Just about every day, I receive at least one letter from a reader debating the point of whether Windows 2000 is the next step beyond Windows NT or Windows 98. Although Windows 2000 has been shipping since February 2000 and you’ve probably seen dozens of conflicting opinions about it, I thought I’d try and distill some of the differences between Windows 2000 and its predecessors. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll explain what parts of Windows 2000 were borrowed from each of these operating systems, and answer the question of whether Windows 2000 is the proper successor to Windows NT and Windows 98.
Since the release of Windows NT version 4 and Windows 95, the Windows NT and Windows 9x operating systems have been very similar on the surface. Just take a look around and you’ll see that both operating systems have similar menus, accessories, and other features. Of course we all know that Windows NT and Windows 9x are totally different below the surface. One of the most important differences is in the way the two operating systems are intended to be used.
As you’re no doubt aware, Windows 9x is the definitive operating system for home use. Practically every PC on the shelf at most computer stores is sold with Windows 9x as the operating system. The big exceptions are machines that are intended for business use, which often ship with Windows NT, and Macintosh systems, which I’m not about to touch. Windows 9x is designed to run just about any software. You can run programs designed for Windows 9x, Windows 3.x, and DOS. Among other things, Windows 9x is a great platform for games.
Windows NT is intended more for business use. Windows NT’s main selling point is the security it offers. Windows NT comes in two main forms: Windows NT Server and Windows NT Workstation. The idea is that businesses can run Windows NT Server at the server level and Windows NT Workstation at the desktop level.
Although Windows NT is designed to run the same types of software as Windows 9x, there are some software packages that simply won’t run under Windows NT because of its memory model and because of its limited support for some hardware devices. For example, many games either won’t run at all under Windows NT or will perform very poorly.
So the question is: Where does Windows 2000 fit in? If you look at the intended use, Windows 2000, like Windows NT, is geared more toward businesses. For starters, there’s the warning that’s printed on the Windows 2000 Professional box that states that the product isn’t intended for home use. Like Windows NT, Windows 2000 also offers client and server products. In a pure Windows 2000 environment, a user could run Windows 2000 Professional at the desktop level and Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, or Windows 2000 Data Center Server at the server level.
Another bit of evidence that supports the idea that Windows 2000 isn’t designed to replace Windows 9x is the fact that Microsoft is releasing a new operating system called Windows Me. Windows Me is little more than Windows 98 with a few bug fixes and added features. The core operating system has changed slightly, but most users will never notice this change. Windows Me should be shipping by the time you read this.
However, the problem is that many businesses rely on Windows 9x for their workstations. In an effort to make Windows 2000 Professional the definitive workplace operating system, Microsoft has removed some Windows 9x features from Windows Me, such as network support for some operating systems. As a matter of fact, Windows Me doesn’t even fully support all the features in Windows 2000 Server’s Active Directory. If you move to Windows 2000 Server for your servers, you won’t get all the benefits if you use Windows Me or 9x on your workstations.
The big selling point for Windows NT is its security system. Windows NT offers the ability to lock down a system very tightly. Windows 9x, on the other hand, offers very little security. Sure, you can use system policies within Windows 9x, but they are difficult to manage, and aren’t even installed by default. Windows NT requires you to enter a password before it will even allow you to access a local, nonnetworked system.
If you look at Windows 2000, the security system is much more like Windows NT than like Windows 9x. In fact, the Windows 2000 security system is actually much more advanced than the Windows NT security system.
Windows 2000 offers all the standard Windows NT security features, such as NTFS permissions, and the ability to base network and local security around user names and passwords. However, in Windows 2000 this is just the tip of the iceberg. Windows 2000 contains security features that aren’t found in either Windows NT or Windows 98. For example, Windows 2000 natively supports digital certificates, and offers symmetric multikey encryption.
Core operating system
So far, you’ve seen that Windows 2000 is similar to Windows NT in its intended use and its security model. However, you may be wondering about the core operating system. After all, it isn’t unthinkable that Microsoft could simply add security enhancements to Windows 9x.
Before you can discuss the Windows 2000 core operating system, it’s necessary to understand a little bit about the inner workings of Windows 9x and Windows NT. Windows 98 mixes 16-bit and 32-bit modes. The primary operating system uses and supports 32-bit code. However, the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files make it possible to load 16-bit drivers during the boot process through an MS-DOS style interface. In fact, Windows 9x actually runs on top of MS-DOS. Because Windows 9x runs on top of a 16-bit operating system, there are limits to the amount of memory that Windows 98 will use. Windows 98 will only recognize the first 128 MB of memory in a system. Anything over 128 MB will be ignored.
Windows NT, on the other hand, is a purely 32-bit operating system. Unlike Windows 9x, Windows NT doesn’t run on top of DOS. Instead, Windows NT runs on top of a 32-bit module called the Windows NT kernel. Windows NT does have a CONFIG.SYS and an AUTOEXEC.BAT file, but they’re only there to offer some backward compatibility with older programs. Windows NT can’t use the 16-bit DOS-style drivers that are normally loaded in the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files.
