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Windows for Workgroups: Hauling the Data on the Microsoft Line

Once more into the breech! Microsoft, after years of playing second fiddle to Novell in the LAN market, now enters the networking battle field with Windows for Workgroups (WinWork). WinWork adds peer-to-peer networking functionality to Windows 3.1.

This bold combination of today’s most popular graphical user interface (GUI) and LAN-capability bids to tilt the network playing field in Microsoft’s favor. Or, at least that’s what Microsoft hopes anyway. The reality is somewhat different.

WinWork Basics

WinWork does more than just add peer-to-peer networking to Windows. The real news in WinWork is that it transforms Windows from a single user program to a groupware program. The integrated electronic-mail and scheduler programs enable users to move beyond file and peripheral sharing into the realm of co-operative work. While WinWork is no Lotus Notes, or WordPerfect Office, it could be an ideal solution for small workgroups seeking the benefits of co-operative work.

This impression is re-enforced by features like network-aware Dynamic Data Exchange (NetDDE) and the Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI). NetDDE enables DDE-aware applications to send and receive information across the network. MAPI gives Windows a standardized messaging framework that promises to make it possible to easily and transparently integrate Windows mail functions with enterprise or even intersystem e-mail.

The State of WinWork

How do all the features work in reality? Some of them live up to their promise, others fall short of the mark. The peer-to-peer network itself works fairly well when it stands alone.

Installation, either from scratch or as an upgrade, can go quite smoothly. One unexpected development was just how long it took to upgrade an existing copy of Windows 3.1. Starting with the network interface card (NIC) and cabling already in place, it took forty minutes to install on our test Gateway 2000 25 MHz 386DX system with 8 MBs of RAM and a fast ESDI hard drive. Upgrading Windows 3.1 on a Gateway 2000 25 MHz 486SX with 4 MBs of RAM and a Conner IDE drive took an hour and twenty minutes. There were times when we thought that the installation program had died, but it eventually finished.

WinWork is compatible with a wide variety of Ethernet and token-ring NICs. In our test setup we used Artisoft AE-2 and AE-3 boards and Eagle Technologies NE-2000 NICs. The WinWork installation routine automatically and correctly identified these cards.

The installation program, on other hand, did not deactivate existing network drivers for these cards. This caused the system to freeze up until the pre-existing drivers were removed from the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. Other than that, NIC compatibility with WinWork is almost a given with standard NICs.

Installing WinWork with an existing network is another kettle of fish. WinWork is compatible with Novell NetWare 2.15 or higher and Microsoft LAN Manager, but WinWork has problems on the NetWare side of life.

Not the least of these woes is that WinWork is incompatible with Open Data-Link Interface (ODI), a driver family for NetWare. WinWork does work with the other popular NetWare driver group, Internet Packet Exchange (IPX). LANs that are already committed to ODI will be unable to use WinWork.

Another problem is that WinWork’s security measures are quite primitive. It is, for example, quite possible to set up a WinWork network without requiring user passwords. This may be fine for a small workgroup, but it’s enough to drive most network administrators to drink.

WinWork allows you to keep passwords in memory for fast log-ons. That also means they’re available for quick stealing by any competent cracker. Taken together, for administrators, WinWork’s ease of setup and lax security spells nothing but trouble.

Even if you do use WinWork’s security measures religiously, you may find its three tiers of access to be insufficient. In WinWork, users may have read and write access, read access or no access to a shared disk or directory. Most NOSs give you far more levels of security for you to find just the right mix of openness and security.

WinWork will not work at all with some networks. While Banyan has announced support for WinWork within their VINES NOS, other NOSs like Artisoft’s LANtastic for Windows have been left out in the cold. While it’s possible to run LANtastic and WinWork over the same cabling, we did exactly that during tests, each network’s nodes were totally unable to communicate with each other.

WinWork Installation Blues

First things first, any system that you’re considering for a WinWork server needs to have 8 MBs of RAM and 200 MBs of hard disk space. Yes, that’s well above what Microsoft recommends, but for decent response at that station, that’s the least we’d recommend.

Server systems should also be hooked into an uninteruptable power supply (UPS). Windows will knock the server out all by itself often enough without letting the power company into the act. Unfortunately, WinWork doesn’t integrate with UPSs the way other LANs do, so WinWork can’t automatically start safely closing down the network in the event that the lights go out.

