"NOS" is the term used to describe a networked environment in which various types of resources, such as user, group, and computer accounts, are stored in a central repository that is controlled and accessible to end users. Typically a NOS environment is comprised of one or more servers that provide NOS services, such as authentication and account manipulation, and multiple end users that access those services.
Microsoft's first integrated NOS environment became available in 1990 with the release of Windows NT 3.0, which combined many features of the LAN Manager protocols and OS/2 operating system. The NT NOS slowly evolved over the next eight years until Active Directory was first released in beta in 1997.
Under Windows NT, the "domain" concept was introduced, providing a way to group resources based on administrative and security boundaries. NT domains are flat structures limited to about 40,000 objects (users, groups, and computers). For large organizations, this limitation imposed superficial boundaries on the design of the domain structure. Often, domains were geographically limited as well because the replication of data between domain controllers (i.e., servers providing the NOS services to end users) performed poorly over high-latency or low-bandwidth links. Another significant problem with the NT NOS was delegation of administration, which typically tended to be an all-or-nothing matter at the domain level.
Microsoft was well aware of these limitations and needed to rearchitect their NOS model into something that would be much more scalable and flexible. For that reason, they looked to LDAP-based directory services as a possible solution.
In generic terms, a directory service is a repository of network, application, or NOS information that is useful to multiple applications or users. Under this definition, the Windows NT NOS is a type of directory service. In fact, there are many different types of directories, including Internet white pages, email systems, and even the Domain Name System (DNS). While each of these systems have characteristics of a directory service, X.500 and the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) define the standards for how a true directory service is implemented and accessed.
Windows NT and Active Directory both provide directory services to clients (Windows NT in a more generic sense). And while both share some common concepts, such as Security Identifiers (SIDs) to identify security principals, they are very different from a feature, scalability, and functionality point of view. Below Table contains a comparison of features between Windows NT and Active Directory.
Single-master replication is used, from the PDC master to the BDC subordinates.
Multimaster replication is used between all domain controllers.
Domain is the smallest unit of partitioning.
Naming Contexts and Application Partitions are the smallest unit of partitioning.
System policies can be used locally on machines or set at the domain level.
Group policies can be managed centrally and used by clients throughout the forest based on domain, site or OU criteria.
Data cannot be stored hierarchically within a domain.
Data can be stored in a hierarchical manner using OUs.
Domain is the smallest unit of security delegation and administration.
A property of an object is the smallest unit of security delegation/administration.
NetBIOS and WINS used for name resolution.
DNS is used for name resolution.
Object is the smallest unit of replication.
Attribute is the smallest unit of replication.
In Windows Server 2003 Active Directory, some attributes replicate on a per-value basis (such as the member attribute of group objects).
Maximum recommended database size for SAM is 40 MB.
Recommended maximum database size for Active Directory is 70 TB.
Maximum effective number of users is 40,000 (if you accept the recommended 40 MB maximum).
The maximum number of objects is in the tens of millions.
Four domain models (single, single-master, multimaster, complete-trust) required to solve per-domain admin-boundary and user-limit problems.
No domain models required as the complete-trust model is implemented. One-way trusts can be implemented manually.
Schema is not extensible.
Schema is fully extensible.
Data can only be accessed through a Microsoft API.
Supports LDAP, which is the standard protocol used by directories, applications, and clients that want to access directory data. Allows for cross-platform data access and management.
Table: A comparison between Windows NT and Active Directory