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MANAGING A MIXED PLATFORM

Jul 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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An integrated solution can provide maximum flexibility.

Over the years, mixed platform management issues have both fascinated and frustrated me. Early on, I was a techno nerd. I started in the graphic arts in the 1960s and got involved with computers in the late 1970s. Initially, using a computer was an emotional, almost religious experience, but it soon became just a tool.

Which platform is best for you? Regardless of whether you are in production or IT, one of the most important considerations is your overall production goal. "What's the best solution for my goals?" is the question you should keep in mind when evaluating a platform and weighing all the issues. But it's also important to understand where publishing is today and where it's going.

Currently, about 95 percent of the world's computers are Wintel machines. We're also seeing a shift in publishing responsibilities and activities. While many of us tend to think only of professional publishing, the process is moving farther upstream to office workers and executive assistants. It seems as if almost all of us are getting involved in publishing-even though we may not be professional publishers.

In the past, many perceived -and perhaps disassociated-the publishing environment from the enterprise environment. Ultimately, that's not going to work. As publishing evolves, the corporate enterprise will need to be integrated with day-to-day publishing requirements. Also, in the future a large percentage of printing is going to be database-driven. You'll have to deal with customers as partners-process partners who could be on any corner of the planet, running who-knows-what.

Yet what's on customers' servers, in their databases, may be something you need to integrate with the work you're doing. In other words, you could be publishing something that, on one page, contains information from three different databases and three different platforms.

That's the trend and something you'll have to think about. When choosing a platform, you'll find you have to do certain things for the sake of the process. Will you have control over what other platforms are used? Of course not. You'll have enough trouble trying to control what's going on in your own environment. Remember that platform choice is a secular decision -not a religious declaration. Do not be afraid to do what you have to do-including the creation of a workable, mixed platform environment. If nothing else, this scenario should encourage you to avoid taking sides or joining a particular platform camp. Going forward, most of us will need an integrated solution.

STRONG BACKBONE You have to make sure, at a very basic level, that the networking -the wiring-will support future growth. When making these decisions, think about tomorrow and beyond. Where will you be five years from now? If you can envision 10 years, great. You want to develop and buy systems that follow a plan that will allow you to grow. You do not have to buy everything at once-incremental purchases spread across years will work.

Start with a good networking backbone. The fiber vs. copper discussion will continue. Ultimately, you probably will be safe with each, provided they are configured and installed by networking specialists. From a networking standpoint, if you're in a mixed platform environment, one of the other things you're going to have to do is decide on a networking model or network operating system (NOS).

Many large corporations I've worked with still use Novell, Microsoft and in some cases, even Apple solutions. Once you start introducing Mac clients into some of these environments, or start to mix and match the Windows 95, 98, NT or Novell clients, you will really begin to see the advantages or disadvantages of each.

So choosing a network operating system is always a difficult decision. You may, in the future, need to run with a number of platforms, including Apple, NT, Unix or Linux, etc. Although you may want to purchase a solution that will cover all of your future needs, in this case, you may just have to look at what's going to make the most sense today. The good news is that if you have good connections down at the backbone level, be it fiber or good copper-based wiring, you will probably be able to meet many of the future changes head on.

Since most of the platforms can communicate using TCP/IP, telecommunications isn't a big issue as far as cross-platforms are concerned. TCP/IP has become the de facto standard, supported by all relevant platforms.

Which isn't to say that there aren't special tools and even some special applications that are very platform-specific, or that there isn't any confusion in the changing world of telecommunications. The many service offerings, such as T1 in various forms, ISDN, ASDL and, of course, provider issues, will continue to challenge us. But telecommunications, for the most part, is a fairly easy issue.

FILE SERVING File serving is possible on almost any server today. How do you choose? If you have a lot of NT servers, are running mostly in a Windows environment but need to run a few Macs on it, there are several ways to go. There's a lot of software that will facilitate the integration of Macs in a Windows environment. Microsoft has incorporated Mac file sharing and printer sharing into its NT server product.

NT Apple support, however, is somewhat limited and NT workstation support for the Apple is for printers only. If you want file sharing support, you to need to go to an NT server. Dave from Thursby Software Systems (Arlington, TX) is another option. It installs Windows networking services on a Mac.

If you were to take a worldwide poll on the most accepted server platform, NT would top the list. Does this mean you have to choose NT? Not at all-it has advantages and disadvantages. As a matter of fact, from the performance standpoint, tests indicate that if you really want a high-performance server, you're probably better off with Unix or Linux.

If you're in an Apple environment and Macs are all you have, you want something that's easy and familiar. You'll get good performance with Mac servers and AppleShare server software.

Of course, workstation platform isn't the only factor to consider when choosing a server. Depending on what your total server needs are, including what types of services and perhaps other issues such as equipment and process support, you may wind up with several different kinds of servers on your network.

Most of the major file serving systems from Microsoft, Apple and various Unix and Linux systems offer cross-platform integration solutions. Some of them are built like those on the Apple server, and some are add-ons, such as those that can be added to the Unix servers. Microsoft NT (or 2000) offers some cross-platform support, but some of it is not as optimized as certain third-party add-ons. Products such as PC MACLAN from Miramar Systems and Dave from Thursby have gone a long way to solve many of these issues (see sidebar on p. 40).

Nonetheless, even with these solutions, there are still many hiccups caused by file naming issues and the like. DataViz is probably one of the better developers of mixed platform utility solutions (see sidebar on page 40).

