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Will Valence balance NT's load?

Handling large server loads hasn't been Windows NT's strong point, but Microsoft's buy of Valence Research may change that.

Handling large applications and server loads has not been a strong point of Microsoft's Windows NT Server operating system thus far in its development, despite promises of future industrial-strength technologies from Redmond.

Now the software giant has dipped into its war chest to purchase Valence Research for an undisclosed sum to tackle the booming market for large Web server system deployments, needing to keep up with skyrocketing numbers of requests from Net surfers.

In doing so, Microsoft has taken another step in adding services to its already thick NT 5.0 upgrade--likely to touch down in the second half of next year--and all but admitted that making the operating system an attractive alternative to veteran Unix and mainframe software will continue to be an arduous and multifaceted undertaking. That's not a news flash to some, but it's an important admission for a company that promoted the so-called "scalability" of NT as early as May of last year.

The move follows confident, but tempered, words from Jim Allchin, senior vice president for Microsoft's personal and business systems division, at a recent NT technology workshop in Seattle. At that time, he said the NT development team "still had a ways to go" in delivering what he termed "the richest, most distributed computing platform ever built."

To get there, Microsoft needs to address areas such as load-balancing software--a breach Valence has filled. But there remain several hurdles before other forms of computer system "clustering" are addressed by Microsoft and there remain ongoing concerns regarding when the NT 5.0 upgrade will actually be delivered.

In the meantime, Microsoft executives said they will immediately put the acquired load-balancing technology to use as an add-on to current 4.0 versions of NT, offering relief for Web sites that have chosen NT and its Internet Information Server Web service.

"They're addressing a very real problem that happens today," noted Jean Bozman, software analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation. "Everyone knows that NT is not as scalable as Unix, particularly in Web serving environments."

The addition of Valence's Convoy Cluster software package for NT, Bozman said, will aid NT deployments within service provider and large corporate Web site accounts. "The software knows where the resources are available and it directs the incoming connection to the appropriate resources [across a series of connected systems]," she explained.

"It means that very high-traffic Web sites can look at NT as an option," added Keith Teare, chief executive officer and founder of Centraal Corporation, a Silicon Valley firm that has built a Web-based service called the RealName System using NT. "Up to now, that hasn't been true."

The load-balancing segment has become a hot niche in recent months, with networking hardware and software start-ups like Alteon Networks and HolonTech choosing to offer switching front-ends for collections of Web server systems that run specialized software.

Valence's technology--now called the Windows Load Balancing Service--will be integrated into the Enterprise Edition versions of NT 5.0 and will likely be offered as a stand-alone product with standard versions of NT 5.0, according to company executives. Convoy Cluster software has been on the market since the spring of last year, though Valence executives would not disclose how many customers the product has attracted.

The Windows Load Balancing Service will be offered immediately, with prices starting at $6,000 for a two-system cluster and extending to 32 NT-based systems. The new load-balancing service is not to be confused with the company's Cluster Server efforts, which currently address back-end fail-over of services and applications, such as transactions or a data base.

"We were intending on building technology that was similar in function," said Ed Muth, a group product manager for Windows NT Server. "It gets us some functionality immediately and allows us to redeploy some engineering effort."

Muth said recently that NT's clustering capabilities--as they pertain to applications--will not be extended beyond current two-system fail-over until a post-5.0 release. The addition of the Valence technology has not changed those plans, the executive said.

Valence's five employees--including cofounders William Bain and Kyril Fainov--have been offered positions at the software giant and will be moved to Microsoft's Redmond, Washington-based campus from the company's current Beaverton, Oregon location.