Tech Industry

High tech pushes scalability

Microsoft pretends that it invented the word scalability, but for other companies, the term has a whole new meaning.

Scalability is the hot buzz word in the industry these days, mostly because Microsoft (MSFT) is using the term as if they invented it.

But the word that will come from software king Bill Gates next week at a special day in New York City dedicated to the subject will have a different meaning from the word that many enterprise network administrators and high-end computer companies have been using for years.

Gates and his Redmond, Washington-based minions have started to cling to the word as a means to drive Windows NT Server into large enterprise accounts currently running various flavors of Unix from companies such as Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. The company will use price-performance advantages and application support to tell its scalability story.

Even Novell will spin its own take on scalability for the masses in an event scheduled the day before Microsoft's hoedown next Tuesday.

Microsoft's version of scalability concerns a volume-based paradigm that allows lots of copies of NT Server to be sold along with Intel-based servers, strapped together with what should be a fast-growing market for third-party clustering interconnect and accompanying software implementations.

It also means extending NT's processor support from its current high end of six processors up to an emerging symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) server standard of eight processors. Later it might incorporate 64-bit technology for large file support.

Two market research firms, Forrester Research and the Aberdeen Group, have done extensive interviews with customers and found that the growing migration to Windows NT Server will not displace veteran enterprise Unix flavors as a mission-critical alternative. Most of the market share NT is gobbling up is coming at the expense of Novell NetWare and IBM OS/2 Warp servers.

Sun, Digital Equipment, and IBM, who often use the word scalability to discuss a very different view of the computing world from Microsoft. The veteran Unix and mainframe players might use scalability in terms of 64-to-128 processor Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) server systems that use a single version of a Unix or proprietary operating system variant to run an entire banking system, for example. That definition of scalability could be a long way off for the Redmondians.

For example, as part of its Scalability Day next week, Microsoft will discuss the initial version of Wolfpack, a clustering software scheme that will initially allow one four-processor SMP server to fail over to a secondary server. Digital Equipment, a company that has bet huge on the Windows NT platform, can offer customers that implementation in the coming months or its own homegrown version for the NT platform. It also could show off a Unix-based clustered system that incorporates up to 96 high-performance Alpha processors running Digital's Unix flavor.

Novell can also claim leadership over Microsoft in the clustering arena, having been shipping a failover scheme for some time and readying details on a set of technologies known as Wolf Mountain that will reportedly support hundreds of processors.

The scalability discussion is also confused by dueling product lines at several systems vendors, such as Digital and IBM. And Microsoft is using its relationships with veteran systems players to further its enterprise aims. But analysts still see a computing world where both Unix and NT will thrive, and different definitions of scalability can coexist.

"There is still substantial differentiation," said Jean Bozman, software analyst for International Data Corporation. "History says it will take a few years for Microsoft to work everything out, even with partners."

"These IT guys are pretty smart, they have seen many systems come and go," Bozman noted. "One system does not kill the other. NT Server is just moving up the organization. We don't see any signs of Unix servers tanking in the near future."