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A Message to Microsoft: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

David Doering

April 2000 | Although I submitted this column in February, by the time you read this it will be April, and we will all be making progress, or at least peace, with the newest editions of Microsoft's operating system software, Windows 2000. Whether by choice, consensus, or coercion, Microsoft's Windows OS is the operating system spoken the world over, from Tacoma to Tipperary to Timbuktu. You may grant 5% to Linux, 7% to UNIX. You may credit Apple's recent resurgence and estimate its share as high as 10 percent. But as much political debate as Microsoft's pre-eminence has inspired, hardly anyone disputes that the Windows OS is as much a fact of life as the PCs it powers.

So as network administrators, we depend on Microsoft to make our lives easier. Quite some time ago, we also got hip to the versatility and utility of optical media. Almost every software package today comes on CD-ROM and more and more professional-market DVD-ROM titles are also becoming available.

Our archiving systems look towards using CD-R or DVD-R for permanent storage. Many users at network desktops use local CD-R drives to create their own storage discs, and increasingly prize CD-RW's unique status as a widely compatible rewritable medium. But with the increasing demand for higher capacity, many users are now asking about DVD-RAM or other DVD-related rewritable options.

So I was hoping that Microsoft would lead the way in giving users a complete set of file system options within its flagship OS: UDF, NTFS, FAT32, and the like. Or at least follow the example of Adaptec and support read and write capability for CD-R, as Bob Starrett once speculated that its predecessor, Windows 98, might do in a long-ago CD WRITER [See June 1996, p. 112 and December 1999, p. 44--Ed.]. But Microsoft left us scratching our heads again.

According to Microsoft, Windows 2000 does support the UDF 1.5 specification, which covers CD-RW and DVD-RAM. But there's one catch, and a big one at that: support is read-only, not read-write. So Windows 2000 continues the same level of UDF support the product had in Windows 98 three years ago: UDF v1.02 with a partial improvement to v1.5. Granted, this lets Win2K read CD-RW and UDF-formatted CD-R discs, which Win98 couldn't. But two years ago, we were already wondering about the delay in fully supporting optical storage.

As Dana Parker so aptly put it in her April 1998 STANDARD DEVIATIONS column [p. 47--Ed.], "A UDF redirector will be built into Windows 98 and NT 5 [now Windows 2000 Advanced Server], and into Macintosh OS 8.1, primarily because native UDF support is required for DVD. But there's a distinct possibility that including operating system support for read-only DVD in the UDF format might be as far as Microsoft's or Apple's commitment goes."

And that's exactly what we're left with today. Two more years of rapidly selling CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-ROM into business PCs doesn't seem to have changed Microsoft's commitment. Microsoft does say, however, that it will "support writability in future versions of the operating system." But the overwhelming change in the market towards full-time, immediate data accessibility with the Internet makes data storage a critical component of every operating system now. Microsoft's decision to hold back universal write support for optical drives does a grave disservice to network users everywhere.

While there are many fine and useful third-party packages out there capable of supporting full read-write on CD or DVD, this is not the preferred solution for network administrators or users. This has been true of almost all the current "features" of the Microsoft OS. Windows gained compression technology, virus protection, browser capability, and many services that had already existed in the market with third-party packages.

Experience shows that many users won't tackle a third-party package, no matter how simple the install or the ease-of-use, preferring instead to use what comes with the operating system itself. (Just ask Netscape about this one.) For administrators, having to obtain, install, train, and maintain a third-party package is a significant effort that many of them avoid. Senior management doesn't like more buying decisions when it comes to IT infrastructure. And choosing a third-party file system is definitely another buying decision, and a low priority for management.

Add to this the availability of the newly completed UDF 2.0 specification, which further strengthens the value of optical storage for network use. Version 2.0 supports the retention of a file's Access Control List (ACL) to the CD or DVD disc. The ACL specifies the rights that users have to that particular file. In the past, copying a file to a CD or DVD meant erasing any restrictions an administrator might have placed on that file. With UDF 2.0, those restrictions carry over to the new medium--thus protecting it from unauthorized users.

Keeping the ACL naturally is high on administrators' wish lists. But if Microsoft only provides read-level support to UDF 1.5, with a vague promise of full read-write later on, how long before UDF 2.0 gets a nod? Wake up, Microsoft. Either take the lead in helping network administrators take advantage of contemporary technology, or just step aside and let another, more capable OS run the show.

Note: See Microsoft's position on UDF at: http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/backgrnd/html/nt5storage.htm

The Network ObServer columnist David Doering (dave@techvoice.com), an EMedia contributing editor, is also senior analyst with TechVoice Inc., an Orem, Utah-based consultancy.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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