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Microsoft tries to toughen NT

Microsoft is forging ahead with plans to toughen Windows NT to compete with Unix for use in critical business applications.

Microsoft (MSFT) wants to prove it can tip the scales.

Hoping to approach the scalability and transaction toughness of Unix, the company plans to combine its long-awaited Wolfpack clustering extensions, the currently shipping Microsoft Transaction Server, and the soon-to-be-released Microsoft Message Queuing software with Windows NT Server in what it will call the Enterprise Edition of NT, according to sources close to the company. The new bundle will be unveiled on May 20 at a Microsoft Scalability Day at the Equitable Center in Manhattan.

Microsoft representatives would not comment on any upcoming announcements.

The company is forging ahead with plans to make Windows NT more durable for use in critical software applications, although some would say the software giant is late in recognizing the importance of scalability. In fact, scalability has become kind of a touchstone for vendors of Unix operating systems that want to point out the comparative immaturity of the Microsoft OS.

But Microsoft is continuing to improve elements of the operating system as it guns for the midrange market dominated by pricey Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and IBM boxes, all running Unix variants.

The scalability of an operating system refers to its ability to support additional processors while providing additional computing power per processor. Windows NT Server can currently be used on hardware platforms using up to six processors before performance starts to suffer significantly.

Various Unix operating system variants, such as Sun's Solaris, can handle 16 or more processors. Sun claims it can handle up to 64 processors before performance starts to degrade. Other systems companies, such as NCR, ship middleware software that can extend NT's multiprocessing capabilities to eight processors or more, but this adds another layer of complexity to running the server that administrators would like to eliminate.

Analysts say these limitations in large networked environments are still an important topic for Microsoft, which has its roots in operating system software for PCs, not servers.

In fact, it is largely because of scalability that Unix will remain the primary operating system for enterprise applications for years to come, according to a recent report from market researcher Forrester Research.

The firm conducted interviews with 50 CIOs of large corporations and found that Windows NT is rapidly replacing IBM OS/2 and Novell NetWare servers within workgroups as a file and print or small applications server. But Unix systems will remain a key component of corporate systems strategies.

The Forrester data shows that 76 percent of CIOs will continue to purchase both Unix and NT operating systems. The survey also said that 62 percent of those CIOs think NT's principal weakness is its lack of scalability. The report did note that NT will eventually take over the midrange space and squeeze Unix into a high-end niche.

While NT sales have grown enormously this year--as Microsoft's latest quarterly report made clear--nearly 80 percent of CIOs believe that running a corporation with one operating system is technically impossible, a statistic that indicates that NT will eventually reach a saturation point.

While next month's Scalability Day is supposed to demonstrate that Microsoft is serious about competing in the marketing for enterprise operating systems, other analysts say that Microsoft won't catch up technologically with Unix for many years.

The Aberdeen Group surveyed more than 200 Fortune 500 organizations and found that many corporations that were once doing Web server deployment on Windows NT reverted to Unix boxes. "They find that the [Windows NT] machines bog down," said Jim Hurley, director of operating environments for the firm. "It's very consistent, not unique."

Hurley said other organizations that have made a commitment to Windows NT for fast-growing applications are finding that scalability limitations are the main problem. "They could easily use an additional 8 to 16 CPUs. As a result of that, they have to deploy a lot more NT servers than originally anticipated."

He added that those IT groups who went for NT early on--two or three years ago--have suffered for that choice. "There's been a lot of blood left on the floor."

That doesn't mean that Microsoft isn't moving in the right direction, though. "We see a lot of hype in the press that is not justified based on the uses for the systems," Hurley noted. "If you look at the decision-makers, you find they are being very pragmatic [about Windows NT deployment]. I think Microsoft is taking the right steps as far as the functionality of services they deliver. It's going to take a few years to iron out the kinks."

Microsoft and Intel have not aimed their joint server software and hardware efforts at the high-end of the Unix systems space, but toward the volume midrange market where the combination of Windows NT, Intel multiprocessing Pentium Pro server boards, and clustering software can be a competitive alternative to similar Unix systems.

To better play in this niche, the Enterprise Edition of Windows NT will include message queuing and transaction software so that the operating system can handle heavy-duty transaction processing applications. Adding Wolfpack clustering to the mix will provide more reliability off the bat because the server will have failover capabilities, or the ability to switch to a secondary system if the primary system fails.

Eventually, Wolfpack will also offer distributed clustering enhancements so users may add a server to a cluster as needed, thereby supporting more applications and users per server without having to reconfigure a whole new system. Microsoft's eventual move to a 64-bit architecture will also improve scalability because a 64-bit OS will be able to crunch larger chunks of data.

"We really believe in clustering and using our transaction server to distribute processing across a number of machines," said Tom Kreyche, product manager for SQL Server marketing at Microsoft. "That's really where the industry is going as far as scalability for the [volume] market."

Many analysts are willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt that it will address these issues. "Any operating system, once it's out there, needs time to mature. Over time, we can expect NT Server to scale higher and higher," said Jean Bozman, an International Data Corporation software analyst. "What they need is time. For a young operating system, NT is doing very, very well."