From the Trenches: At Home with a Win2K Network
Do your homework! Setting up a small network running Win2K is just the ticket if you want hands-on experience immediately.
- By Thomas A. Geis
- March 01, 2000
Say you're curious about Windows 2000 and want to get
a jump on learning about it. But your company remains
perfectly happy with NT 4.0, thank you, and has no interest
in installing the new OS for some time to come. Or maybe
you want some hands-on time with the product as you prepare
to upgrade your MCSE. Consider setting up a network at
home and installing Win2K--if you're like me, you'll also
learn some things you might not have expected.
In the Beginning
I first decided to build an NT server and a home network
as a study aid in my pursuit of the MCSE. It turned out
to be the right decision because it's nearly impossible
to achieve any measure of competence in Microsoft products
without actually using them. Many software products today
can be learned on-the-fly; operating systems--especially
Microsoft operating systems--need a lot more work before
they're truly intuitive. Because the component specifications
were up to me and because I wanted to try something a
little different, I built a dual-processor server. (This
would later prove to be inspired.)
Windows NT Server 4.0, when loaded on a multi-processor
machine, loads a different kernel than in the single-processor
installation. It also offers unique options, such as the
ability to set processor affinity and differences in Network
Monitor; these options are also offered by Windows 2000.
But Win2K, as I would later learn, has a huge appetite
(and support) for processors and memory. Multi-processor
machines will need to become commonplace if Windows 2000
is the future.
Building the Server
I'll give you some details on my server, named MooseServer,
which I built from scratch. I've found that if you do
a little research and consult Microsoft's Hardware Compatibility
List (or HCL, found at www.microsoft.com/hcl), you can
intelligently buy hardware at local computer shows and
assemble systems yourself. In this way you save a lot
of money (compared to a ready-built Dell or Gateway system),
and at the same time get a much more powerful and robust
computer. Incidentally, you'll learn a lot about hardware.
MooseServer was born with dual Intel Pentium II processors
(333MHz) on an ASUS motherboard with on-board SCSI, 524M
of RAM, two Seagate Ultrawide 4.3G SCSI disks, and one
10G IDE disk (I'll explain why a little later). MooseServer
also has a 3COM 56K voice/fax (hardware) internal modem
(see "A Note About Motherboards and Modems"),
Number Nine Video with 16M of VRAM, Python 4mm DAT SCSI
tape drive, LS-120 IDE 3.5-inch drive, standard 3.5-inch
disk drive, a SoundBlaster and its IDE CD-ROM drive, a
Plextor 24X SCSI CD-ROM drive, and a 10Mbps network interface
card (NIC) connected to a Thinnet Ethernet LAN. (I use
Thinnet rather than CAT5 for shielding because I also
have high-powered transmitters for amateur radio.) External
to the server is a standard keyboard, Logitech cordless
wheel mouse, 17-inch ViewSonic monitor, and an APC SmartUPS
I built this in July 1999, incidentally, when memory
prices were at a low point. All in all, I'd estimate conservatively
that I saved 50 to 60 percent over a pre-built system,
not to mention the improvement in quality, since I didn't
The IDE disk drive was necessary because, as I discovered,
Windows NT doesn't recognize and therefore can not install
on a system with only multiple wide-SCSI drives (bummer).
NT does recognize a single wide-SCSI drive system, but
I needed the second drive; the work-around was to install
an IDE in addition. After I installed NT on the IDE drive,
NT magically recognized the two wide SCSI drives. I considered
creating a mirror set, but haven't gotten around to doing
I was also careful to specify Intel processors because
Microsoft operating systems are designed to operate on
Intel (although yes, there are some AMD-based processors
on the HCL). But other processors, in my experience, have
incomplete functionality that results in miscellaneous
mysterious crashes and corruption. On a serious system,
avoid using Intel's Celeron processors, which are cost-reduced,
I configured and installed NT Server (with Service Pack
5) with the usual amount of pain and suffering; however,
it remained relatively stable and served its intended
purpose quite well.
Note About Motherboards and Modems
interesting aside on ASUS motherboards:
I learned the hard way that ASUS motherboards
don't support SCSI CD-RW drives. I went
through at least six SCSI CD-RW drives
from three manufacturers before I learned
about this deficiency. I then changed
over to an Abit BX6 motherboard on my
workstation machine and solved the problem.
basically two types of modems, hardware
and software (also called Winmodems).
The difference is that the software
modems, although less expensive, use
the system CPU as a resource, which
hurts system performance. The hardware
modem has its own CPU and is relatively
transparent to the system.
And Then Came Win2K
Fast-forward in time to the point where I decided to
install Windows 2000 Server, Release Candidate 2 (RC2).
Because I had NT Server with SP5 loaded on the IDE drive,
I decided to change the boot option in the BIOS from IDE
to SCSI. That meant the system would boot from SCSI drive
0, ignoring the OS on the IDE drive. Conceivably, this
would leave my NT system intact and boot up the newly
installed Win2K each time instead. If I wanted to run
NT, I could always interrupt the boot process. Unlike
NT, Win2K supports multiple wide-SCSI drives at installation,
which is a great relief. Using the FDISK utility from
a DOS boot disk, I set up a 2G partition on SCSI disk
0. This partition was for Win2K.
I had learned from my studies that for Windows 2000,
Microsoft requires 685M and recommends a 1G partition.