APPLICATION SERVERS Application serving is used regularly in corporate accounting or business settings, but rarely in publishing environments, due to the lack of supporting software. Publishing application developers have been slow to address this issue. There's QPS, the Quark application that deals with shared files and processes, but that's about it-until Adobe finally gets involved.

You can keep your document files on the server, but the applications themselves don't work well on a server for many reasons-mainly because the applications don't support it. That's not likely to change soon. Also, the requirements for many of these applications and the kinds of files many people are working with don't necessarily warrant it. (Newspaper and magazine publishing are obvious exceptions. These are highly integrated publishing efforts with lots of pages and lots of different elements on these pages that may require many people to work simultaneously on a file.)

Proofers, imagesetters, printers, digital presses and even xerographic copiers all feature various control systems. All must have some kind of spooling function as well as management function for the machine itself. These front-end processors (FEPS) typically are provided as application servers.

As much as you'd like to control the platform you're working in, when it comes to FEPs, it comes with the device. You may not have a choice in platform, so you live with it and make it work. Ultimately, all FEPs are designed to handle standard file formats through standard networking protocols. And they work, regardless of what platform the files were created in or sent from.

Usually you are only dealing with two formats, Apple and Wintel. Moving things to the Apple format from the PC is partially handled by a built-in utility called PC Exchange, which allows you to read PC or Windows disks. Mac handles PC disks very well, but Windows has a problem dealing with Mac disks (for that reason, I rarely use the latter).

Windows has a variety of applications and utilities for reading Mac-formatted disks. This includes floppies, Zips, Jaz and opticals. DataViz offers some good utilities in this area.

Beyond disk formats, you start dealing with the file structure itself, or what's actually on the disks. When you're working in Windows, you need to work with file extensions-essentially a name, a dot and three characters. Those three characters tell the operating system what kind of application is required for this file. By contrast, the Mac file system uses type and creator. File type indicates the application used to create the file; the creator identifies the appropriate icon to use in the display.

Extension mapping tools enable both file structures to work in a cross-platform environment. Some are included in the operating systems and some canbe bought separately. Both the Apple and Windows operating systems offer extension level mapping. You also can re-map the other extensions to the local platform in each system. It's a big issue. If you work in both platforms, you learn to avoid giving files long names or special characters (just letters and numbers).

FILE CONVERSION File conversions are another cross-platform consideration. If you have a file created in Windows Illustrator and you bring it to the Mac, it's not a problem. But if someone gives you a PC BMP file, or some other file specific to a Windows application, you may need to convert it using applications in PhotoShop or utilities such as DeBabelizer (Mac) or HiJaack (Wintel) (see sidebar).

When you work with specialized production tools, you are going beyond the platform. Your design, production-and most importantly-your job depends on these tools. If you do this for a living, you have to work with this thing day in and day out. Your job is neither supporting platforms nor worrying about applications, other than how both enable you to do your job-illustrating, publishing, retouching, color correcting and scanning.

Realistically, both the Mac and Wintel platforms can support the available software for your publishing needs. We know of one corporate user that operates in a Windows networking environment, yet whose design group uses Macs, PCs, Unix, 3.1 95, 98 and NT. The company even has Novell as an additional network operating system. It's an IT nightmare.

From the standpoint of the employees actually doing the production (building brochures, making catalogues, scanning and illustratiing), they choose their own individual platforms. While the tools are the same on both platforms, you can't overlook the human factor. The people are really the key to production-not the platforms.

While a cross-platform environment is practical and even necessary, you do have to have a pretty good understanding of systems. Also, time spent managing both process and technology will increase dramatically with each supported platform. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to use one platform, but that's not likely to be practical. At least for now.

Macwindows.com is "the website for Macintosh-Windows integrated solutions." It includes books, tutorials and a solutions section that features cross-networking and releated products.

DataViz (Trumbull, CT) offers MacLink Plus for Mac-to-PC conversion; Web Buddy for Windows and Mac for collecting, converting, reusing and organizing information found on the Internet; and Attachment Opener for Windows for opening e-mail attachments. The company also has a Palmtop-to-Desktop Connectivity product line. See www.dataviz.com.

Thursby Software Systems, Inc. (TSS) (Arlington, TX) features cross-platform networking products Dave, TSSnet, MacNFS and TSStalk.

Dave uses TCP/IP protocol rather than AppleTalk, and is designed specifically for the Mac to facilitate sharing between different Microsoft platforms and Mac systems. MacNFS "teaches your Mac and Unix" to share. TSStalk for WindowsNT lets users access files on any Mac workstation or AppleShare server, including AppleShare IP 6.x, personal file sharing and Unix-based machines. See www.thursby.com.

Miramar Systems (Santa Barbara, CA) is a provider of PC-to-PC system migration and Mac-to-PC interoperability software. Products include Desktop DNA, a system migration utility for single or multiple Windows migrations, upgrades and recovery; and PC MACLAN, a PC-to-Mac interoperability solution. See www.miramarsys.com.

Equilibrium DeBabelizer (Sausalito, CA) is said to automatically prepare graphics for delivery in any medium on any platform. Version 3 is for the Mac; Debabelizer Pro 4.5 is for Windows 95 and NT 4.0. See www.equilibrium.com.

Venus Internet (London) offers HiJaack Graphics Suite 3.0, which includes a visual file manager and organizer, access to file thumbnails from almost any application, and a conversion, screen capture and trace/raster to vector utility. See www.venus.co.uk.