Next, even though WinWork doesn’t require expert users to set it up, it does require more thought than pulling out the disks and cards and going at it. Device interrupt and address conflicts, proper allocation of network resources, whether Dan can stand having ‘his’ printer suddenly chirping with everyone’s print jobs, these are all issues that must be investigated before you set up the LAN. Planning and precise knowledge of each system’s setup, which can be obtained by using programs like Quarterdeck’s Manifest, are mandatory for establishing any network.

Let’s get down to specifics. WinWork installs easily on disks using data compression programs like Stac Electronics’ Stacker but there are a few oddities. For example, with both compressed drives and removable drives like Bernoulli, WinWork puts its network files in the root directory.

WinWork will _not_ work with disks, however that have been compressed with any current (mid-November 1992) version of Vertisoft System’s disk compression program DoubleDisk. In this case, WinWork appears to install properly, but you’ll get bad or missing file error messages when you reboot the computer.

A far more common problem for administrators to encounter, however, is making Novell NetWare and WinWork work in harmony. Specifically our tests found problems with getting WinWork to co-operate with NetWare’s Network Basic Input/Output System (NetBIOS).

WinWork is NetBIOS compatible, but getting WinWork and Novell’s NetBIOS TSR to work in harmony requires getting your hands dirty with manual modifications of the autoexec.bat and system.ini files. NetWare provides NetBIOS support with a TSR called NETBIOS.EXE. Getting this TSR and WinWork to co-operate takes extensive manual modification to your AUTOEXEC.BAT and SYSTEM.INI files.

Your first step will be, if you didn’t do it during initial installation, will be to install the NetWare support in Windows for Workgroups. You do this from the Control Panel’s Network option.

Next, you’ll make a copy of your AUTOEXEC.BAT file and edit the original with an ASCII editor. Word processors in their normal mode won’t cut the mustard. These insert special formatting characters that turn BAT files into hash. While most word processors can also save files in ASCII format, your safest bet is to use a pure ASCII text editor like MS-DOS’s own EDIT.

No matter what editor you use, you’ll need to insert the line “C:\NETWARE\NETBIOS.EXE” into the AUTOEXEC.BAT file, without quotation marks, after the following lines:

net start <– WinWork network initialized
msipx.com <– WinWork NetWare IPX transport
netx.com /ps=NWserver <– WinWork NetWare shell
login NWserver/username <– WinWork NetWare login to NetWare server

After these changes, you’ll need to edit your SYSTEM.INI file. Here again make a copy of the file and use an ASCII editor. In the [386ENH] section add the line “V86MODELANAS=0”. Under the [NETWORK] section add the line “EXCLUDE=0”. In both cases, you don’t insert the quotation marks. After all this, you’re finally ready to reboot your computer. From here on out, you shouldn’t have any technical problems with getting Novell, NetBIOS applications and WinWork to work together as a team. Security, of course, is another matter entirely.

Post-Installation

Once WinWork was up, the NOS ran fairly smoothly, but there were a few bumps. For example, when a network connection was lost due to a UAE on one server, it took an average of forty-five seconds for the client to report an error. With LANtastic for Windows, the same problem type was brought to the user’s attention in less then three seconds.

This brings to mind another concern. Since WinWork’s server is built on top of Windows, that is to say Windows must be running before the network’s functionality can be used, it’s vulnerable to Windows UAEs. It’s bad enough when one computer goes down from an all-too-frequent Windows error, but WinWork extends this fragility to the entire network.

Another problem we encountered was that although you can share an entire drive with other users, that may not mean that they can access specific files on that drive. In our case, we found that even though WinWork Mail’s postoffice was on a shared drive it could not be accessed by a client system. Even giving Mail the exact path to the appropriate directory on the shared drive proved insufficient. The only way to access the postoffice for the first time was to set up a shared drive for the exact path to the mailbox directory.

Mail and Scheduling

Once everything’s in place, WinWork Mail runs as smooth as silk. Unfortunately, WinWork Mail’s limitations quickly become apparent when you try to connect WinWork Mail with the outside world. WinWork Mail is not compatible with e-mail systems using Message Handling System (MHS).

In fact, WinWork Mail doesn’t work with any other existing e-mail or gateway system, including Microsoft’s own Microsoft Mail. Microsoft’s recommendation for users needing full-fledged E-mail is to buy Microsoft Mail 3.0 and use it in place of WinWork Mail.

Schedule+, on the other hand, is an unalloyed pleasure to use. While not as full-featured as Microsoft’s Schedule+ for Windows, WinWork Schedule+ is nothing to sneeze at. It provides full group and individual scheduling facilities that are tightly integrated with WinWork Mail.

