show-stopper-coverI was browsing around at a book store, and I came across the book “SHOWSTOPPER” the breakneck race to create Windows NT and the next generation at Microsoft.

If you have ever lived through the Windows NT 3.x days you’ll find this a very interesting read. It goes into the big personalities, and of course covers the working habits of Dave Cutler… Although it does paint him in some really odd colors, mostly as an antisocial kind of dictator pushing people to produce the largest program Microsoft had ever produced at the time.

But there is no doubt, Cutler could not have written Windows NT at Digital, as DEC was too fond of hardware lockins (look at VMS & Ultrix/True64). And it does cover the major animosity of Cutler towards DEC with the cancellation of the Prisim/Mica projects, and then the later “I told you so” moment when DEC licensed Windows NT from Microsoft (although other reports claim that DEC threatened MS with a lawsuit, and MS gave them access to NT, along with some money…). Apparently the mantra was “Dec could have had NT for free”..

There is also coverage of the culture clash of what happened when Microsoft had absorbed the Prisim & Mica engineering teams from DEC, and how they did not get along with Microsoft staff, and even did their best to poke holes in the current offerings of MS-DOS & OS/2 as either a toy, or a joke.

One thing I found interesting, is that the book mentions the WLO project, as the foundation for what would be the ‘Win32’ system. WLO if you remember was a port of the Windows Libraries to OS/2. It was very interesting in that Windows, OS/2 and even MS-DOS & Win16 via WOW were all not part of the main Windows NT group, but rather ‘tacked on’.

However it is quite interesting that the design decisions made for a very portable and modular operating system, that survived it’s original CPU & platform being changed 1/4th the way through development, and then the removal of the primary API.

Another thing that was interesting was some of the ‘fixes’ for the too slow, too big that would plague the early versions of NT, was the idea of demand paging portions of the kernel.. I for one would go insane with the blue screens about paging non page-able areas or some other VM error… But the truth was NT was written by people who came from a minicomputer world, and as the book made evident from time to time, they did NOT use PC’s.

Needless to say, the book was somewhat spot on, in that it’d take 10+ years for computers to catch up to what Windows NT was written for. I for one can remember trying to run this on a 386sx-16 and it was horrible… But if you install it on a Pentium II the 3.x series simply FLIES… And in emulation on modern machines it has incredible performance.

While Windows NT 3.1 was no doubt a 1.0 release, 3.5 was a 2.0. The x86 optimizations really payed off, and kicking out the Spider TCP/IP stack, and bringing in the new MS stack helped a LOT. There is no doubt back in 1994 as SLIP & PPP accounts were becoming more common place, Windows NT 3.5’s networking was the easiest to configure and use. Linux back then really was in it’s infancy, and the dialup scripts for pap/chap/pppd were… a nightmare.

“Dogfooding” was another interesting, and necessary thing as once NT was able to start running programs it was important to make people start using it as quickly as possible to shake out bugs in the system. Its also interesting to note the reluctance of the kernel team to deal with the graphical part of NT, and how the first versions were text only. Another weird part was how the security in Windows NT was an after effect, of the internal networking group cooking up what eventually became the domain & trust model. Not to mention how NTFS almost didn’t make it because the filesystem people (all two of them!) were so busy making sure HPFS worked correctly.

There is no doubt that such a ‘ground up’ OS of this magnitude hasn’t been attempted since 1988. It took Microsoft 5 years to get Windows NT out the door, but there is no doubt looking around in the year 2010, Windows NT has a long life ahead of it.

For those interested, you can find it on amazon.

5 thoughts on “SHOWSTOPPER!

  1. I was looking for a copy of this book, so I asked a friend in the States to purchase a copy for me and ship it. Really want to learn more about the history.

    When you say early versions, are you referring to the early development (alpha) code? I currently have a beta build (388) I would like to try and install in VMWare, but I don't even know how to get it working or even sure it will work.

    I am also surprise to know that there are even earlier test builds dating back to 1992, I think the first public build was 297 which was released at PDC '92, would like to see screenshots of that.

    Its really fascinating to know that an operating system that dates back to the first Bush administration continues do so well, regardless of the ups and downs it has been through. I currently have NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51, 4.0, 2000 running in a VPC and its fun to look back and try overcoming the challenges of even making them work with each other. NT is definitely a fascinating and even more interesting operating system from development aspect than Linux. Understanding the struggles that it went through to become what it is today, running on over 1.3 billion computers. It definitely is definitely a showstopper and there is no stopping it!

  2. The kernel demand paging didn't come until the later 300 builds of NT, and the released 3.1/3.5/3.51/4.0.. When memory was tight these systems under tremendous strain had a habit of paging themselves out to disk.

    Looking back it was simply a symptom of not having enough memory, and having a really slow disk. Even though at some point I got 'smarter' and got a SCSI controller and disk for paging, and two IDE disks / controlers split for the OS & data. The more busses certainly helped.

    I wish I could find the CD's but I used to have some really super old beta's and I suspect the 1992 one was in there. From what I can recall is that it didn't have a real setup program, it just xcopied itself onto your disk, and then slapped down a new boot record. Like the book mentions the super early versions had *NO* ability to run MS-DOS, OS/2 or Win16 programs. The networking was shakey at best, I don't recall it having TCP/IP which is probably why they outsourced that function.

    I recall it 'feeling' more like OS/2 1.3 and it was splashed with *LOTS* of NT OS/2 stuff still in the help files and stuff, as they were so busy trying to get things in order..

    But even at the time, it was a major step, as if you were really lucky you got the preliminary C compiler, and it was the first time you could really play with a 32bit OS. I recall the 'demo' of the day being some boxes bouncing around in 4 windows.. At the time multi-threading was still new & exciting, even in the OS/2 world, but with IBM out of the way, NT got a chance to get real.

    I know somewhere kicking around I think I have the March 1993 beta… which I think was their RC 1.. It's really not that much different from the release as by then they were mostly doing application testing, and fixing bugs around that.. The last part of the book goes into some big deal with Aldus Pagemaker 5.0 & NT not printing and loading fonts correctly.

    I'd suspect to load the beta you'd need to fix the same files that prevent NT 3.1 from installing on modern CPU's…..

    As long as your VMWare can emulate IDE I'd imagine it'd work ok.

  3. I notice you have quite a collection of retro software. Where do you obtain it and what are the price ranges? I would like to obtain at least the retail copies of NT 3x workstation as collectors items. Are they easy to come by?

  4. Some of the stuff I've had for YEARS, some when it was 'new and exciting'….

    Other stuff through friends, and various places I've worked, and of course local 'swap meets' and ebay.

    I just hate that every time I move, I invariably seem to lose stuff.

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