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Tech Industry

Dell to strut NT workstations

The company enters an increasingly competitive market with boxes using NT and the Pentium II.

Dell (DELL) will introduce its first line of personal workstations next Monday in New York, becoming the latest in a string of recent entrants into the fast-growing market.

Dell will offer systems targeted for use in the mechanical CAD, financial services, and software engineering markets. The systems will run Windows NT and will use Pentium II processors from Intel running at 266 and 300 MHz.

With the introduction, direct marketer Dell will go head-to-head with Intel-based workstation manufacturers, including Compaq, IBM, Gateway 2000 and Micron.

Long-time Unix workstation vendors Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and IBM's RS/6000 group rank as the largest players. Digital Equipment also has a significant presence--it offers workstations based on Windows NT and its own high-speed Alpha processors.

Workstations are generally described as high-powered computers for computing-intensive applications such as financial modeling and computer-aided design (CAD).

Sun Microsystems has traditionally been the dominant player in the workstation arena. Its Sparc processors run the Unix operating system.

But research from International Data Corporation (IDC) shows that Intel-based workstations from vendors such as Compaq, Gateway 2000, and IBM's personal computer division are beginning to make inroads into Sun-dominated Unix markets.

Most of the penetration has been made by systems using Intel's Pentium Pro processor. Only a few systems with the newer Pentium II processor have been introduced so far because the processor was missing design features necessary for workstations. Namely, the Pentium II and its accompanying on-board memory chips did not support a kind of high-quality memory known as Error Correcting Code (ECC), required by many corporate IS departments. Pentium II chips introduced two week ago, however, include this capability.

Dell, Compaq, IBM, and Digital are the only major vendors to introduce a Pentium II-based personal workstation.

An obstacle facing all PC workstation vendors is that of overall system performance vis-a-vis Unix workstations. Though PC vendors expect the performance of personal workstations using the Pentium II processor to eventually come more in line with that of traditional Unix workstations, Unix still maintains the upper hand in performance.

Another hurdle that industry analysts say Dell will face is that customers in the workstation market are more demanding than ones in the desktop PC market. Systems used for activities such as CAD typically use a limited number of programs that an engineer, for example, has to use. These customers tend to look for a machine that is designed specifically to run the programs they use, and vendors have to offer higher levels of customer support.