Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Starting the New Year with Windows NT 4

To start off the new year right, I decided to go back in time and see what I could learn from running an ancient (by computing standards, anyway) operating system and software combination. To appreciate how far we have come (or not), and to see whether I could actually get real work done. The idea came about from some conversations that Jason Perlow and I had. Jason is a fellow blogger and IT consultant who now works for IBM. He and I at one point in our lives (although not at the same time) lived in Port Washington, N.Y. and spent a lot of time with OS/2, but don't let that influence you.

I picked NT v4 as my starting place. This operating system is more than ten years old, and was probably the last OS that Microsoft created that had some real simplicity to it. To get an idea of the power of the OS, there are still many corporate servers running it, even though Microsoft has tried to stamp it out and turn off support and push people to upgrade to something more recent. To get around the driver issues and other challenges, I decided to set up a virtual machine running NT, and I am using VMware's Fusion on my Mac (just to make it interesting).

Jason and I have the hypothesis that the OS doesn't really matter anymore, and that if you can get beyond some of the issues with running older software and applications, you may find that an older OS is perfect for your needs. We also thought that running an ancient OS was a good way to see how far we have come with newer computers, and perhaps a way to extract some additional performance because the older OSs are smaller and theoretically could run faster on the newer PCs.

To get NT working properly, you need find versions of software either online or in someone's attic that are not so old as to be useless. First off, I had to install Service Pack 6, and I also needed to install the right version of the SP too for the encryption level of the OS. You then install the VMware tools software, which supplies the drivers to get the most out of your machine. Then you install Microsoft Office 2000 – which is the most recent version of Office that will run on NT. I messed up by installing the tools package after Office, and VMware didn't like that. Office 2000 has the unfortunate side effect of updating your NT version with an almost-working version of Internet Explorer v5. The reason I say almost-working is that you need another piece of software called the Windows Installer to get other software installed on this machine. I couldn't get past this point, however.

I also put on Firefox v2.0.0.20 browser on the machine, which is a fairly recent version of the browser, but apparently not recent enough as I had some problems with certain Web sites. I had to update my Adobe Flash plug-in too. Finally, I added AIM v5.9, which is an older version of Instant Messenger software. Skype doesn't have any version that will run on NT, which is too bad.

So what I found was that the VM version of NT was pretty snappy. It would boot from scratch in under 30 seconds, and faster still from the suspended VM state. I liked the old-fashioned Windows and the lack of glitz and raw simplicity of the controls. No Aero Glass junk for this OS! Another plus with using VMs is that you don't have to worry about personal firewalls and anti-virus as much – you can set up a protected environment and keep it isolated from your host machine, which is good because most of the AV programs have stopped supporting NT a long time ago.

All of my Office documents – some of which were created on Macs, some on Windows, came up just fine in Office 2000, which is because I am not using the 2007 version that introduced a new file format that isn't compatible with the older versions. Shame on you Microsoft – and I know from hearing from some of you how vexing that version could be.

The other thing I noticed is how important the browser is to today's computing world, and if you aren't willing to stay current with your browser, you quickly get into trouble with many Web sites. The coming of IE v7 is a good case in point, and I know there will be a lot of grief to be had on both ends – the people that adopt the new browser and find sites that don't work in it, and the sites that want to use its new features and piss off the people that aren't upgrading yet.

I will have more to report on this experiment as I spend more time back in NT land. And those of you that want to try this on your own, email me privately and I will give you more specific tips.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.