Microsoft's Windows NT turns 20

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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!)

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