Microsoft's Windows NT turns 20

Microsoft's Windows NT turns 20

Summary: Twenty years ago, Microsoft launched Windows NT. Rather than being relegated to the dust heap, NT still plays a role in many of Microsoft's current and future operating systems.


Twenty years ago tomorrow, July 27, Microsoft launched Windows NT, as Mark Morowczynski of Microsoft's "Ask Premier Field Engineering blog" reminded me this week.


NT's not ancient history, in spite of its age. The NT "core" is what's inside Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, Windows Phone 8, Windows Azure and the Xbox One.

In 1993, Microsoft launched Windows NT 3.1. It was followed up by NT 3.5, 3.51 and 4.0. Microsoft's Windows releases still rely on NT-inspired numbering conventions. Windows 7's build numbers commenced with 6.1; Windows 8's with 6.2; and Windows 8.1 with 6.3.

Morowczynski also mentioned in his birthday post one of my favorite tech-history books: ShowStopper! That book was all about the development of Windows NT.

I have a special copy of that book -- one autographed to me personally by Dave Cutler. Yep, that Dave Cutler -- the father of Windows NT and one of the main developers of the Xbox One operating system. Unsurprisingly, Cutler is the focal point of ShowStopper! and not always in a positive way. I guess that explains his inscription in my copy:


(I especially like the reference to Microsoft's old "Evil Empire" name, since I penned a column way back when entitled "At the Evil Empire.)

Cutler is one of the people at Microsoft I still have yet to interview in person. I'm still hoping I get a shot one day. I did have a chance to send him a few questions about "Red Dog," a k a Windows Azure, a few years ago. Looking back at his comments from 2009, his answer as to why he joined the Windows Azure team stood out:

"At the time I was not a large proponent of virtualization because of the high overhead it extracted from the base hardware system. I spent a considerable amount of time studying Microsoft's virtualization efforts and after about three months became convinced we could build an efficient hypervisor for RD (Red Dog) if we predicated it on second generation virtualization hardware and ran a single OS that was modified to run in the hypervisor environment as efficiently as possible. I never had any doubt that cloud computing would become an important part of Microsoft's product offering and getting over the virtualization hurdle convinced me I should join the team."

Cutler ended up moving from Windows Azure to the Xbox team some time in late 2011. Fittingly, Xbox One, which will be powered by a trio of operating systems anchored by Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor. What goes around, comes around.

It's also kind of fitting that today happens to be "National SysAdmin Day." Give your long-suffering Windows sysadmin a hug... or maybe sign the petition that is trying to get Microsoft to reverse its decision to kill TechNet instead.

Update: For a nice look back at NT's history, check out this piece written back in 1998 by Mark Russinovich. (Thanks reader Rabid Howler Monkey!)

Topics: Windows, Cloud, Microsoft, Virtualization, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Windows Server


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Dave Cutler

    is the main man. When he came along, he made a better OS/2 than OS/2, which is what NT was originally supposed to be. His clear vision of separating the user subsystems from the kernel from the hardware may seem standard now, but it wasn't something Microcomputer programmers thought was practical for PCs back when he did it.

    They should put him in charge of everything... each of the four divisions. Marketing too, because he drives race cars. :)
    • Unfortunately his work was sold out

      and now if you want an OS without an NSA backdoor you have to switch to Linux.
      • Better not switch to Linux

        The most popular flavour of Linux named Android is one big fat backdoor, so that Google can sell your data.

        By the way, there is of course no proof whatsoever there is a backdoor in Windows NT.
        • Has the NSA scandal not taught you anything?

          Microsoft, Apple, phone companies, cell companies, and cable companies, as well as Google, have all been giving the same info to the NSA for years, but you still think only Google is tracking people? Unbelievable.
          • What NSA scandal

            You mean that article in the Guardian that lacked any shred of evidence ? If you mean that companies are passing on data to the NSA, sure, I believe they have no choice, as the legislative branch of the USA made that a necessity by law.

            I am of course not talking about that in relation to Google, Google is a dataminer that will sell your data to the highest bidder, that is of course far, far worse. By the way, I have nothing at all to fear from silly American government agencies, the usa is certainly a messed up country, has been for decades, and you don't have Apple, Microsoft or even Google to thank for that.
          • And you beleive Google is the only data-mining company?

            So MS, Apple, Sony, Samsung, and thousands of other companies are not making money from user collected data?

            If that's true, why to all the EULAs from all those thousands of companies all grant the right to do whatever they want with any and all data they can collect?

