With Windows 2000 now gaining support, everyone is busy trying to find out what back-office products they can confidently use with the Server edition of the system. Yet suppliers have been strangely quiet about certification of their products for use on Windows 2000 servers.
When Microsoft revamped the system, it initiated a certification programme that enables applications suppliers to display a Windows 2000 certification logo on their products. The company released the most up-to-date version of the Server application specification on 9 December 1999. Microsoft's partner, VeriTest, which acts as the independent testing body for third-party applications, started testing service software for compliance with the spec on 31 January.
So, why have so few people been able to push their products through the Windows 2000 certification process? Microsoft's Web site shows that fewer than 30 companies have had their applications certified for use with Windows 2000, but it does not specify which edition of the operating system the certificates were granted for: Professional, for the desktop; Server, where the back-office products will run; or Advanced Server, the high-performance, clustered server-based version of the operating system. Certification results at VeriTest's site reveal that only 11 companies have had applications officially certified for the Server edition of the operating system.
Mark Zasada, vice-president of IT product certification programmes at VeriTest in the US, argues that many companies have opted for Windows 2000 Ready approval instead. Microsoft launched this initiative in a bid to provide a less strict compatibility process. Just because a software supplier's application is not Windows 2000-certified does not mean that it has to turn its back on the operating system altogether.
Attaining Windows 2000 Ready approval means you have tested your product for compatibility with Windows 2000, and it also guarantees that you provide your customers with the same level of support for Windows 2000 applications as for other versions of Windows. Companies can register their product by signing a statement of compatibility. If neither Certified nor Ready approval has been achieved, you can sign a statement of intent. The difference between a Windows 2000 Certified application and a Windows 2000 Ready one is that the former will utilise the new features in Windows 2000 such as the Active Directory, while the latter avoids crashing.
"Certification is a high standard that requires extensive testing and lays down some stringent rules and good practices," says Zasada. "It takes time to digest the requirements and make adjustments." The bottom-line is that while many companies claim their applications are Windows 2000-compatible, few of them have external proof.
Peter Ollodart, group product manager at Microsoft US, argues that subscribers to the Windows 2000 Ready programme should sign a legal form on the Web, indicating their products work as well under Windows 2000 as they would under Windows NT, and guaranteeing they will provide any patches or workarounds necessary to make an application work with the operating system. He remains unconcerned by the relatively low number of certified applications.
"There are 86 applications out there that are super-important to us, of which we will get half in the next two years on the server," he says, discussing certification for Windows 2000 Server. "I'm not concerned with getting 500 server applications because I don't think the world exists on that."
Software suppliers that want to certify their applications for use with Windows 2000 have a number of hoops to jump through. Microsoft's Server-level Windows 2000 Application Specification document focuses on six main areas (see box).
All this might look simple on paper, but in practice it can be difficult to comply with the specifications. Oliver Thierry, vice-president at application performance management software supplier NetIQ, explains that his company was working on software that would exploit Windows 2000 as early as a year before the specification was finally released.
"We thought we had a Windows 2000-exploited application even before the specification was published," he says, but adds that it still took three months to iron out the bugs after the company received the specification document. "We found that when we tested things, they didn't exactly work as the specification had lined them up," he recalls.
In particular, some Active Directory implementation, with support for the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), a key feature in Windows 2000, needed tightening up.
It is no wonder, then, that so few companies have managed to get their applications certified under the strict Windows 2000 programme. Some of the companies that have made it to certification have done so by cutting corners, according to industry insiders. Zasada protests that the guidelines are very specific, and that the test plan runs to 400 pages. "When we execute the test plan, we note any variations," he says. "Those variations are discussed with Microsoft sometimes, and sometimes the company will allow certain variations. Each of those are documented on the Web site."
Sumir Karayi, managing director of specialist IT services company 1E, says this practice is endemic. For example, he claims that developers will often go through processes that are not documented in order to increase performance. "Certain things are faster if you just bypass everything else," he says. As an example, Karayi explains that officially you should go through Microsoft's Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) interface when making SQL questions, but points out that it is better from a performance perspective to make the query directly.
Thierry admits to taking some shortcuts when building in support for the MMC. Instead of implementing a true 32-bit MMC client on the desktop, he did it using Dynamic HTML. "I considered that to be borderline to the specification, but now if we ever need alterations to the MMC, we just ship out some ASP pages," he explains.
Microsoft has to get its server-based products Windows 2000-certified just like everyone else, and the company has taken the opportunity to revamp its back-office product line, rebranding it under the generic Microsoft Servers umbrella, as part of the process. The company is rushing to get Windows 2000 certification for the new versions. Exchange 2000 Server and SQL Server are at the top of its list, explains Ollodart. Exchange is currently in the laboratory, while SQL Server will go through shortly - it was in its second beta release at the time of writing.
Other products due certification include Commerce Server, Microsoft's electronic commerce back-end, and Small Business Server 2000, which was not released at the time of writing. Similarly, Host Integration Server 2000, the follow-on from Microsoft's Systems Network Architecture Server, went into its second beta test in May.
Companies that use existing Microsoft Back Office products may have to download service packs to get their products working effectively with Windows 2000. One example of this is Back Office Server 4.0. Users must download the Back Office Server 4.5 Readiness Kit for Windows 2000 Server, which will resolve some problems, including Web administrator incompatibilities. Systems Management Server 2.0 also needs a service pack to run on Windows 2000, but the service pack was in beta-testing at the time of writing. Users of Microsoft's Proxy Server 2.0 also need a patch.
The company is also planning some new Back Office products for Windows 2000, in the form of Biztalk Server 2000 and Application Center 2000. Biztalk server will enable companies to send and receive extensible markup language-based electronic trading documents, complete with business rules, for business-to-business e-commerce. The Application Center is designed to make application software more scalable, supporting load balancing across a number of servers, and rendering distributed software applications viewable as a single logical image.
It is essentially Microsoft's offering in the Internet application server market, and will appeal to developers of e-commerce applications that want to use the company's DNA development architecture. Neither of these products has been released, and Biztalk server has slipped a long way from its original 1999 release date.
Microsoft, like everyone else with a large enough market share, is trying to get Windows 2000 certification for its back-office products. Like other suppliers, however, the company has to go through a set of stringent tests to ensure that its software uses the new features of Windows 2000 Server properly. While the Windows 2000 Ready programme may give end-users some peace of mind, it is not foolproof, and it doesn't necessarily mean that such products will make full use of the features within Windows 2000. Yet the features are the primary reason why many customers will want to migrate to this system.
What programs need to get certificated
This certification area covers issues such as verification testing for kernel-mode drivers, basic stability requirements, provision of 32-bit components and correct Windows version checking.
This area of the document handles the installation and uninstallation process for server-based Windows applications. It dictates that you do not attempt to replace files that are protected by Windows file protection. It also requires support for the add/remove programs function.
Graphical User interface
This is relevant only if a graphical user interface is presented as part of the server application, and covers issues such as documented keyboard access tool features, compatibility with the Windows high-contrast option and the support of standard systems' colour, font and input settings.
This will cause software suppliers the most headaches. Microsoft's Active Directory is a very object-oriented, hierarchical network directory structure. It covers issues such as the appropriate use of the directory, documentation of an application's use of objects and attributes in the directory, and documentation of the impact on your application of the directory service.
Client applications addressing the server application must support Single Sign-On, meaning that one password is used to access all applications. This can be a tough nut to crack for application developers.
This part of the certification process is required for Advanced Server and Data Centre edition approval. It covers installation on two or four nodes (depending on which edition of Windows you are using), and the support of failover services.