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Enlisting high-end help for NT

Microsoft executives all but admitted that it's going to need some help in making Windows NT Server OS an attractive alternative to proven high-end software.

Microsoft executives all but admitted today that if its Windows NT Server operating system is ever to gain the features that will make it an attractive alternative to proven high-end software, it's going to need some help.

Microsoft enlisted aid from longtime ally Compaq Computer today in order to access high-end software technologies that the PC maker gained from the acquisitions of Digital Equipment and Tandem Computers.

Microsoft's NT operating system has become a key component in many networks for delivery of file services, Web pages, and low-end application rollouts, but the software is not yet thought of as a replacement for reliable veterans of the industrial-strength software wars such as Unix, Digital's OpenVMS, or IBM's OS/390.

But news of the deal between Compaq and Microsoft was noticeably short on specifics and long on promises, noted analysts. "It's just words at this point," said Dwight Davis, Microsoft analyst with Summit Strategies.

No timetable for delivery of the technology was given, though Paul Maritz, group vice president for Microsoft, said the high-end software enhancements would begin to appear in post-NT 5.0 releases. The NT 5.0 operating system itself is fraught with uncertainty at this point, with some believing the upgrade will be delivered as late as the year 2000.

"We won't get there tomorrow, but this puts a stake in the ground," admitted Maritz, alluding to the incorporation of the high-end Compaq technology.

Microsoft has essentially sent up another warning flare to the industry that someday, somehow, everyone will want to use Windows NT Server in every corner of their business, according to analysts, despite a current climate of delays for the next version of the operating system--the Windows NT Server 5.0 upgrade. An initial "stake in the ground" was sent up in May of last year, when Microsoft trumpeted the "scalability" of NT--an effort that was met with a heap of skepticism due to the current state of NT.

"This is definitely Microsoft admitting they don't have the answer to every question," said Dan Kusnetzky, analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation. "Either Microsoft makes itself more of a corporate citizen or they don't become a corporate citizen."

The deal also includes an interoperability component for customers using NT and Digital's flavor of Unix, an operating system often used in the upper reaches of company networks. Though executives dismissed the notion that the announcement was reactive in any way, it comes just a day after Sun Microsystems launched the latest in a series of efforts to allow its systems and software to work with NT.

The deal with Compaq provides Microsoft with high-end software technologies currently used in Tandem's NonStop Kernel and Digital's OpenVMS and Unix operating systems. Previously, Digital had programs in place to increase the interoperability and high-end features of NT when the Microsoft operating system was used with Digital alternatives. The latest move represents the first time Microsoft has become proactive in adding technology in its own software, according to analysts.

"It does make a lot of sense that Microsoft would look to its good partners for technology to lay out its grand vision," Kusnetzky noted. Though Microsoft has several software strengths, "experience in building this type of bulletproof operating environment isn't one of them," he said.

Compaq, Tandem, and Digital all have long-standing relationships with Microsoft. Former Digital operating system guru David Cutler was even lured to Redmond to help in the NT effort.

Specific technologies found in the agreement include: clustered transactional and recovery services, remote mirroring technology for disaster recovery between two sites, a clustered file system and partitioning capabilities, and tools for use in high-availability settings, such as wireless networks, where Tandem has a significant foothold. The deal will also make Microsoft's component object model (COM) method of building distributed applications an option for high-end programmers.

A likely scenario, according to observers, is for this bevy of high-end software to seep into the promised 64-bit version of NT, a post-5.0 release. As Maritz said: "We are really declaring today what our next challenge is."

The move also gives the older technology Compaq acquired in the Tandem and Digital deals a potentially longer shelf life. "There's just a large pool of technology from which to select," noted John Rose, senior vice president and group general manager for Compaq's enterprise computing group.

This marks the latest of several moves by the software giant to gain access to high-end technology. Microsoft dipped into its war chest of cash last month for some NT-based load-balancing technology, useful in large clusters of Web server systems and another piece of Microsoft's strategy to make NT a high-end success story.