Developers Take on Win 9x

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2004-01-12

Developers Take on Win 9x

The end of useful life for Microsoft Corp.s DOS-based versions of Windows is dictated by factors visible and invisible to users—but, in both cases, of crucial importance to enterprise application developers.

The DOS-based Windows 9x architecture underlying Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows ME is clearly incapable of meeting the data- and task-intensive demands of the modern corporate user. Multiple browser windows, for example, can quickly consume the dangerously limited capacity of crucial Windows 9x data structures, which have fixed maximum sizes independent of the amount of memory in the system.

If a particular application or a particular set of tasks routinely exhausts user (I/O management) or Graphical Device Interface resource capacity and crashes the machine, adding memory will not help. Users who are trying to work with rich media for corporate communications or to maintain growing constellations of real-time data monitoring processes for supply chain management and other tasks cannot continue to tolerate this lack of scalability. In most cases, theyve already moved on to a Windows NT-based platform without these legacy constraints.

Less visible to users are the security issues that arise from the Windows 9x design. As eWEEK (then PC Week) Labs observed in March 1999: "Windows begins with the model of a single user on a single, personally controlled machine and never recovers from the resulting assumption that no piece of code would be on a machine if the user didnt want it to be there."

In particular, any process on a Windows 9x machine can have its way with any file available to the user. A higher level of file system security actually entered the picture long before the arrival of Windows 9x, with the introduction of the NT File System in July 1993. But Windows 9x systems did not—and still do not—support this file system, nor do they otherwise provide its ability to assign specific privileges to different users and groups of users.

In combination with technologies such as ActiveX controls, which run with all the owner/user rights of any other code on a machine, the naively trusting nature of the FAT32 file system on Windows 9x has offered an open-air buffet to data thieves—and opened a shooting gallery for malicious attackers.

For these reasons, desktop systems at many enterprise sites have already moved beyond being directly affected by Microsoft pulling the plug on Windows 9x technology. eWEEK Labs discussed Microsofts support plans with members of eWEEKs Corporate Partner Advisory Board immediately following the companys December announcements of the end of life for Windows 9x on Jan. 16 and for Windows ME on Dec. 31, 2004. Microsoft announced this week that it had decided to extend support for Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows Millennium Edition (ME) until June 30, 2006, in order to "accomodate customers worldwide who are still dependent upon these operating systems."

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However, the Corporate Partners with whom we spoke, representing many industry segments, suggested that enterprise technology leaders have long recognized Windows 9x as a legacy to be left behind. Without exception, board members told us that these platforms no longer had any notable presence in their on-site computing environments (contrasting with recent data from more general populations).

Several of the Corporate Partners we spoke with did note that many of their corporate users still have Windows 98 at home. As a rough measure of the extent of this scenario, the Google Web search engine reported that 28 percent of requests to its site during last October and November originated on Windows 9x machines. This suggests a considerable Windows 98 presence, even among the kind of relatively well-schooled user who uses the Internet for more than e-mail.

At many sites, the evolution of the application platform toward a multitier architecture has made the choice of client operating system almost irrelevant. "The only real burden is the need for users to migrate their browsers," said IBM Distinguished Engineer Rob High, chief architect of the companys WebSphere Application Server product family. "As middleware, we inject a layer between application and operating system," High added, explaining that WebSphere applications "tend to be relatively agnostic to the underlying operating system. We try to compensate for deficiencies or differences, scale and availability, security, and robustness by featuring and adding our own generalizations."

Despite eWEEKs advisers near unanimity in eliminating Windows 9x on-site, it clearly retains a considerable corporate presence at companies that range in size from tens to tens of thousands of workers. eWEEK has previously reported, for example, last months study by Ottawa-based AssetMetrix Research Labs, which suggests that more than 80 percent of companies still have at least some Windows 98 and/or Windows 95 installed on their inventory of active machines.

Developing an image of the post-Windows 9x enterprise

Why its time to move on
  • Windows 9x fails to use added memory due to fixed-size data structures
  • Fundamental security flaws arise from an insecure file system combined with fully privileged downloads such as ActiveX controls

    Why its hard to let go
  • Personally owned employee home systems may persist as remote network clients
  • Embedded applications benefit from Win32 API on a lightweight kernel

    How to make the move
  • Restrict network access to company-owned machines, replacing desktops with VPN- configured laptops for on-site/off-site use
  • Consider non-Microsoft desktop alternatives as well as Windows upgrades
  • For embedded applications, investigate Microsoft (Windows CE .Net, XP Embedded) and alternative real-time operating systems
  • "Thats a scary number," said Jon Box, solutions architect at professional services company Quilogy Inc., based in St. Charles, Mo., and an evangelist for Microsoft technologies as part of the Microsoft Regional Director network.

    Windows 9x is "not ready for the things that people need to do in 2004," Box said.

    "What it costs an enterprise to run a segment of their base on Windows 98 will be significant. Its design doesnt reflect the way things work today," Box warned, emphasizing security concerns.

    However, its easy to explain the tenacity of Windows 9x, even at sites where its been purged from knowledge workers desktops. In several cases reported to eWEEK Labs, Windows 98 is embedded as a critical legacy technology. Its the software foundation of microprocessor-based devices and systems that are analyzing data in research laboratories, mixing music tracks in recording studios and providing logistics management for users of at least one major shipping service who want to be absolutely, positively supported.

    To embedded-system developers, Windows 9x technology represents a cost-effective implementation of the 32-bit Windows APIs—supported by a huge ecosystem of tools and developer skills—on top of a relatively compact core that has a far less costly appetite for hardware than Microsofts more recent general-purpose offerings.

    Developers with these needs who want to continue leveraging Microsofts portfolio of tools will most likely want to take a fresh look at Windows CE .Net, which the company positions as its "hard real-time" offering. This label is formally defined by the Open Modular Architecture Controls Users Group as meeting the needs of systems that fail if their timing requirements are not met.

    With multiple levels of thread priority and with robust mechanisms to prevent low-priority tasks from interfering with high-priority demands, CE represents a much more appropriate choice than Windows 9x for many applications. More generally, the Microsoft Windows Embedded Partners program supports many providers of products and services using Microsoft technologies for a broad spectrum of embedded applications.

    Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be contacted at

    This story was originally published in the Jan. 12 issue of eWEEK. The story was amended to reflect Microsofts extension of Windows 98 support from January 2004 to June 2006. The extension was announced Jan. 12.

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