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RISC World

NTUsers2

Mike Choo has been sleeping with the enemy

Windows NT Servers, and more latterly Windows 2000 servers, have been making inroads into schools which had previously been using Acorn level 4 or Advanced level 4 fileserver software. With it, it brings all the vagaries of Windows and a complex set of options for network managers to deal with.

One limitation for organisations with a large number of users is that NT itself is not very user friendly for setting up such numbers of users. Typically NT would have been originally designed for small businesses with a relatively small number of users, say 30 or so, where the users would be set up using NT"s "User manager for domains" application with a whole array of often unneeded options.

However, setting up a thousand or more users in a school this way would take literally days even though most users would need similar attributes e.g. depending on whether they were pupils or staff. Enter, to the rescue, Atomwide with their NTUsers package which initially ran only on an Acorn (with RISC OS 3.5 or later) in conjunction with the Datapower database with the ironic result that you would need at least one user friendly Acorn to help set up a Windows network on an NT server! This package was designed from an experience of Acorn networking which would help it to make using NT more friendly in the manner of how Level 4 had been for years.

NTUsers2 developed from the original application with a range of features that extends on the original version though sensibly (though in a way sadly) in a cross platform version in that it is a Datapower2 database. Hence it should work with any platform version of Datapower 2 (version 2.15 or later), Acorn, PC or Mac, including with the free Datapower reader downloadable from the Iota web site at www.iota.co.uk.

Setting up users with NTUsers

Whatever client stations you have connected to an NT/W2000 server, each user must be created with their own user name, password and various other optional attributes. While the built in User Managers enable you to set up users one at a time, when you have many users to set up this is simply too time consuming.

Basically what NTUsers does is to take a CSV file (comma separated values comma delimited text file) or TSV file and do all the donkey work for you in creating a batch file (a kind of PC obey file) which will then set them up and give them the attributes you have chosen from its available options.

Many schools use the SIMS (School Information Management System) administration software, or an alternative similar system, to keep details of pupils on record. From this it is possible to extract data in CSV format so one could get typically the surname, first name and year of entry as a minimum set of data. The reason for choosing year of entry rather than which year they are currently in is that it stays valid for their whole school life whereas the year they are in changes each year and would give tedious administrative problems in that all users would need to have certain details changed each time they changed year.

Initial options

NTUsers is a pre-prepared Datapower 2 database into which this data file can be imported and manipulated whereas its predecessor was a combination of a Datapower database and a separate application. A preliminary screen allows the setting up of default parameters such as the name of the server and the drive where users' directories are to be placed. Each user will have their own directory and it is usually an advantage that this is a "hidden" share so others cannot see that it is there. The choice is given as to whether they are to be hidden or not and also as to whether users can change their passwords. It may be that a network manager would want pupils to be able to change their passwords as a security measure or they may prefer that they cannot so they can use initial records to give the pupil another copy of their password when they forget their own, which they regularly do.

Importing and processing data

Initially the database must be emptied of any existing records and the CSV file can be imported by dragging it onto the tool bar of the appropriate database layout and matching the items in the CSV file to the database fields.

Once the data is imported various actions can be undertaken by clicking on buttons which activate Datapower scripts. The main users set up layout allows generation of user names by double clicking on the appropriate button. User names are typically constructed from the last two digits of the year of entry and a combination of letters from the surname, their first name initial and a number. NTUsers will also check that no users have been given duplicate names. If desired the generated user names can be cleared and redone.

There are a variety of options for setting passwords, each user can be given their own, or a uniform password allocated to everyone as a temporary measure until they each change their own to their own unique choice. If each user is to have their own password set by NTUsers then such a password can be a random selection from a pre-set editable list or can be a randomly generated unique one. Using the pre-set list gives passwords which are easier to remember but might be guessable if the default list of 26 words is used and pupils compare passwords. A unique randomly generated password is more secure but can be difficult to remember, particularly as it is likely to consist of both upper and lower case characters. It is useful, then that NTUsers gives alternative options and if you change your mind you can clear one set of passwords and replace them with an alternative set.

Once all the users have their user names and passwords to your satisfaction a batch file can be created. This can be a batch file that will set up the root directory for the users" directories to reside within, normally called Users with sub directories for each year of entry. This would normally be the choice for the very first time users are set up on a server. Alternatively, if the users are additions to a set of existing users then only the instructions needed to set up the users, their directories etc are included. This does mean that if a completely new group e.g. a new year"s entry are being added that the sub directory for the year of entry within the main users directory must be created manually. A third option is to generate a batch file that will remove a set of users. This might be useful where a complete set of pupils leaves school. The NTUsers database can be searched to select just that year and then a batch file with the commands to remove the users can be generated.

