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Will Windows NT take over?

Customers and industry pundits believe that one day the Windows NT Server will be all that the Redmondians say it will.

    SAN FRANCISCO--People's perspective of Windows NT Server scalability is like parents' view of their rebellious teenager: They accept the nose ring as a phase, but hope the stage passes as quickly as possible.

    What has become clear as Microsoft (MSFT) steps up its enterprise marketing efforts for the NT Server operating system (OS) is that, like patient parents, customers and industry pundits are willing to discount current claims of industrial-strength features, knowing that one day Windows NT Server will be all that the Redmondians say it will.

    The scalability Microsoft is boasting combines an increased amount of processor support for the operating system, add-on features to facilitate complex database and transaction-intensive uses, and manipulation of clustering technology to string a number of servers together to create mini-computer or mainframe-like systems.

    Despite Unix variants that offer far greater degrees of processor support and a wide range of clustering options, Windows NT advocates continue to claim that criticism of the operating system is unwarranted based on the level of performance the OS offers for its price.

    But in the closing keynote of the Windows NT Intranet Solutions, Jim Gray, a senior Windows NT researcher at Microsoft, admitted that "we can do better and we will do better."

    The issue of NT's role in the enterprise is on the minds of administrators and third-party systems companies because the operating system has propelled itself into network segments, often replacing IBM OS/2 Warp-based machines or Novell NetWare systems. Observers--and Microsoft--realize the real money will be made in the midrange, a market segment currently dominated by Unix-based servers running mission-critical applications and large Web sites.

    So, in order to make a real play, NT must become stronger. And that time may not be coming soon enough for some.

    "It's been kind of an uphill battle, but it seems like there is a lot of momentum," said Edwin Rutsch, president of the Bay Area Windows NT User Group.

    "I can see that it's going to be big so I'm willing to go through the transition period," said Rutsch, who often wages the NT vs. Unix battle in arguments with other administrators at work. "So there's bugs. I know they're going to fix them. I know there's going to be headaches, but I know Microsoft will eventually solve the problem."

    Other NT advocate agreed. "Every day it looks like we made the right decision. It's obviously the way people are going. It's really unstoppable," said Avram Cheaney, president of the Pittsburgh Area Windows NT User Group and administrator for the WiseWire Web service.

    For systems companies that have previously relied on Unix-based solutions and proprietary systems for profits, the role of NT in their accounts seems to be growing ever larger. They realize a version of the operating system that can handle the largest tasks will mean a greater role for their Intel-based hardware.

    "We've never looked at NT as some kind of tinker toy," said Keith Karlsen, assistant vice president for business development at NCR, a systems company making a big NT play. "We sensed as soon as NT came out that they were focused on making it enterprise-ready."

    "We are absolutely pushing them," Karlsen said of his company's role. "They will get there. As soon as we'd like? No."

    Despite the reality of Windows NT Server's current functionality, Microsoft has taken pains to promote the fast-growing operating system as ready for the enterprise, even featuring a plethora of current and upcoming technology at a widely publicized Scalability Day in May.

    "I don't think Microsoft has a choice," said Roel Pieper, CEO of systems supplier Tandem Computers, on the software giant's marketing efforts.

    "There's always a little bit to win and a lot to lose," said Pieper, whose company has also made a big bet on NT growth. "When you ship it too early, you are in real trouble. Delivering system software is a different game. Microsoft realizes this and I think they'll learn."

    Those who have watched NT since its initial version--when it sputtered out of the starting gate despite grand predictions from Microsoft CEO Bill Gates--are quick to point out that third parties such as Tandem, NCR, and Data General will be quick to fill the holes that exist in NT's enterprise play. An obvious example of this in is the clustering space, where NT's limited fail-over abilities have already been augmented by value-added software from these systems giants.

    "They, of course, hype it and talk a lot of future stuff," said Dwight Davis, editorial director at Windows Watcher. "They are well behind the curve on scalability but now they don't have to do it alone."