However, Microsoft is known to be ultra-conservative in
requirements specifications, so I decided to use a 2G
partition for increased flexibility and peace of mind.
Besides, I had the space.
A little note about FDISK: some versions, including the
one I was running, aren't capable of dealing with NTFS-formatted
partitions. If you have an NTFS partition and your NT
OS isn't useable, a DOS utility called DELPART will delete
the partition. At one point during the setup of the 2G
partition for Win2K, I became so frustrated I brought
up Windows 95 and loaded a third-party product from PowerQuest
Corporation, Partition Magic 4.0, to clear an NTFS partition.
It appeared to work but really didn't. Later, I found
out that the more recent NT service packs (4 and 5) introduced
some "format" changes, which meant that Partition
Magic needed a patch to actually function (the patch is
available at www.powerquest.com/downlwd).
Meanwhile, Partition Magic 5.0 has been released and doesn't
require a patch.
Now all I had to do was drop the Windows 2000 Server
CD in the IDE CD-ROM drive and boot up. Of course, to
do this you must have the CD-ROM boot option specified
in the BIOS. Installing Windows 2000 takes about an hour--about
the easiest OS install I've ever done.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has apparently continued its
trademark "interference tradition" with Windows
2000. (Although, to be fair, this was RC2--this may have
been fixed in the final release, although I find it doubtful.
This isn't a problem Microsoft's target customers would
encounter since I was using multiple operating systems.)
In spite of being loaded on its own disk drive, Win2K
managed to make NT Server on the IDE disk totally unusable.
I couldn't salvage it even with a current, valid R-Disk!
That's a good thing to know up front. To be safe, assume
that any files on your system may be corrupted after installing
Win2K, and back up anything you want to preserve. Another
approach might be to disable any disks other than the
one you're putting the OS on, but I have yet to prove
It's also a good idea to format your disk with NTFS (or
EFS, Encrypted NTFS) right from the start if you plan
to use the file-level security features [For more information
on security in Windows 2000, see
Roberta Bragg's cover story. --Ed.] This is preferable
to a "conversion" later on because you have
a better chance of avoiding Master File Table (MFT) fragmentation.
A Windows NT 4.0 network installation requires a FAT partition,
but Win2K supports either FAT or NTFS (EFS).
Win2K also uses "dynamic" disks. Under the
Computer Management menu, you can access and administer
disks. If you write "signatures" on any new
disk, no earlier version of Windows (or anything else,
I suspect) will be able to access the disk --so be careful
when you set up your system!
Just as with its predecessor, NT 4.0, Windows 2000 (at
least RC2) is extremely prone to fragmentation. In fact,
after you install the operating system, you'll need to
defrag your disk. Microsoft (sort of) acknowledges this
by including a defragmentation utility with the operating
system, Executive Software's Diskeeper (www.diskeeper.com).
Unfortunately, it's a super-light manual version of the
product. I suggest you upgrade to the real thing when
it becomes available (probably with Win2K). The Diskeeper
product for Windows NT 4.0 doesn't run (or even load)
on Win2K, so you can add that to your expense list.
After you successfully load the OS, you need to "configure"
it (this means working with Active Directory, Dynamic
DNS, and more), which takes some more time. Compared to
NT, Win2K Server takes longer to boot up, and I found
it to be sluggish, which is distressing. It seems to take
a long time doing anything, and I've yet to figure out
why. The difference between Server and Advanced Server
was notable. I can only hope that the final version will
be optimized for stability, which translates into fewer
features to slow things down. At this point, nothing was
loaded on the system other than the OS, which eliminated
third-party programs as contributing factors. I still
haven't resolved where the speed degradation came from--it
could be the OS; it could also be some combination of
hardware that I haven't yet pinpointed.
In a classroom setting, we used the Advanced Server version
on single processor systems with 128M of RAM; they seemed
considerably more responsive than even the low-end Win2K
Server is on my dual-processor system. I checked via Task
Manager, and the CPUs were mostly idle, but there were
47 processes running.
In any case, it was easy enough to configure dial-up
networking; Internet Explorer appeared on the scene quickly.
The Internet response was nominal; however, it took a
long time to disconnect. I began to wonder if the sluggishness
was associated only with the product version (Server vs.
Advanced Server), or if it had to do with the multi-processor
Curiosity got the better of me, so I removed (reformatted
the disk) Win2K Server and loaded Advanced Server (also
RC2). Again, the installation went smoothly (no looking
around for assorted SCSI or video driver disks, as you
must with NT). Preliminary observations suggest that Advanced
Server is, in fact, much more responsive than Server under
an identical set of conditions.
About that Home Network
My admittedly small home network has just one server,
since the purpose is to study and manipulate the Windows
NT and 2000 operating systems. On a larger network with
multiple servers, you'd experience another Win2K drawback--lots
of replication and the delays (latency) that are introduced.
Those delays can be considerable (52 minutes or more),
according to my training and experience, and "forced"
replication doesn't always work--very annoying. Forced
replication instructs the system to replicate immediately
instead of waiting for preplanned replication intervals.
Wide Area Networks (WANs), therefore, face real challenges
due to Active Directory replication latency.
Home networks are excellent playgrounds for studying
and manipulating the various attributes of an operating
system. Whether you're an aspiring administrator or seasoned
professional, you can create a world that allows plenty
of experimentation. In addition, you can reap the benefits
of larger networks by being able to share resources among
family members. Creating a home network is not only feasible
and affordable, but can be a lot of fun too.