Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0 Beta 2 release dramatically improves speed and performance over Windows NT 3.51 especially for high-end graphics applications and printing functions.
But the potential "gotcha" in this release is that users risk workstation and server crashes if they install device drivers that aren't on Microsoft's hardware compatibility list, according to users, systems integrators and Microsoft executives.
Microsoft supports thousands of drivers, but there are almost as many small, third-party vendors that churn out video drivers they never bother to get tested and Microsoft-certified, says Mark Minasi, president of Tech- Teach International, a systems integrator in Arlington, Virginia.
Interviews last week with at least eight users of the NT 4.0 Beta 2 release indicate this version delivers performance boosts of 100% to 150% over NT 3.51 in downloading graphics files and running multimedia applications.
To achieve those gains and endow Windows NT with speed comparable to Windows 95, Microsoft moved the Windows NT user interface functions from the "User mode" to the "Kernel mode".
These two modes will let NT access hardware device drivers and memory addresses, which are necessary to perform any computing task.
NT also employs the User and Kernel modes to allocate memory as needed.
A Kernel mode program can access any memory in the system. By contrast, the User mode program can access only the memory that has been allocated by the Kernel mode.
"So if a User mode program like Microsoft Word blows up, it can only crash itself. But under the new NT 4.0 structure, things like video and printer drivers are now in Kernel mode," Minasi says. "If they crash, they can potentially crash both the server and the workstation."
Microsoft made the change to speed up the core NT 4.0 operating system.
One information systems manager at a large East Coast engineering firm, who requested anonymity, found out the hard way what the wrong video driver can do to NT.
The shop had been running the 4.0 beta in a pilot network for about 20 of its engineers when the server crashed.
"These were all power users and unbeknownst to me, somebody decided to install a cheap, no-name video driver so he could get snappy performance on the 32-bit games that come with NT Workstation," the manager says.
"We now have a standing, no-exceptions rule: Microsoft-approved hardware only," he says.
For users such as Briscoe Stephens, the advanced scientific information systems co-ordinator at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, the benefits of the Beta 2 release outweigh potential problems.
"Moving the user interface functions into the underlying Windows NT operating system puts more responsibility on the user. People should be smart enough to not cut corners by buying untested devices to save a few dollars," Stephens says.