March 16, 1998Novell's IP Gets Real
Latest NetWare 5 test version includes fine, subtle enhancements, but a few rough edges still need smoothing
By Tom Stearns
etWare 5 is setting up to be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary major release. The beta I looked at, number 2, has some very beneficial features but these are enhancements to existing features and are more under-the-hood contributions than in-your-face obvious within the interface.
This beta version is really beta quality; Novell puts hard-to-miss warnings on splash screens with the imperative not to use this beta in a production environment. My experience, though largely positive, affirms that warning.
As with NetWare 3.x and 4.x, you begin a standalone installation by working from DOS and invoking INSTALL from the CD-ROM. In the read-me file, Novell warns you to make sure you have the FILES attribute in your CONFIG.SYS file set to at least 30. This didn't register with me-so while NetWare was loading, it crashed with "unable to load file" errors. Since the install had switched into protected mode by that time, I did not think it could be the FILES setting, but it was. Once I changed that setting, the installation procedure continued.
One new feature touted by Novell is the graphical installation. To run the graphical install mode you add a "/g" when you invoke the DOS installation program. I ran it but was unimpressed. Though I realize that this is a beta, its performance was so-so on a 266-MHz Pentium II. It wasn't very much more instructive than the standard NetWare install, text mode. When I wen t to install this beta on a 166-MHz Pentium, with 32 Mbytes of RAM, it was so slow as to be almost impossible to use. It's more interesting for what it might foretell about graphical management tools than for making installation easier.
IP To The Fore
Novell has long admitted that TCP/IP was an important protocol but IPX/SPX was still NetWare's central protocol. With release 5 of NetWare, that has changed; TCP/IP is now king. Previous versions of NetWare encapsulated IP packets in an IPX wrapper which, while functional, added overhead and degraded IP performance. With NetWare 5, IP becomes the lingua franca and IPX moves to compatibility mode. Novell says applications that use IPX will continue to function just fine in this new mode. Even applications that use so-called "dirty hooks" (undocumented functions) will still run. Ironically, this is done by turning around the old model, actually encapsulating IPX packets in an IP packet.
IPX won't disappear. It's still available as a p rotocol in NetWare 5, but Novell is making a clear statement that its future hinges on IP. This transition is going to make a huge improvement in connecting NetWare servers over the Internet, intranets, or VPNs that talk IP. No longer will you have packet bloat from encapsulating packets-and on an IP-only network, you won't incur the overhead from RIP/SAP packets. This will mean improved bandwidth over WAN links. It also means one less protocol to buy for your routers-potentially a big savings.
NetWare 5 offers a much-improved backup function. SBACKUP now supports both auto-loading tape drives and multiple concurrent backups to different devices, and can back up your DOS boot partition, as well. These features are backward-compatible, so you can use the new SBACKUP on previous versions of NetWare. While these features are admirable, they don't put the utility in the league of top-notch enterprise backup tools. Nevertheless, for smaller networks, these new tools will certainly prove adequate.
NetWare 5 now supports virtual memory. NetWare implements this with one or more swap files. The NetWare kernel monitors memory use and moves infrequently used memory contents out to disk storage. This lets you run more NetWare Loadable Modules (NLMs) more efficiently because memory isn't statically allocated. This will contribute to the performance of servers running memory intensive applications such as database and GroupWare servers.
Another memory-related feature is multiple protected-mode partitions. This lets you run NLMs in their own memory space so that if one crashes, the rest of the processes on the server are unaffected. You can also choose to auto-restart such partitions. This means that after memory cleanup, the system can reboot a crashed partition without operator intervention. This is a major step forward in the reliability of the already reliable NetWare product.
Speedy Volume Mounts
NetWare 5 offers a new file system, the NetWare Storage system. Instead of keepi ng a File Allocation Table, which is loaded into memory when the volume boots, NSS uses a b-tree file table. This dramatically speeds the mounting of large volumes. Novell claims that a 1-terabyte volume, the maximum volume size in NetWare 5, can load in just 32 Mbytes of RAM. The NSS volumes will store volume data and metadata in unicode format, making it easier to deal with international networks. Repairing corrupted volumes is also very fast. Novell claims repair takes less than a minute.
NetWare 5 will offer several new ways to control your server. The chief new mechanism is a Java Virtual Machine that will run so you can execute Java code on your server console. NetWare 5 will ship with evaluation versions of Java authoring tools, or you can use any standard tool to create server appli- cations or utilities. Novell also includes the scripting language NetBasic, making it much easier to do more complex activities in a NetWare script. These inclusions will make sophisticated management easily avai lable to the network administrator.
As I said earlier, the graphical installation is, at this point, not really usable. During installation, I got several seemingly ominous warnings about, for instance, the CD-ROM not mounting in the time allowed. Since the install was running from the CD-ROM, I just ignored these errors-and there seemed to be no consequences from that decision.
The beta has to run from a new directory tree; you cannot join an existing one. This is probably to prevent you from using it in a production environment, which is a wise precaution. Once I created my new tree, I shut down the server and rebooted. On the boot up, I got messages about the directory database being corrupt telling me to run DSREPAIR. I ran it and it said it fixed some problems so I rebooted again, but I got the same error message.
Since ignoring error messages worked before, I ignored this one as well. I put a Windows 95 client on the network and tried to attach it to my new server. The default NetWare services supplied with Win95 was able to see the server and its volume. However, I could not run the NetWare administration module. So I installed the supplied client on my machine. With the Novell client, I was able to run NWADMIN-but I lost my Windows NT domain login and got error messages saying that NT volumes were not found. I used Find Computer and was able to see and access my NT volumes, but Network Neighborhood denied their existence. Deciding to reboot my workstation, I got a blue screen of death. Resetting the machine seemed to do no harm, but I still could not see my NT volumes. Taking NetWare Client out of my Network control panel solved the NT problem. I finally gave up on NT volumes for the time being and reinstalled the NetWare Client.
These glitches aren't unexpected-but they raise questions about when NetWare 5 will ship. Novell says it will release another beta before the expected summer release. When it does come to market, NetWare 5 will be a potent competitor-and unli ke previous major releases, it won't require a wholesale change to apply it. I'll wait for the shipping version to judge whether NetWare 5 should make NT users think about switching, or whether it's a better upgrade for existing NetWare users. NetWare 5 is promising, but the proof will be in the debugged final release.
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