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IBM opens up high-end Windows options

IBM and Microsoft have eased hardware and purchasing requirements for Microsoft's top-end version of Windows, a move to make the OS less expensive and more appealing.

IBM this week relaxed stringent requirements for running the highest-end version of its Windows server software, effectively lowering the overall price 30 percent in some cases and potentially expanding the pool of interested customers.

To minimize crashes, Microsoft and server makers have tightly controlled Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition, a product geared for critical tasks that run on powerful machines with numerous processors. For example, hardware, software and storage choices were limited to a small number of certified configurations, and a customer had to purchase support services from the server maker.

Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition is designed for high-end multiprocessor servers running critical tasks. To enable the careful testing of quality and compatibility that's needed to cut down on crashes, Microsoft has permitted the operating system to be used only in conjunction with a short list of certified hardware and software, including network adapters and antivirus programs.

In addition, Microsoft has required that customers buy support contracts and that the systems be set up in advance by qualified server makers such as IBM and Unisys.

Now those constraints are being lifted, IBM confirmed this week. Among the changes: Customers no longer must buy the support; IBM-certified hardware may be installed, not just the much shorter list of Datacenter-certified hardware; and customers or computer resellers now may build and install Datacenter servers on their own instead of ordering pre-built machines from IBM.

"The fact that this is happening suggests there is perhaps some growing demand from customers to get easier and cheaper access to that version of Windows, which at the end of the day can only be seen as a good thing for Microsoft," said Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis. "If Microsoft is able to sell more Datacenter editions and increase its presence in the enterprise, that's clearly a core strategic objective."

Microsoft has tried for years to spread Windows to high-end servers, a domain in which Unix systems and mainframes have long dominated. Despite Windows reliability and security problems, the balance of power is changing with the gradual maturing of Windows and the increasing horsepower of Intel-based servers.

The loosened Datacenter terms fixes a problem: Customers sophisticated enough to run Datacenter servers were the ones who least needed extensive handholding, said Donn Bullock, senior brand manager for IBM's high-end EXA Intel servers. The previous terms quashed customer desires to move from eight-processor systems that Windows' Enterprise Edition can use to 16-processor or larger models that require Datacenter.

"The big hurdle is the big price jump going from Enterprise to Datacenter just to get the additional scalability," Bullock said. "They want to scale, but they don't want to be required to purchase the additional services that Microsoft is requiring them to buy."

But once support services are dropped, "Today's new Datacenter offering is roughly 30 percent less expensive than it was before," Bullock said. The move brings Datacenter prices nearer to IBM's lower-end sibling, Enterprise Edition, which is limited to eight-processor servers.

Microsoft wasn't shy about attaching a high price in 2002: It charged server makers , according to NEC.

Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

Datacenter runs on several configurations of IBM's x445 server with as many as 32 Xeon processors and its x455 server with as many as 16 Itanium processors. On Tuesday, IBM added Datacenter support for new models using Intel's 2.7GHz and 3.0GHz Xeon processors and 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz Itanium 2 chips.

Windows is now reliable on higher-end multiprocessor systems, said Susan Whitney, who runs IBM's xSeries group for Intel-based servers, in an interview. And because Microsoft "substantially changed their pricing dynamics," more customers will get expertise in the area, she added.

Microsoft's perpetual foe, Linux, is also making its way into high-end servers. "We see a lot of Linux on eight-ways," Whitney said. "Linux on an eight-way is a nonevent."

Bullock said about 15 to 20 percent of IBM's eight-processor server use Linux, typically to run Oracle or DB2 databases and business software such as SAP's products.