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Registry hack turns XP Pro into server, vice versa

Update of old NT gag unleashed

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A routine currently circulating on the web reawakens the old controversy over how different the workstation and server versions actually are. NTSwitch, apparently produced by Hungarian outfit 3am Labs, is claimed to allow various versions of Microsoft workstation operating systems to be turned into server versions, and vice versa.

3am's free download of the routine has been pulled "due to legal considerations," but at time of writing was still being hosted by ADTW, which presumably either hasn't had a take-down notice yet, or is ignoring one. 3am is still running a description of the operation of the routine here, where it is modestly described as "a quick and dirty hack" which backs up the system hive of the registry, edits and then restores it. The sole purpose for the creation of the software, according to the readme, is to demonstrate that Windows workstation and server operating systems share the same binaries, and that the only difference lies in the registry.

ADTW's write-up of NTSwitch (which seems to be based on testing by gentlemen called Sephiroth, SideWinder, AngelDeath, and NeoLojik) majors on switching .NET Server to WinXP Professional, although it also notes that that it works the other way too. They say that converting XP Workstation to Server produces a memory leak, however, so using it to turn one of the prime things certain people might want to do with it doesn't look feasible:

According to sephiroth:

"I attempted this on .NET Server and have sucessfully converted Build 3615 to Windows XP Professional. Using an app called NTSwitch, .NET now thinks it is a workstation OS , in this case, Windows XP Pro. All of the features of XP that were disabled, such as fast user switching, the welcome screen, and DirectX now work perfectly. I have personally always got much better performance out of .NET than I have out of Windows XP. This program works by changing certain entries in the system registry to trick Windows into thinking it is a workstation OS. Once you run this program, you can reboot, enable fast user switching and the welcome screen from Group Policy Editor, gpedit.msc from the run command, your boot logo will be changed to that of XP Pro and many other things. This can also be done on Windows XP Pro (thanks to NeoLojik for the testing, the app says it does not work but it will). He gained an extreme amount of performance. What we basically end up with here is this. .NET contains patches and bug fixes for Windows XP that you likely won't see until SP1, but you are getting them in this way. And there is no draw back. Each and every feature of XP is there, you just have to enable some things on after running this program. For example. Norton Antivirus 2002 would not install on 3615 as it is not compatible with a Server OS, however, after running this program, Norton installs perfectly fine on my system."

Changing .NET Server into XP Pro largely seems a harmless piece of fun for people with access to .NET Server beta code and a thirst to apply patches early. Clearly, as and when the product actually ships NTSwitch and similar aren't going to be impacting Microsoft's revenues that way. Doing it the other way around is of course entirely different, and protestations that the routine has only been produced to demonstrate a point aren't going to cut much ice with Redmond. Some years back a similar controversy raged over NT 4.0 (remember Microsoft getting seriously angry about Netscape server software running on NT Workstation?). Microsoft at the time argued strenuously that there were major differences justifying the price difference, while others argued the opposite fairly convincingly.

You can pick up some leads on that discussion here and here, although as you'd expect many of the links don't seem to work any more.

A discussion thread in a private .NET beta newsgroup seems to be going over this old ground again. According to one Microsoft operative contributing:

"There are of course things that are mere registry changes between versions, but there are many other things that are not. Even if you dress your cat up as a dog, you in fact will still have a cat."

But a cat that is functionally a dog may have some utility; we make no comment whatsoever as to the appropriateness of that image when used with reference to certain companies' operating systems.

You can currently read ADTW's write-up here, and although we have severe doubts as to how long ntswitch.zip is going to be available in the open, it's now in the wild, so presumably anybody who wants it will be able to find it. Presumably also Microsoft will view it as a tool that can be used to pirate its software, and will therefore try to hunt it down. And indeed, that is one of the things it is. But if it is possible to alter the registry in order to turn a workstation OS into something that at least looks and feels like a server one, the only way Microsoft can stop people doing so is by cloaking the vital parts of the registry in secrecy, and suppressing information leaks. While of course strenuously denying that it is that simple. ®

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