NT Religious Wars
Why Are DARPA Researchers Afraid of Windows NT?
Mark Berman 1
10 Moulton Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Submitted to DARPA NT Research Workshop
5 August 1998
Abstract: Researchers for the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA) are feeling increasing demand to conduct their computer
science research on commodity hardware and software platforms, and specifically
on Intel-type processors, running Windows or Windows NT. The forces behind
this pressure are almost exclusively market-based rather than technical.
However, many analyses of the desiderata behind OS selection are conducted
from a fundamentally technical point of view. This paper presents a number
of talking points that highlight the administrative and political challenges
surrounding the decision to use Windows NT in leading-edge operating systems
and networking research.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsors a significant
amount of advanced research in computer science. As prices for commodity
hardware have dropped over the past two decades, DARPAs customers have
become increasingly savvy about the nature of the research that is conducted,
at least nominally, on their behalf. They have made increasingly strong
demands for greater use of "Wintel"-type environments as the delivery platform
for research products. Accordingly, DARPA has passed this demand on to
the researchers who carry out DARPAs sponsored research efforts.
In many cases, the research community has responded haltingly or even
with hostility to the pressure placed upon it by its customers and its
customers customers. Certainly, researchers have not rallied enthusiastically
behind Microsofts operating system products as their preferred research
environment. This fact should be surprising, given the uniformity of user
preference. Even though customers have a legitimate need for Windows NT-based
research products, the research community balks, stalls, and generally
avoids embracing Windows and Windows NT. The result is an unfortunate tension
between research sponsors and researchers. This paper visits some of the
(mostly non-technical) motivations leading to this tension, with a focus
on research in the areas of operating systems and networking.
While DARPA is chartered to conduct "high-risk, high-potential-payoff"
research for the U.S. Defense Department, DARPA managers are concerned,
and for good reason, that this charter not turn into carte blanche
for researchers to conduct too many "high-risk, no-payoff" projects. By
keeping researchers attention focused on future technology users, DARPA
increases the probability of the successful military or commercial application
of the fruits of DARPAs labors.
I. "Customer Pull": Customers want products
that run under Windows (but will settle for products that run under Windows
The customers whose needs DARPA must address fall into two categories.
The first is the military users, people who fight on the front lines, work
in military command centers, manage military logistics, and generally conduct
the business of the nations largest organization. The second is the vaguely-defined
future technology marketplace, individuals and businesses who stand to
benefit from future DARPA-developed technology revolutions like the Internet.
Customers in both of these groups, and particularly those in the military,
need Windows (or Windows NT) solutions for two main reasons.
i. Microsoft has a monopoly on desktop operating systems.
For all intents and purposes, it is reasonable to assume that all of DARPAs
customers already use computers in their work. Furthermore, they have been
using computers for years. They have developed their own procedures and
policies that are not conveniently switched to a different operating environment
at the drop of a hat. And they are all using Windows. They are all using
Windows because it is the superior choice for Intel-hardware operating
systems for naïve users. The reason, however, is irrelevant, because
the fact remains that users are using Windows. As a result, users who find
themselves on the receiving end of DARPA systems developed on non-Windows
platforms generally have no choice but to make room for another computer
in their offices.
Consider for example, the response of an Army officer assigned to the
U.S. Atlantic Command (USACOM) Plans Office to the delivery of new software
systems. Because USACOM is a frequent trial customer for DoD research projects,
this officer sees many technology projects arrive in his office. So many,
in fact, that he has found a lab where most of the delivered computer systems
reside. While acknowledging the fact that these new systems provide ready
access to information that is essential to his work, this officer nevertheless
objects that "The last thing I need is another damn computer." Naturally,
military users prefer research products that will integrate more smoothly
into their current operating environments.
ii. Microsoft (almost) has a monopoly on desktop office
If the first step to improved customer acceptance is getting software to
run on the same operating systems platform, the next step is to integrate
seamlessly with application software. It is too easy to separate "special"
applications from office suite-type applications. It is certainly true
that DARPA research supports the development of real-time command and control
systems that push the envelope of available OS support while they defend
U.S. Navy ships from attack. However, it is equally true that the same
person operating that system will probably use Microsoft Word to prepare
an after-action report. That user will and should expect to transfer information
from the operational application to the office application as easily as
she can place a database table into a spreadsheet.
II. "Go With the Flow": More and more researchers
are already running Windows on their desktops.
Not too many years ago, very few self-respecting DARPA software researchers
would admit to running a Microsoft operating system on their primary personal
desktop machines. Although DARPA researchers are a persnickety bunch, they
are giving in to the realities of the marketplace in greater numbers. DARPA
researchers regularly exchange information in Microsoft Office formats.
They use Windows or Windows NT for the same reasons the rest of the world
does: the price is right; it gets the job done for basic office automation
functions; and everybody else is using it.
Nevertheless, a lingering antipathy towards Microsoft OS and applications
products lurks very close to the surface of DARPA researchers psyches.
Frequently, a researcher will explain that she is using Microsoft products
under some form of duress. She will explain that her organizations IT
department makes the choice for her. She will protest that her laptop computer
dual-boots Windows NT and Linux, "and I can do almost everything I need
to without booting the NT side."
