Selecting the Right Computer Network

Making the choice between Novell and Microsoft.

  • SELECTING THE RIGHT software to run a local area network (LAN) has never been an easy task—and it hasnt become any easier as computer technology has advanced. This article helps CPAs in business and industry and in public practice choose between the two leading network programs—Novells NetWare and Microsofts NT Server.
  • FOR SEVERAL YEARS, Novells NetWare was the standard LAN product, but a few years ago Microsoft entered the field with its NT (new technology), and it is eroding Novells preeminent position.
  • DONT BUY A NETWORK OPERATING system based solely on its advertised features and speed, because, depending on an organizations particular circumstances, what looks good on paper could turn out to be a real disaster once its plugged in.
  • IN GENERAL, NT would be a good choice for a single-office organization with 20 people on the network who share application programs, data files and printers over the network.
  • LIKEWISE, NETWARE WOULD be a better choice for a 50-office national organization with a staff of 1,000 in which each office runs its own network, sharing application programs, data files and printers over the network.
  • NETWARE WOULD BE a good choice also for a 10-office regional business with 300 staffers, where each office is dependent on the others for application programs and data files.
GEORGE W. WILSON, JR., CPA, is partner in charge of information systems and technology for Turner, Wilson & Co., P.C., of Rockville, Maryland. He is a member of the American Institute of CPAs information technology practices subcommittee.

Selecting the right software to run a local area network (LAN) has never been an easy task—and it hasnt gotten any easier as computer technology has advanced. This article provides the basic information to help CPAs in business and industry and in public practice choose between the two leading network programs—Novells NetWare and Microsofts NT Server.

If your organization consists of more than one person with a computer, and each needs to communicate with the others, then give serious consideration to a LAN.

The alternative is to use whats called the sneaker net—where users (presumably wearing sneakers) dash from computer to computer exchanging data on floppy disks. The sneaker net may be low tech, but it works. However, there will come a time when its clear that dashing from workstation to workstation and swapping disks is not very efficient. And when an organization finally recognizes that, its time to doff the sneakers and install a network.

While there are several network programs available, no matter how big or small your organization is, the real choices have narrowed to just two giant vendors: Novell and Microsoft. Novells NetWare has been the standard LAN product for years and it controls the lions share of the market. But a few years ago Microsoft entered the field with its NT (which stands for New Technology). NT got off to a very slow start, but last year the product suddenly caught on and it is quickly eroding Novells preeminent position. Novell is fighting back: It is about to introduce its new upgrade—code named Green River—designed to square off with NT. Since Green River is not yet available, I examined Novells latest version—NetWare 4.1. The Microsoft product I looked at for this review is Windows NT Server 4.0, its latest upgrade.

Before recommending how to choose between the competing products, here are some basics about each program.

Minimum requirements. NetWare is designed to operate only on the Intel (the leading producer of computer chips) computer platform. While Novell says its software needs a minimum of a 386-version computer with 8 megabytes (Mb) of random-access memory (RAM), realistically it makes no sense trying to operate even a small LAN with such sparse hardware. NetWare should not be run on anything less than a 486, but as a practical matter, it really needs a Pentium system with at least 32 Mb to 64 Mb of RAM to run fast and effectively. With RAM prices being as low as they are today (less than $150 for 16-Mb modules), dont skimp on memory; ample RAM makes a major difference in the speed and flexibility of a network.

Unlike NetWare, NT is designed to operate on multiple computer platforms—Intel, MIPS Technologies, Power PC and Digital Equipment. Microsoft says NT needs at least a 486 processor with 16 Mb of RAM. But again, it runs better on an upgraded computer with double or even triple the RAM requirement. Although it would appear that NetWares minimum requirements are less than those of NT, as a practical matter the hardware for both should be very similar.

In large organizations, where a LAN is served by more than one computer working as a server, network operating software must be able to support multiple processors for simultaneous operation. While both programs can handle multiprocessing, NT is unique in that it automatically detects multiple processors during the installation and efficiently configures itself accordingly. NT can support up to four processors with standard, out-of-the-box software and can handle up to 32 processors with special Microsoft software added.

NetWare also can support multiple processors, but it requires the addition of special software support from one of several hardware vendors, such as Compaq, and that software must be installed separately. Its likely that Green River will address this shortcoming.

Further, because of the way NT is designed, when multiple processors are working in tandem, the software intelligently distributes the workload among the several processors. NetWare, on the other hand, is unable to automatically balance the load, which on occasion adversely affects its performance.

How important is multiprocessing? Although most offices today dont need it, that will be changing soon—especially for medium-size to large offices. As users begin to add computer-intensive applications, such as client/server databases, there is a great benefit in speed and efficiency when more than one processor serves the network. So unless your organization is very small, plan ahead for a multiprocessor environment.

Installation. For someone who has never installed a network operating system, NT would be the system to install. For a small office, the installer does not have to be a highly experienced computer network guru to do the job since NT automatically detects installed hardware and selects or recommends drivers for it. As stated earlier, it will also detect multiple processors and install the necessary support software.

Although NetWares installation is straightforward, its lack of an auto-detect feature raises some problems for the installer, who needs to identify the hardware in the system before beginning the task. Again, its likely that Green River will address that shortcoming.

Ease of installation can have a major impact on the cost of the project even if a professional does the job. The easier the installation, the less likely technical problems will arise and the more likely the whole job will get done quickly.

