldn't salvage it even with a current, valid R-Disk! That's a good thing to know up front. To be safe, assume that any files on your system may be corrupted after installing Win2K, and back up anything you want to preserve. Another approach might be to disable any disks other than the one you're putting the OS on, but I have yet to prove that method.

It's also a good idea to format your disk with NTFS (or EFS, Encrypted NTFS) right from the start if you plan to use the file-level security features [For more information on security in Windows 2000, see Roberta Bragg's cover story. --Ed.] This is preferable to a "conversion" later on because you have a better chance of avoiding Master File Table (MFT) fragmentation. A Windows NT 4.0 network installation requires a FAT partition, but Win2K supports either FAT or NTFS (EFS).

Win2K also uses "dynamic" disks. Under the Computer Management menu, you can access and administer disks. If you write "signatures" on any new disk, no earlier version of Windows (or anything else, I suspect) will be able to access the disk --so be careful when you set up your system!

Just as with its predecessor, NT 4.0, Windows 2000 (at least RC2) is extremely prone to fragmentation. In fact, after you install the operating system, you'll need to defrag your disk. Microsoft (sort of) acknowledges this by including a defragmentation utility with the operating system, Executive Software's Diskeeper (www.diskeeper.com). Unfortunately, it's a super-light manual version of the product. I suggest you upgrade to the real thing when it becomes available (probably with Win2K). The Diskeeper product for Windows NT 4.0 doesn't run (or even load) on Win2K, so you can add that to your expense list.

Configuring Win2K

After you successfully load the OS, you need to "configure" it (this means working with Active Directory, Dynamic DNS, and more), which takes some more time. Compared to NT, Win2K Server takes longer to boot up, and I found it to be sluggish, which is distressing. It seems to take a long time doing anything, and I've yet to figure out why. The difference between Server and Advanced Server was notable. I can only hope that the final version will be optimized for stability, which translates into fewer features to slow things down. At this point, nothing was loaded on the system other than the OS, which eliminated third-party programs as contributing factors. I still haven't resolved where the speed degradation came from--it could be the OS; it could also be some combination of hardware that I haven't yet pinpointed.

In a classroom setting, we used the Advanced Server version on single processor systems with 128M of RAM; they seemed considerably more responsive than even the low-end Win2K Server is on my dual-processor system. I checked via Task Manager, and the CPUs were mostly idle, but there were 47 processes running.

In any case, it was easy enough to configure dial-up networking; Internet Explorer appeared on the scene quickly. The Internet response was nominal; however, it took a long time to disconnect. I began to wonder if the sluggishness was associated only with the product version (Server vs. Advanced Server), or if it had to do with the multi-processor kernel--or both.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I removed (reformatted the disk) Win2K Server and loaded Advanced Server (also RC2). Again, the installation went smoothly (no looking around for assorted SCSI or video driver disks, as you must with NT). Preliminary observations suggest that Advanced Server is, in fact, much more responsive than Server under an identical set of conditions.

About that Home Network

My admittedly small home network has just one server, since the purpose is to study and manipulate the Windows NT and 2000 operating systems. On a larger network with multiple servers, you'd experience another Win2K drawback--lots of replication and the delays (latency) that are introduced. Those delays can be considerable (52 minutes or more), according to my training and experience, and "forced" replication doesn't always work--very annoying. Forced replication instructs the system to replicate immediately instead of waiting for preplanned replication intervals. Wide Area Networks (WANs), therefore, face real challenges due to Active Directory replication latency.

Home networks are excellent playgrounds for studying and manipulating the various attributes of an operating system. Whether you're an aspiring administrator or seasoned professional, you can create a world that allows plenty of experimentation. In addition, you can reap the benefits of larger networks by being able to share resources among family members. Creating a home network is not only feasible and affordable, but can be a lot of fun too.

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