Once a batch file has been created it is transferred to the server over the network or via floppy disc; double clicking on it will then set up the users with the chosen attributes. Depending on the speed of the server hundreds of users can then be set up in a matter of minutes. I timed a batch of around 80 users at about 15 seconds on a Pentium P2 400. One little glitch is that the batch file created is called NTSETUP.BAT which when generated on pre RISC OS 4 Acorns will truncate to NTSETUP/BA as only 10 characters can be used in a file name. This means you have to rename it on the server or a PC formatted floppy to restore the BAT suffix, an unexpected irritation considering how well the product is designed otherwise.

To help inform pupils of their individual user details there is a facility to print these from another layout accessible by clicking on an icon on the screen. These can then be cut into individual slips.

Changes compared to the original NTUsers

The newer version has a number of improvements. With the previous version, when you added an extra batch of users there was always the need to manually check the user names generated against existing users or to add the new users" CSV/TSV file into the existing database of users with the danger that regenerating all the usernames, so they can be checked against one another, might cause anomalies under certain circumstances. Now that user names start with the last two figures of the year of entry a new cohort of pupils can be added independently with the confidence that they will not duplicate user names of those in other years.

More options are given regarding passwords, the earlier version assigning the same default password to everyone unless they already had different ones contained in the original CSV/TSV file. Now passwords can be allocated from a list and also be randomly generated obviating the need for all pupils to have to set a new password straight away if they just had a default one which everyone knew and afforded no security. This makes it easier for a teacher to set a password which cannot be changed so that in the event that a pupil loses or forgets the password they can remind them from a list (which, incidentally, can be easily printed from NTUsers) rather than have to go to the server each time and change it from there. Since the list of preset passwords is editable a teacher can put in any number of their own choice.

The earlier version required about 20 processes of dragging and dropping between the NTUsers Datapower database and its companion application. This version is much simpler to use or re-use if you change your mind about something part way through as I changed from listed passwords to random ones just by clearing one set and generating the next, each action involving double clicking on a button. There are also more varieties of batch file that can be processed.

The one major loss from the previous version is that the newer one will not process the creation of script files. Basically, the script files that were made in the original were individual "boot" type files which would be run at logon, one for each user. These files would only be run by PC clients not Acorns but if the Acorn clients were used with Atomwide's NTFiler, for instance, they could do something similar anyway. The default script that was generated did just two things although more could be added if desired. One just set the clock on the client from the time on the server but the second did a really useful thing of helping access to the user"s network area by putting an access icon in My Computer. .

The new version of NTUsers leaves you to produce any script files you want though it will allocate a script to each user for you, assuming you give the filename of the script even if that script does not yet actually exist. It does also allow more options regarding scripts, allowing you to set a single one for everyone to use, or one per year group or one per user but in each case you have to produce your own script file(s). By setting everyone to use the same script you only have to produce one but that means you have to know how to write scripts. Hence if you want an icon for a user's home directory in My Computer that means knowing how to get the syntax correct. I have also had one report from a school of problems when a number of users logging on simultaneously all used the same logon script causing them to revert to individual scripts.

If you want one per user as with the old version then for 200 users you will need to create 200 scripts manually! Alternatively, if you have the older version, you can do as I did and after creating all the users, passwords etc, export the data in CSV format back into the original NTUsers and whizz through the processes to have it create the scripts for you took me about 3 minutes for 80. That way I got the advantages of the new version and still got the individual scripts I wanted. So you may still need an Acorn to do the whole lot!!

Conclusion

This is an extremely useful kind of utility and one that I would recommend every NT/W2000 network manager to have as it enables whole batches of users to be set up so quickly and easily compared to doing it manually using NT"s User Manager for Domains. It is not a complete substitute for knowing how to set up users and directories as certain elements may still have to be set up manually but they are relatively small demands.

Being a Datapower database also leaves scope for personal customisation but only for those who really know what they are doing and generally it is unnecessary, in my opinion, unless you have a very specialist requirement. You do need to have a copy of Datapower 2 if you want to do any customisation otherwise you can use IOTA's free Datapower 2 run only application, downloadable from their web site.

The loss of the script making facility is a minor drawback and I would keep the original version for this reason but otherwise this version"s improvements have been very well thought out.

The latest version also has some facilities that relate specifically to the later Windows 2000 server though I have not fully tested these though I found that scripts I generated worked fine on W2000 as well as NT4.


Product details

Product: NTUsers
Supplier: Atomwide
Price: £99 (ex VAT) for a single installation.
Address: Unit 7, The Metro Centre, Bridge Road, Orpington, Kent BR5 2BE
Tel: 01689 814500
WWW: www.atomwide.co.uk
E-mail: sales@atomwide.co.uk

Note that it is necessary to have at least a single user copy of Datapower (v 2.15 or later) from Iota Software in order to customise NTUsers.

Product details

Product: Datapower2
Supplier: Iota
Price: £149 (ex VAT)
Address: Iota House, Wellington Court, Cambridge CB1 1HZ
Tel: 01223 566789
WWW: www.iota.co.uk
E-mail: sales@iota.co.uk

Mike Choo

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