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The History of Windows NT 4
Taking the Server Market
Windows NT 3.1 had received several updates following its release in July of 1993. The Daytona release (3.5) was focused on size, performance, compression, and Novell NetWare compatibility. This release also “finished” several features that appeared in 3.1 according Mark Lucovsky. Size and performance are things that matter to this day, but compression and NetWare aren’t often considered. Compression was a big deal in the 1990s as disk space was expensive. NetWare simply dominated the commercial networking arena having 90% of the PC-based server market. Novell didn’t care much about Windows NT, and they weren’t certain as to whether or not a client for NT would be successful in the market. As a result, Microsoft made their own. Even after Novell did ship a NetWare client and server for NT, many continued to use Microsoft’s client. Unlike NetWare, Compression got dropped as a primary concern. On the performance front, a key win was found in new compiler technologies Microsoft had been working on in their languages division. If you are old enough to remember Visual C++ versions 4 and 5, this will immediately make sense to you. The performance gains were dramatic enough that Daytona and later versions of NT wouldn’t suffer the same obloquy that NT 3.1 did around this issue. Daytona shipped in September of 1994.
Daytona was followed by “the Power PC release,” (3.51), which was so named as it was designed around the IBM Power PC. IBM was late on their chips which meant that this release was split from the Daytona release. The PPC release shipped in May of 1995.
In the April issue of BYTE magazine from 1996, we see a small article about NT 4.0 which was internally known as the Shell Update Release.
An early beta had already been released, and as such, quite a bit was already known about this upcoming operating system version. Daytona had made some serious progress on the NT code base and all of its technologies. The NT team wanted to build a desktop that included Windows 95’s Explorer shell, but used NT’s better technical footing. This wasn’t as simple as it might at first seem. Lukovsky stated:
We eventually moved the Win32 GUI components and hosted them as an in-process driver. Performance was one side effect. We had had problems taking that API and running it in a different process. So moving the code to the same context as the runtime solved a lot of issues. We didn't have to do dead lock detection for GDI and USER. It was significant work, but it solved a lot of headaches.
What he’s referring to is that in architecture, things weren’t just Daytona with a fresh coat of paint. GDI was moved to kernel mode rather than being a user mode process. This change meant that a context switch was eliminated in calling GDI functions greatly increasing performance. A downside was that graphics and print drivers would also move to kernel mode. This greatly complicated porting graphics drivers to NT 4 and caused some stability issues as a result. It also meant that while DirectX 2 shipped with NT 4, Direct3D did not. This hindered some games and graphically intensive applications, but these weren’t necessarily the erstwhile target for NT; servers and business workstations were.
The most cutting reality is that some technologies supported in Windows 95 were missing from NT 4. For example, NT 4 lacks Plug and Play support as well as Device Manager, and USB support is also absent.
Windows NT 4.0 was released to manufacturing on the 31st of July, and was available to the public on the 24th of August. While it may have lacked some rather nice features that 95 had, it brought some of its own. System Policies and the System Policy Editor were introduced in NT 4 as were Sysprep (deployment tool), Task Manager, Message Queueing, IIS, FrontPage 1.1, NetShow, Remote Access Service, Multi-Protocol Routing, and Microsoft Cluster Server.
Upon release, Windows NT 4 was available for 32 bit x86, DEC Alpha, MIPS, and PowerPC and it came in two versions, Workstation and Server. The introductory price for Server was $1129 (around $2209 in 2023) or $539 (around $1054 in 2023) for the upgrade version. The server version of the OS included Internet Information Services (IIS), and this was a rather big deal. The internet was new and it was vital to any server operating system. While Daytona had brought NetWare to NT, SUR brought improved TCP/IP, a webserver, a gopher server, and an FTP server. IIS was the arguably quickest and easiest way to deploy a web server at the time.
Six service packs were released for NT 4. MIPS would only receive the first service pack which was made available on the 16th of October in 1996, and Power PC would receive only SP1 and SP2 with two having released on the 14th of December in 1996. Alpha and x86 received all six. These service packs brought bug fixes and performance improvements as well as many modernizations to NT 4 during its lifetime. Among those modernizations were things such as SMP, MMC and snap-ins, SMB packet signing, RRAS, PPTP, and NTFS3. SP3 was released on the 15th of May in 1997. SP4 was released on the 25th of October in 1998. SP5 was released on the 4th of May in 1999. SP6 was released on the 27th of October 1999. A seventh service pack was planned, but it was ultimately canceled. SP6a was released on the 22nd November of 1999 and was the last service pack for NT 4. Microsoft had been in touch with their customers, and they’d discovered that customers hadn’t been using every service pack. Instead, they tended to use some number of service packs in combination with hotfixes aiming for the least disruption to workflow as was possible. A security pack rollup was then released on the 26th of July in 2001.
In 1997, Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0 Server Enterprise Edition. This was a release targeted at high-demand and high-traffic scenarios, and this release contained the improvements from service packs one through three. Presaging later NT releases, Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition in 1998. This release was important due to allowing remote logon which we now know as Remote Desktop.
While NT 4 integrated many things found in the Plus! pack for Windows 95, it had its own Option Pack. This was a free and bundled CD of optional components that first shipped around 1998. This included IIS 4.0 with Active Server Pages and several other server oriented products. Importantly for pretty much any NT 4 user, it included the Microsoft Management Console and SMTP.
Windows NT 4 significantly changed the position of Windows NT and Microsoft more generally within the corporate market. In a comparison with corporate UNIX of the time period, NT offered automatic hardware detection, more network protocols, more file sharing protocols, vendor supplied device drivers, role-based access, security auditing, and standard application installation/deployment locally or over a network. Microsoft was also seen as a stable and robust company that’d be dependable over a long period of time, while many of the major UNIX vendors were on shaky footing. That NT 4 was available on all major hardware platforms (except for SPARC) was also a major point in Microsoft’s favor. This was especially true as NT 4 was available on x86 which was significantly less expensive than MIPS, SPARC, Alpha, or PPC. Unlike any UNIX operating system at that time, NT worked well with Windows clients as well as with UNIX servers in a network, and it offered an API that was available on multiple architectures and operating system variants at various price points. Training and support costs were also reduced with NT in comparison to UNIX. After all, many people ran Windows 95 at home and could therefore easily navigate NT 4, but exceedingly few people had any exposure to UNIX outside of a corporate or a university environment. In the first 30 days, NT 4 sold more than one hundred fifty thousand units, and it was growing at double the rate of other server operating systems. All of this meant that by the end of 1996, Microsoft Windows NT 4 Server overtook Novell NetWare. Among Microsoft’s many customers were Bell Atlantic, Continental Airlines, General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Monsanto, and Saturn. Many more would follow.
NT 4 shows us just how quickly things were changing in the 1990s. While NT 3.x had support IBM’s MCA bus, NT 4 did not. The dropping of various hardware architectures in favor of x86 is also telling. The WinTel PC standard created by the clone makers was conquering all foes, even those workstation and server competitors. There was a combination of price, performance, and ease of use that was simply unmatched in the market by any other competitor. Strong backwards compatibility certainly helped as well as people could continue to see value from previous software investments. NT 4 didn’t have the sales figures of Windows 95, but this is mostly due to targeting a completely different market segment. There just aren’t as many workstations and servers as there are personal desktop systems. Make no mistake, NT 4 was a crazy success.