Native File Access Protocols: End of the Road for the Netware Client

Back in December, I reviewed NetWare 6 and
took a look at some of the new features on offer. One of the most significant additions is
that of the Native File Access Protocols that allow client systems to access a NetWare
server without Novell client software.

Having worked with NetWare for many years, the idea of accessing a server without client
software is more than a little intriguing. So, I decided to take a closer look.

The Native File Access Protocols (NFAP) allow clients to connect to and use the file system
of a NetWare server using the native client software included with each client platform;
Network File System for Unix and Linux, Appletalk Filing Protocol (AFP) for Macintosh
systems and the Common Internet File System (CIFS) for Windows clients. There is also a
Web Access capability that allows access through a browser, though this is implemented
through the NetStorage product rather than through NFAP.

NFAP is a major step forward for Novell and makes NetWare the only NOS platform that can
be made accessible across all commonly used client platforms without the need to install
any additional protocols or client software.

Jim Tanner, Director of Platform Product Management for Novell sees NFAP as a mechanism
for providing customers with an unrivaled degree of freedom when choosing a workstation

“NFAP means that the decision to go with a type of server has less of an impact on your
choice of desktop solution. If you want to run Linux systems, Mac’s, Windows and a
Palmtop, NetWare can be the file server for all of them. In the past an organization may
have steered a department away from one desktop platform to another because of server
compatibility. Now, with NFAP, there are no such issues.”

Eliminating the need for client software may give additional flexibility in
infrastructure, but the benefits of NFAP do not stop there. It also negates need to
install, maintain, update and configure client software, which has long been a burden for
those administering Novell networks. Over the years Novell has created many ways to speed
up the deployment of client software, but there is still an associated overhead. In
contrast, NFAP configuration is centralized and very streamlined.

To some it may seem that the simplicity of NFAP may erode the value of the directory
services, but it’s actually an excellent demonstration of its power. Using NFAP in concert
with directory services turns a NetWare server into little more than a network attached
storage device that also has application hosting capabilities. Whereas directory services
moved networking away from a server centric model in terms of user management and resource
access, NFAP takes the process one step further by making each NetWare server simply a
node that can provide a range of services, which may or may not include file and print.

While NFAP may remove the need for client software, it is still able to leverage the
capabilities of eDirectory when it comes to account management. For a user to access the
NetWare file system, they must have an eDirectory account irrespective of what client OS
they are using. The exact method of account management differs between NFAP supported
platforms, but in all cases Novell has made attempts to streamline user account management
from a whole network perspective.

For example, on the CIFS version of NFAP, users can access the NetWare server through an
account maintained on a Windows primary domain controller (PDC) rather than in
eDirectory. The corresponding user account must still be created in eDirectory, but that
account is only used for the purposes of assigning file permissions within the NetWare
file structure. When a user from a Windows system logs in to the NetWare server via NFAP,
the username and password are verified against the user account information on the Windows
PDC so that users need only maintain one user account for network access.

In practical use, NFAP is impressively simple to install and configure. That said, the
current release has the hallmarks of a version 1 product which, given that’s what it is,
does not seem unreasonable. For example with the CIFS component of NFAP, unless the
recently released NFAP service pack is installed, the NetWare server will not appear in
Network Neighborhood unless there is another Windows system on the network acting as a
master browser.

Also, administration of NFAP for CIFS is performed through a series of text files which
must be edited manually. In contrast, administration for the NFS NFAP client is performed
through ConsoleOne. Neither method is flawed, but a degree of consistency would add to the
overall ‘finishing’ of the product.

Administration of NFAP is something that Novell say will change in the next version of
NetWare, codenamed Nakoma, due for release in first half of 2003. Nakoma will bring
browser based configuration tools for all aspects of administration including NFAP. In the
meantime, another service pack for NFAP is expected in the summer though it seems unlikely
that this will include any administrative enhancements.

NFAP is included with NetWare 6, though organizations with NetWare 5.1 deployed can use it
if they are willing to pay the $299 per server license fee, upgrade to eDirectory and
install Novell Modular Authentication Services (NMAS).

While NFAP may be just the ticket for those who just want to access the file system of a
NetWare server, it does have its limitations. First of these is that NFAP only allows file
access – printing support must be provided through another mechanism such as
iPrint/Internet Printing Protocol.

Also, organizations that use ZenWorks or users who administer GroupWise or ManageWise
will, for now at least, need to stick with the Novell client software. Novell says that in
the future NFAP will support more features, though they stop short of saying the NFAP
access method will support them all.

For that reason, and because many companies have a considerable investment in Novell
client software mechanisms, Novell has pledged to continue with the development and
support of ‘traditional’ Novell client software. According to Jim Tanner “Native File
Access is about providing a choice for the customer. Using the NetWare client software is,
and will remain, one of those choices.”

Although that may be reassuring for future NetWare users, if future versions of NFAP
include features like printing and ZenWorks support, there seems little reason why you
would want to continue using client software.

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