Tech Industry

Sun plans to work with NT

Sun plans to make its Solaris Unix server capable of handling network services that come with the rival Windows NT operating system.

Sun Microsystems is eating crow but it could end up tasting like filet mignon.

Backing off its long-time policy of shunning Microsoft's Windows NT platform, Sun today announced plans to make its Solaris Unix servers capable of handling network services that come with the rival Windows NT operating system.

Also at its Enterprise Computing Forum in New York, Sun unveiled a coprocessor card for its Ultra workstations that will allow users to run Microsoft Windows and DOS applications on their systems, and said it plans to link its entire line of storage systems to Windows NT.

The moves could give Sun a boost in sales as users look for a way to make NT more scalable. But certainly it's a far cry from the days when Sun chief executive Scott McNealy called NT a "hair ball" system.

"What Sun's really done is made Solaris able to behave and act like an NT server," said Jim Garden, an analyst at Technology Business Research of Hampton, New Hampshire. "Sun is bowing down to embrace 'hair ball' users and refuting its one-time NT never strategy."

It also represents the latest in a series of attempts by Sun to reassure users unclear about whether their NT investments will work with Sun equipment and software and, conversely, whether their large Sun systems can communicate with new NT machines.

At more than one event over the past couple of years, Sun has launched a new series of tools that purportedly eases interoperability between Microsoft Windows and Sun's Solaris version of Unix. Last year, for instance, Sun unveiled tools to tie NT desktops to Solaris server software and knit back-end directories from the two firms together.

Interoperability is necessary--and could provide a boost for Sun--due to the fact that NT is so far been a low-end operating system, though it has high-end aspirations.

Importantly, Sun's initiative doesn't give away any of the marketplace to rival Microsoft. All of its new products are designed to simply stretch Sun's existing server systems to handle Microsoft-compatible products.

"NT doesn't scale," Garden added. "Sun is hoping to plug that hole. Solaris, with this new capability, could offer the scalability that NT could never offer its users.

"It is also likely to reduce users' need for technical support and operations. Sun could go to companies and say, 'You know those hundred NT servers you have spread out everywhere, we could replace them with one Starfire system,' Sun's high-end Ultra Enterprise system. How many administrators does it take to run hundreds of NT servers vs. one central server? If you want to centralize the resources, this could really cut down on costs."

"Our customers have been asking us for better Microsoft interoperability while at the same time expressing concern about the absence of reliability and scalability in Windows NT environments," said Masood Jabbar, president of Sun Computer Systems. "Our two-pronged approach creates a unique opportunity that could translate into incremental server, storage, and desktop revenue for Sun."

Code-named Project Cascade, Sun's initiative required it to hook up with AT&T to develop a means of letting native Microsoft NT services run on top of Solaris. Sun is using AT&T's Advanced Server for Unix systems to allow Solaris to handle authentication, directory services, and file/print tasks. According to Sun, these tasks are the leading ones that drive users to Windows NT.

The move is only the latest in a series of plays by the Unix systems giant to embrace NT without having to offer systems based on the Microsoft operating system. Sun has launched previous efforts to integrate with NT-based networks and has also discounted workgroup versions of its own hardware and software so it can become an attractive alternative to NT.

Analyst Jim Oltsik at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said it was a necessary move on Sun's part if it didn't want to lose market share to its rivals, be it Microsoft or other Unix shops like Hewlett-Packard.

"Underneath the Jihad-like rhetoric [at Sun] there were always people at the grassroots developing interoperability tools," Oltsik said. "What Sun has done is gone public with that policy. It was a prudent move for Sun. Solaris is doing well but NT is making great strides The NT market is growing in the 30 percent range while the Unix market is growing in the 15 percent to 20 percent area."

Oltsik added that more and more companies are mixing their environments and in the era of the Internet, all vendors need to see to it that their products will work with others if they want to sell products.

Separately, the SunPCi coprocessor card is designed to end the need for users of its Ultra Workstation to also run a PC at their desks or use emulation software to run Windows or DOS-based software such as Microsoft Office products. It is designed to work with only newer PCi-based Sun workstations, however.

Project Cascade is scheduled for early customer shipment in November. The full rollout with pricing is scheduled to be announced early next year. Pricing and availability of the SunPCi is to be announced later this year. No timeline was given for the storage products.

News.com's Ben Heskett contributed to this report.