Every now and again it happens. I’m at some ed-tech conference at lunch or between presentations talking shop with an admin from another school. Invariably the topic of conversation turns to which network operating system is a better choice for schools–Novell’s NetWare or Microsoft’s Windows NT. Our school is mainly a NetWare shop, so it seems strange to me that the most hard-headed discussions I’ve had on the topic are with other NetWare admins.

The trouble usually starts when I mention to them that we’re working to integrate a couple of NT servers into our network. About this time, I’m usually made to feel like a traitor who has fallen victim to the Microsoft marketing machine. Soon they start quoting benchmarks which demonstrate that NetWare outperforms NT for file and print sharing and they cite the multi-processor enhancements and improved multitasking in NetWare 5. All of this is usually tinged with a slight tone of self-importance, which comes, I believe, from their perception that NetWare takes more technical expertise to configure and operate.

The more I have these conversations, the more they start to sound like the Mac vs. PC argument that has been wasting time and bandwidth on ed-tech listservs since the mid-’80s. This upsets me because I refuse to engage in those discussions for one simple reason. People’s arguments are almost never based in technology. Instead, you end up having a conversation disguised as technical which is really motivated by brand loyalty, comfort level with a platform, or a company’s ad campaign.

This is troubling. As technical people, we’re supposed to see through the market hype and make decisions on things like how the OS multitasks, how it handles file caching, or how powerful the management tools are. We, of all people, should not be falling victim to advertising, brand loyalty, and which company has a slicker logo.

The fact of the matter is, both operating systems have some very alluring strengths–and some disconcerting weaknesses. Microsoft’s inability to deliver Active Directory has placed Novell as the definitive leader in the directory services arena. This could be a concern for larger schools or districts who want to centrally manage all resources. Its pre-emptive multitasking architecture also makes file and print sharing slightly slower than NetWare’s.

On the other hand, server side and web-based applications are much easier to deploy in an NT environment and tend to be a little more stable under NT. Both platforms offer desktop management features which, when coupled together, give the average school administrator more control over the desktop and user environment than he ever dreamed possible.

Our school has started with Novell and NDS as the building block for its network. Using NDS along with several add-on products, we have been able to achieve both a single sign-on for all users and a single point of administration for administrators. Users only need to remember one password for all file servers, eMail accounts, and proxy server access. Administrators only have to make changes to user accounts in a single place.

Using NDS, we are also able to distribute administration tasks among several people and to hierarchically organize users according to class and/or job function. This has made student user management much easier. NDS also allows partitioning and replicating its database over a wide area network (WAN) which would be attractive to managers of district-wide networks.

Perhaps the most challenging part of a school network administrator’s job is securing the desktop. Unlike our counterparts in corporations, we’re faced with users who tend to be more curious, and in some cases more malicious, with public access machines placed in labs. The combination of Windows NT at the server level and the workstation level has given my staff an unprecedented level of control over the user environment.

NTFS file system permissions are set on every workstation to prevent students from tampering with or deleting any files. System Policies grant various levels of permissions to users based on whether they are students, teachers, or system administrators.

Finally, I’ve been able to set up a mandatory profile for students, which they have read-only access to on the server. This means that the MS Office toolbar stays in the same place, and the wallpaper and desktop shortcuts never change. Application settings in programs like Word and Explorer are also consistent for all students every time they log in. I’ve been able to store roaming profiles for all faculty members in their Novell home directory by creating an NT desktop policy package using NDS and Novell’s Z.E.N. Works.

My goal is to use the strength of both these platforms to provide better service to our users and increase our network management efficiency. Using NDS, I can give my users a single log-in name and password, which gives them access to all network resources including eMail and the proxy server. NDS for NT also gives them seamless access to the NT domain from the same username and password.

I also have a single point of administration through NetWare Administrator. This gives me an amazing level of control over the user’s desktop environment. I can configure policy settings and desktop environments for different users through NT’s system policies and user profiles, which are based on NDS user containers and groups. The presence of an NT server also allows me to deploy more client-server applications and to publish applications to the web more easily using IIS.eSN Special Report In short, I see these two operating systems working very nicely together to provide a wealth of features to my users and myself. NetWare provides the main directory of users through NDS as well as file and print sharing. NT integrates into this directory through NDS for NT and provides application services and desktop management through Z.E.N. Works and system policies. For the time being, anyway, I think I’ll eat lunch by myself when I go to conferences.