NetDDE

One of the brightest stars in WinWork is NetDDE. NetDDE makes it possible to extend DDE links across the network. While no current application can make transparent use of NetDDE, you must make links via the new Clipbook, there’s no doubt that NetDDE will be supported by the next generation of Windows applications.

For right now, however, not every DDE-capable application runs well with NetDDE. In our tests, we found that Lotus’ Ami Pro 3.0 and WordPerfect’s WordPerfect for Windows were unable to maintain reliable NetDDE links. And, as we all know, the only thing worse than no data connection is an untrustworthy data connection.

NetDDE links make it possible for multiple users to access and update data on shared files. The promise of this kind of data sharing is almost unlimited. You could, for instance, set up a sales report in Word containing automatically updated sales figures from half a dozen different Excel spreadsheets scattered across the network.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that NetDDE can be used without security. In a nutshell, without usage restrictions, NetDDE can be easily abused. For example, you could easily set up a spreadsheet reporting on everyone’s salary based on personnel’s spreadsheets. NetDDE brings not only new power to Windows, it also reminds us that, as Lord Acton wrote, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

WinWork Competitors There’s really nothing quite else like WinWork in the market today. Artisoft’s LANtastic for Windows comes closest, but even there we’re comparing apples and oranges. Other low-end networks, like Novell’s NetWare Lite, are not optimized for Windows use and aren’t really comparable to WinWork.

LANtastic for Windows doesn’t provide any of WinWork’s groupware functionality. What it does give you, however, is superior DOS and network operating system (NOS) compatibility and performance. In application tests, the same systems that ran our WinWork tests, ran Windows 3.1 applications about 10% faster with LANtastic for Windows.

LANtastic also enables you to use low-powered systems. With LANtastic, for example, you can use a mid-80s vintage XT to store files, deliver mail and drive a printer. With WinWork, you’d need at least a 386SX with 4 MBs of RAM for the same jobs.

WinWork also falls down when it comes to taking care of DOS users. WinWork’s DOS client program, Workgroup Connection takes up to 100K of RAM just for client services. In comparison, LANtastic only takes 30K.

LANtastic may not be as fancy as WinWork; WinWork Mail’s interface is clearly better than LANtastic’s, and Artisoft has nothing to compare to Schedule+. All that said, many users and administrators will find LANtastic to be the better deal. Performance, reliability, and security, the big three of successful networking, are all clearly in LANtastic’s favor.

WinWork Solutions

For most offices, WinWork is not the right answer. If, on the other hand, your office is small, not likely to be connected to other networks, and is totally Windows based, then WinWork may be right for you. However, there are darn few businesses where that will be the case.

Users with an eye to the future should also be aware that Windows/NT will also have networking capacity built in. What does this mean for WinWork customers? Will Windows/NT leave WinWork as an orphaned NOS? These are good questions, but nobody has good answers

It’s really quite annoying. Taken by itself, WinWork is a fine program. It’s only when you try to fit it into the larger scheme of real-world networking that WinWork’s weaknesses appear. WinWork offers proprietary solutions to a world that wants open system answers.

If this were 1987 and networking was a wide open field, WinWork, warts and all, would have taken over the LAN world. It’s not though, and for all of WinWork’s virtues, WinWork’s security and incompatibility problems make it an alluring, but ultimately unsatisfying solution to most office’s networking needs.

Direct-Market WinWork

One thing’s for certain, WinWork will be easy to find. Major direct-market players like Gateway 2000, Northgate, and CompuAdd are bundling WinWork with their systems. With one stroke, Microsoft joins Novell and Artisoft as primary providers of direct-market networking.

Technical support for your brand-spanking new network may be on the rough side. Except for NorthGate, most vendors bundling WinWork have little experience with installing and maintaining networks. If your mail-order network starts giving you trouble, your best bet may be to go to Microsoft for support rather than the hardware vendor.

When it’s become hard for even the experts to tell the differences between look-alike, work-alike 386s and 486s, bundling WinWork becomes an easy way to stand out from the crowd. Not everyone has jumped on the WinWork bandwagon, however, major clone vendors like Austin, Dell, and Zeos will not be bundling WinWork with their systems.

Whether this strategy works will be determined by you. One thing is clear, however, WinWork-equipped systems will be more expensive than their plain-jane sisters. NICs aren’t cheap. For example, CompuAdd’s ‘shrink-wrapped’ package with WinWork software, documentation and NIC adds $194.99 to a system’s base price.

Even so, WinWork-equipped computers do offer an easy one-stop way of building simple networks. Users looking for their first LAN may find computers with WinWork a hard bargain to resist.

This review was first published in PC Sources in March 1992

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