Fault tolerance. No matter how far technology has advanced, software and hardware problems still crop up. How well a network operating system handles such problems is called, in computer jargon, fault tolerance—the ability of the system to handle software and hardware failures without bringing down the entire network. Network managers seek to alleviate problems with various technologies. They use, for example, redundant hard disks (so that data are simultaneously stored on more than one disk), and some even use redundant servers. Safeguards also are installed in the network software. Both NetWare and NT have many of the same protection features built in.

NetWare offers what is known as SFT (system fault tolerance), a method of mirroring everything on the server (simultaneously copying data from one server onto another computer or another hard disk on the server). Until recently, NetWare had the only system for such a safeguard. Although Microsoft has no counterpart to SFT, third-party vendors have begun to release similar systems for NT. These redundant systems were designed for the earlier version of NT—version 3.51—and I have not yet tested these features on the latest version.

NT offers another safety feature called RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) Level 5 (a measure of safety). Although NTs RAID Level 5—a mostly software rather than a totally hardware solution—does slightly slow NTs performance, it is far less costly to implement than its hardware-only counterpart.

Both NT and NetWare let users label files with names as long as 255 characters—not the conventional 11-character limit. That may not seem important, but the ability to name a file by some realistic title, such as "George Smiths new product project for 1997," instead of "," is much more user-friendly. Also, seeking a years-old document becomes much easier when the name of the file is fully described by the label. Long file names are available for directory names, too. Just imagine, you could name a directory with a clients name instead of just a number. Long name file support is becoming more critical as more users turn to Windows 95 and NT as their desktop operating systems, which are designed to handle long file names.

Network management. Both programs have built-in tools for administering the network, performing such tasks as creating login passwords and providing access rights to various staffers—a process called trusts. Although both vendors design their tools differently, they generally work in a similar way—with one major exception. NetWare has a big advantage when administering a large, complex network that has more than one server. A NetWare administrator, by sitting at one location, can do all the housekeeping chores—including giving staffers access rights to various servers. With NT, that job is more difficult. The administrator has to program each server individually to give users rights to access that server.

On the other hand, NT includes wizards—little help programs that walk you through the required steps to add users and groups, manage file access and perform other administrative tasks. These wizards help the less-experienced user manage the network with few headaches. NetWare has no counterpart to wizards.

Performance. For years, NetWare has been the performance leader in this field, but now the gap has closed. Microsoft engineers have continually addressed performance issues with each release of the product. Novell designed NetWare to provide very fast file and print services, which means its been engineered to quickly evoke a file and, if asked, to print it. Microsoft, on the other hand, designed NT to primarily provide a stable (crash resistant) server platform. While NT, of course, does an excellent job of supporting file and print services, its primary emphasis is on safety. So, what Novell gained in performance, it gave up in stability, and Microsoft sacrificed some performance for stability.

Keep in mind that this difference doesnt mean that NetWare will always crash and NT will always run without problems. NetWare has been around a long time and is very stable inherently. The problem is that in a NetWare environment, file and print services are not the only services running. Non-Novell programs, such as backup and virus protection, are being executed on the server processor and occasionally misbehave; when they do, the server crashes.

Internet connectivity. The Internet caught these two giant software firms off guard about a year ago. Neither had much built-in support for the Internet, and both companies have been scrambling to correct that omission. With version 4.0, Microsoft has forged ahead of Novell in this area. NT includes a Web server, an authoring and management tool and a component that can be downloaded to automatically index documents on the server.

NetWare 4.1 does not include any Internet-aware applications at this time. However, Green River will include a Web server and the Netscape Navigator browser when it is released.

The bottom line is this: Both NetWare and NT are excellent network operating systems. However, each is designed to run best under different circumstances. Unfortunately, matching a potential users circumstances to an operating system is not easy. The accompanying sidebar, "Which Network Operating System for Your Office?", offers some guidelines for making a decision. However, its wise to bring in a network specialist to help make the call. Be sure the expert you pick is not biased toward either product and has experience in installing both.

Since the network market is big and growing even bigger, huge financial stakes are involved for both Microsoft and Novell. As a result, both are marketing their network products aggressively. So be wary. For feature-by-feature comparisons of these network operating systems, tap into the companies respective Web sites at and .

Which Network Operating System for Your Office?

Dont buy a network operating system based solely on its advertised features, because, depending on your organizations particular circumstances, what looks good on paper could turn out to be a disaster once its plugged in.

So how do you make a decision? Recognize that both NT and NetWare are well-designed programs and work well—if they are used for the right jobs. The trick is to match the product to the environment in which it will be used. As a guide, weve created some typical scenarios. See if your organization fits one of them.

Scenario 1. The one-office business is situated in suburbia with 20 people on the network. They share application programs, data files and printers over the network.

Solution. While both NetWare and NT would do the job, NT probably is the better choice. NetWare would be harder to maintain by your staff. NT, on the other hand, could be easily managed by the existing internal staff with little training.

Scenario 2. In a 50-office national organization with a staff of 1,000, each office is independent and has its own network. In each office, staffers share application programs, data files and printers over the network.

Solution. Basically, the only difference between scenarios 1 and 2 is size. Therefore, the solution is the same: NT over NetWare.

Scenario 3. In a 10-office regional organization with 300 staffers, each office depends on the other offices for application programs and data files. In addition, some of the offices need to run heavy-duty client/server applications.

Solution. Although both operating systems could do the job, NetWare is the better choice. Since a map of the relationships between each of the users would look like a spider web, the administrative job of giving access rights to some workstations and not others would be far more difficult with NT than with NetWare.

Another possibility. Use both programs—each doing the job it does best. Since they integrate well, the installation is not particularly difficult. NT would run the application servers and NetWare would provide the file and print services and control individual access of users. Many large offices use this combination and find it very effective.

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