The 32-bit design of Windows NT has good and bad points. The upside is that Windows NT supports much more memory than Windows 9x does. In fact, unless you’re running a very large server there’s a good chance that you’ll never have to worry about exceeding Windows NT’s memory limits. The downside to Windows NT’s design is that it severely restricts the hardware it can run on.
Although today you can get Windows NT drivers for most hardware, this wasn’t the case a year or two ago. Even with the high availability of drivers, you shouldn’t even try to use a hardware device that doesn’t appear on Microsoft’s Windows NT Hardware Compatibility List. Of course, such stringent hardware requirements make for a very stable operating system.
Windows 2000 most closely follows the Windows NT memory model. Windows 2000 runs on top of a Windows NT-style kernel, and also supports very large amounts of system memory. Like Windows NT, Windows 2000 has a hardware compatibility list. However, in spite of these facts, Windows 2000 is a little less stringent than Windows NT.
Windows 2000 uses a different device driver model than Windows NT or Windows 9x. As you might expect, the new driver model uses Windows 2000-style device drivers. However, in most cases, Windows 2000 can also use Windows NT drivers. In some cases, it can even use Windows 98 drivers, occasionally including Plug and Play devices. Plug and Play capabilities didn’t even exist in Windows NT, but they’re fully supported in Windows 2000.
In any operating system, it’s helpful to be able to boot to a command prompt when problems occur. After all, if you’re limited to using only the GUI, how do you fix the problem if the GUI malfunctions? This is the dilemma that Windows NT users have faced for years. Since Windows NT didn’t run on top of DOS, there was no booting to DOS to fix problems. Windows 9x users, on the other hand, have enjoyed this ability all along. Windows 9x also offers something called Safe Mode, which allows you to load the operating system with a minimum set of drivers, so you can easily correct driver-related problems without having to use the often complex commands associated with a DOS environment. Windows NT includes something called VGA Mode, which is similar to Safe Mode except that the only driver it disables is the video driver. Therefore, if you load an invalid network card driver and it prevents the system from booting, you’d be able to correct the problem through Windows 98’s Safe Mode, but not through Windows NT’s VGA mode.
Windows 2000 uses the best of both worlds. Like Windows NT, Windows 2000 doesn’t load on top of DOS. However, Windows 2000 can boot to a DOS-like environment called the Recovery Console. From the Recovery Console, you can run most of the same commands that you could in DOS, plus several new commands that are specifically designed to help you fix a crippled system. In addition to the Recovery Console, Windows 2000 also supports VGA Mode and Safe Mode.
As with the recovery options that I just discussed, Windows 2000 uses file systems from both operating systems and throws in some new stuff too. Like Windows 98, Windows 2000 supports the FAT and FAT32 file systems. Windows NT doesn’t support FAT32. Windows 2000 also supports the NTFS file system that was previously only supported through Windows NT, and the CDFS file system that both operating systems use to access CD-ROM drives.
Windows 2000 also extends the capabilities of NTFS by offering a new version. NTFS version 5 supports new features like file encryption and disk quotas.
If you’ve ever tried to install new hardware on a machine that’s running Windows NT, you know that the process can be a bit clumsy. In Windows NT, you have to go through individual hardware-related icons in the Control Panel to install the various types of hardware. For example, if you want to install a network card in Windows NT, you have to do so through the Network icon in the Control Panel. Although you can use the Network icon in the Control Panel to install a network card in Windows 98, you also have the option of using the Add New Hardware Wizard or letting the system automatically detect plug and play devices.
Windows 2000 makes hardware much easier to install than Windows NT does. Windows 2000 borrows heavily from Windows 98 in the hardware configuration department. Windows 2000 offers full plug and play support. It also includes a Windows 98-style Hardware Configuration Wizard. Another feature stolen from Windows 98 is the Device Manager, which is very handy if you need to disable, remove, or reconfigure a malfunctioning hardware device.
One final area in which Windows 2000 borrows heavily from Windows 98 is system tools. Windows 2000 still includes all the old Windows NT utilities, such as the Event Viewer and the Server Manager. They just exist in the form of Microsoft Management Console snap-ins instead of standalone programs. However, Windows 2000 also includes some of the Windows 98 system tools.
If you wanted to defragment a hard disk in Windows NT, you had to buy a third-party utility. However, the disk defragmentation tool that Windows 9x users have enjoyed for years has been adapted for Windows 2000.
Another handy Windows 98 tool that’s included in Windows 2000 is the System Information program. This program allows you to see very detailed diagnostic information about the way your system is configured.
All things considered, I think it’s safe to say that Windows 2000 is the next step beyond Windows NT. However, Windows 2000 is a much better operating system (or will be after a few service packs) than Windows NT, because of the features that it borrows from Windows 98.
Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.