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

by Drew Bird

With the Native File Access Protocols found in Netware 6, the platform's occasionally troublesome Netware client software is a thing of the past.

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 OS.

"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.

This article was originally published on Saturday Mar 23rd 2002