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NT Embedded – a solution in search of a problem?

You can do some interesting things with Microsoft's latest, but why would you want to?

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At WinHEC later this week Microsoft is due to demonstrate Windows NT Embedded for the first time, but it may turn out to be a solution in search of a problem. Microsoft is pitching NT Embedded as a way to tie low-cost and low-footprint devices into 'standard' Windows corporate networks, but resolving the necessary smallness of the first with the inherent bigness of the second will turn out to be a major headache. According to flash disk specialist M-Systems, whose DiskOnChip product has won native support in NT Embedded, the OS can scale down to as low as 12 megabytes, meaning that it's possible to build a stripped-down NT Embedded workstation that will run off a relatively small flash disk device, and use this for some local storage. The advantage here in Microsoft's view is that this allows companies to deploy NT Embedded workstations as point of sale devices, in hostile factory and warehouse environments and so on. Microsoft networks and BackOffice systems which are already deployed in the company can therefore be rolled out further to much more of the workforce. Microsoft argues that using NT rather than a proprietary embedded system (NB remember Microsoft thinks Windows isn't proprietary) is a vast improvement. But the contradictions are obvious. By embedded standards, NT Embedded's footprint is rather large, and it's unlikely that it will operate well at the minimum hardware specification. Again from Microsoft's point of view there is a clear advantage in having local processing and local storage, because if the network connection goes down the local machine can carry on operating. But the validity of this on a full-blown corporate network is at least dubious (carry on operating at what?), while at point of sale or in a warehouse, the inability to process credit cards or take orders via the network effectively shuts down the terminal anyway. Some years back the designers of so-called pocket PCs learned the hard way that PCs were about running PC software far more than they were about running x86 processors - 'PC compatible' machines with 8086, no disk storage and 64k RAM therefore turned out not to be PCs after all, and didn't sell. NT Embedded may well be set to vanish down the same plug-hole. So you can run NT locally on a low(ish) resource platform. But a lot of what you need to do is probably going to have to run remotely on the server anyway - so why don't you just run a cheap diskless workstation and an, er, Unix server anyway, like you were doing before? ®

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