            Yes, even Microsoft's EULAs all have provisions like that. Read em and weep.
          • google don't just allow google to do things with it

            They allow them to sell it to whoever they want. They also allow them to publish all your documents and make them available to everyone.
            Johnny Vegas
          • Snowden may have all Microsoft RSA certificates

            The RSA certificates can not be changed over the internet. If Snowden releases these key, Microsoft is toast.
            Tim Jordan
          • 5As we were told, there is a backdoor to all Microsoft products

            The NSA gets Microsoft code after the final build and then adds the keys. The keys are added to solid builds of Windows not updates over the internet so Microsoft nor the NSA can change these keys without a solid build. Meaning a DVD release is needed to change the RSA certificates. If Snowden releases the backdoor keys, Microsoft will have to release a free DVD version and that will be death press for Microsoft.
            Tim Jordan
          • USA killed Microsoft with it's demands for surveillance

            RSA stands for Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman, who first publicly described the algorithm in 1977
            Tim Jordan
          • Russia and China are now using these backdoor keys

            Russia told Snowden than he can not release anything to hurt the US / Russia relationship. Meaning Snowden can not tell America that he gave Russia the keys to the backdoor into every Microsoft program on their computer.
            Tim Jordan
          • microosoft's NT turns 20

            I hope that what you say is not true because if this guy did give up the keys. He betrayed the USA through Microsoft. Microsoft and the NSA by now have put software fixes to counter this threat. if they have not done so by now them
            Microsoft and the NSA are run by a bunch of amateurs. The troubles with the home land security bill started when the Washington Politician who did not read the bill Folks a mass murdered or serial killer gets read their rights and a lawyer
            but The patriot act does not give a suspected terrorist the same rights I think it is wrong because what if some one living in your house is a secret terrorist and The authorities using the patriot act raid your house and find dangerous stuff in your relatives room you did not know was there. you get dragged out the house and cannot get a lawyer to help defend yourself for the actions of a nutty relative.
            you might loose your job, your kids sent to a foster home. get branded for a crime you would never commit. after you are cleared if you are cleared your whole life is messed up.
          • who betrayed whom?

            By placing vulnerable backdoors in their operating systems, it was the software manufacturers who betrayed their customers, and the NSA that betrayed US citizens, not Snowden.

            Obscurity security never works.
          • What does this mean?

            gregnewm7 wrote:

            "The troubles with the home land security bill started when the Washington Politician who did not read the bill Folks a mass murdered or serial killer gets read their rights and a lawyer but The patriot act does not give a suspected terrorist the same rights I think it is wrong ..."

            I completely fail to understand the meaning of this string of words. Please can gregnewm7 explain in English what he's trying to say?
          • Microsoft datamines as well

            they are just not as good at selling the data as Google.
          • Backdoor attempts in Linux:

            There are attempts to insert a backdoor into Linux. Here is one attempt that actually got blocked, but who knows how many attempts have passed the code review in Linux? Linux accepts so much code and removes so much code, that it is impossible to review all code that enters the kernel. 15 million lines of code, and counting in Linux...
            "That's the kind of pub talk that you end up having," says BindView security researcher Mark 'Simple Nomad' Loveless. "If you were the NSA, how would you backdoor someone's software? You'd put in the changes subtly. Very subtly."
            "Whoever did this knew what they were doing," says Larry McVoy, founder of San Francisco-based BitMover, which hosts the Linux kernel development site that was compromised. "They had to find some flags that could be passed to the system without causing an error, and yet are not normally passed together... There isn't any way that somebody could casually come in, not know about Unix, not know the Linux kernel code, and make this change. Not a chance."
        • >> Linux named Android is one big fat backdoor

          backdoor in open OS? Where, please point us at that in here ? Which file exactly?
          • Sorry you are right

            It isn't a backdoor, Android simply leaves the front door open. Unless you don't use Google's services. It always amazes me how the GNU/Linux crowd is cheering on Android and Google. Yes it is open source, yes it might be even "free" software, but you pay for it with your privacy, that much is cristal clear.
          • You need to do some reading.

            From the Windows 8 EULA Privacy section, and I quote:

            "Collection and use of your information

            The personal information we collect from you will be used by Microsoft and its controlled subsidiaries and affiliates to enable the features you use and provide the services or carry out the transactions you have requested or authorized. The information may also be used to analyze and improve Microsoft products and services.

            Except as described in this statement, personal information you provide won't be transferred to third parties without your consent. We occasionally hire other companies to provide limited services on our behalf, such as for performing statistical analysis of our services. We will only provide those companies the personal information they need to deliver the service, and they are prohibited from using that information for any other purpose.

            Microsoft may access or disclose information about you, including the content of your communications, in order to: (a) comply with the law or respond to lawful requests or legal process; (b) protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers, including the enforcement of our agreements or policies governing your use of the software; or (c) act on a good faith belief that such access or disclosure is necessary to protect the personal safety of Microsoft employees, customers, or the public.

            Information collected by or sent to Microsoft by Windows 8 may be stored and processed in the United States or any other country in which Microsoft or its affiliates, subsidiaries, or service providers maintain facilities. Microsoft abides by the safe harbor framework as set forth by the U.S. Department of Commerce regarding the collection, use, and retention of data from the European Union, the European Economic Area, and Switzerland."

            Note the lines:
            "The information may also be used to analyze and improve Microsoft products and services." = MS can use the info for whatever they want.
            "Information collected by or sent to Microsoft by Windows 8 may be stored and processed in the United States or any other country in which Microsoft or its affiliates, subsidiaries, or service providers maintain facilities": Affiliates denotes any company that enters into an agreement with MS, including Ad and Demographics companies, i.e. Dataminers.

            Nothing in the Windows 8 EULA forbids MS from doing exactly what Google tells us they do.
            So MS leaves the front door as wide open as Google.
          • wrong. Microsoft won't sell it to other companies

            and won't make it available to other people not working for me and won't publish it to the general public
            Johnny Vegas