A. "Windows Sucks": Researchers have negative
biases about conducting research on top of Microsoft OS products. (Sometimes
these biases are well founded.)
Negative opinions about the technical merits of Windows NT put DARPA project
principal investigators (PIs) in an awkward position. Customers are clamoring
for Windows NT-based products, but PIs see two clear arguments against
using Windows NT.
a. Developers think Windows sucks.
Software developers who conduct DARPA research are interested in pushing
the state of the art in computer science. They believe that they should
be using state of the art tools in their work. Whether correctly or mistakenly,
they believe that Windows and Windows NT do not fit the bill. Consider,
for example, the following comment, addressing the less demanding IT arena.
Yesterday's college students learned their UNIX expertise on Linux and
FreeBSD. Today they're working in IT departments, and many of them are
openly hostile to both Microsoft and Windows NT. As a result, Linux, BSD,
Solaris, and other forms of UNIX are finding their way into IT departments,
both overtly and on the sly.2
Similar information comes from the informal "Operating Systems Sucks-Rules-O-Meter,"
which polls the Internet communitys zeitgeist by counting web pages that
claim a particular operating system "rules" or "sucks" and plotting the
From one point of view, the correctness of developers opinions about
Windows and Windows NT is not as important as the fact that such opinions
are widely held. If the best and brightest software developers are proud
to remain Windows-ignorant, PIs will continue to find it difficult to move
to Windows NT and successfully staff their research projects. Furthermore,
the top universities from which DARPA draws its research community are
not producing Windows-literate graduates.
b. Windows really sucks.
But even from a more purely technical viewpoint, PIs have some good reasons
to be wary of working in a Windows NT environment. This paper is not intended
to discuss in detail the relative technical merits of Windows NT and UNIX.
However, many researchers accustomed to software development in a UNIX
environment find themselves hamstrung by Windows NTs development environment.
Common complaints include the lack of a real remote login capability, poor
support for scripting and utility languages, and frequent system crashes
(the so-called "blue screen of death"). Developers often report on their
efforts to make Windows NT more UNIX-like with packages like GNU Win32
and GNU Emacs, development tools based on the GNU (GNUs not UNIX) project.
This dilemma is particularly strong for researchers in the areas of
operating systems and networking, two areas in which Windows NT is considered
to be especially weak. With DARPA project lifetimes typically in the two-
or three-year range, PIs must swallow hard before agreeing to take two
giant steps back in order to begin their research on a Windows NT technology
B. "Selling My Soul": Negotiating source
license agreements for Windows NT can be hard.
PIs conducting research projects in operating systems and closely
related areas confront an additional impediment when choosing Windows NT
as a technology base. Microsoft, understandably concerned about protecting
its trade secrets, has traditionally been highly protective of the source
code for its operating systems. The result has been highly restrictive
non-disclosure agreements that some organizations have been hesitant or
unable to sign. In at least some cases, university students with access
to Microsoft source code have been required to agree not to accept employment
with Microsoft competitors for a period after their graduation. While Microsofts
motivation for strict source code control policies is clear, the policy
is nonetheless at odds with researchers agendas.
Researchers do have the option of attempting to conduct their research
without access to source code. While such an approach is theoretically
possible, it is quite risky. Developing operating system software without
access to source code is working without a net. If the project should run
up against a problem that requires changes to the Windows NT software base,
there is very real potential for substantial delay to acquire modified
software or to develop a required work-around. This particular problem
could be remedied by highly responsive Microsoft technical support, but
the companys track record in this area is not promising.
C. "All Revved Up With No Place to Go":
There is no clear technology transition path for OS and network research
products built on Windows NT.
Finally, and perhaps of most concern to DARPA researchers is the challenge
of effecting the transfer of sponsored research to the DARPA customer community.
In the research areas of operating systems and networking, technology transition
is optimally tightly bound to progress in the core operating system release.
Ideally, researchers would hope to release their products either by independently
re-releasing modified Windows NT products or by teaming with Microsoft
to include enhancements in standard releases of Windows NT. Unfortunately,
neither of these options seems particularly promising. The former option
is likely to prove unacceptable to Microsoft, as it has the potential to
place Microsoft into competition with DARPA research products. The latter
option provides researchers with little control over their products. Furthermore,
although DARPA research results often have the potential to offer widespread
benefit several years in the future, the immediate results of research
projects are frequently specialized, niche products in the present. It
is unlikely that such specialized improvements will provide the mass market
motivation needed to bring about changes in a mainstream Microsoft product.
This difficulty seems especially ironic because the promise of improved
technology transfer is the chief motivator for DARPAs initial desire to
use Windows NT as a research platform. Solutions to this technology transition
challenge are not immediately obvious. Close teamwork between DARPA and
Microsoft will be needed to arrive at useful technology transition strategies.
1. Some research presented herein was conducted
under DARPA contract number F30602-98-C-0187. The views and conclusions
contained in the document are those of the author and should not be interpreted
as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the U.S. Government.
2. Nicholas Petreley, The New UNIX Alters
NT's, NC World, April 1998.
3. Donald B. Marti Jr., Operating System
Sucks-Rules-O-Meter, Electric Lichen L.L.C., http://electriclichen.com/linux/srom.html.