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IBM debuts NT server bundles

Big Blue and Microsoft renew their bickering, this time over IBM's new entry into the Windows NT market for back-office server software.

SAN FRANCISCO--IBM (IBM) and Microsoft (MSFT) today renewed their partisan bickering, this time over IBM's new entry into the Windows NT market for back-office server software.

IBM's still-unnamed NT suites are designed to compete with Microsoft's Back Office, fast emerging as Microsoft's most profitable product line. Big Blue is positioning its offerings as an enterprise-wide solution, not just something to run on NT machines.

As previously reported, IBM talked up three new software suites--one for small businesses, one for departments of large companies, and one for entire companies--to IBM resellers and distributors at its Business Partner Executive Conference.

IBM positions its NT software suites as part of a broader menu of offerings, implying that Microsoft's Back Office suite works fine for NT but won't play in corporate settings with non-NT legacy systems. Microsoft is now preparing an upgrade to its now-shipping back-office suites, with a new version in the works for version 5.0 of Windows NT server, due to go into beta by July.

"We feel we provide the broadest capacities on the NT platform," said Jonathan Prial, IBM director of NT marketing, noting that for big companies, IBM's pitch is to chief information officers or systems architects. "NT does not stand alone among any of our large customers."

To underscore that intent, IBM plans to make Unix and OS/2 versions of its suites available later this year.

But Microsoft pooh-poohed the IBM announcement, noting that it was scant on details such as pricing and just how components within the suites would be integrated.

"It appears that IBM has recognized the momentum on NT Server, and that's what it will do first [in its suites]," said Kevin Breunig, lead product manager for Back Office Server, Microsoft's competing product.

"IBM appears to be where we were three or four years ago," he added.

While IBM stressed its cross-platform story for enterprises with non-NT legacy systems, Microsoft portrayed IBM's offering as me-too and not best-of-breed. Breunig noted that Microsoft now targets its bundles to the same markets as IBM--small businesses, departments, and enterprises--and he derided the Web server in IBM's suite, Lotus Domino, as slow in benchmark tests.

"If you're looking to deploy NT, and a growing number of IT departments have chosen to deploy NT in their environments, then Back Office provides the most integrated server suite," Breunig said, adding that Microsoft's enterprise strategy is to use connectors to link its software to offerings such as Lotus Notes through its COM and DCOM technologies.

A recent report from analysis firm Aberdeen Group largely affirms IBM's strategy: "IBM is extremely well-positioned to move NT into the enterprise."

The firm "recommends that IS managers closely consider IBM's value-added NT extensions before fully committing to a pure Microsoft approach to run their enterprises." Aberdeen cites IBM enhancements in expanding its NT software, services, and systems offerings and in recruiting other vendors to write software that runs on IBM's NT offerings.

"IBM's NT strategy is to sell the customer what the customer wants but to ensure that the customer is aware of NT's strengths and weaknesses," Aberdeen said. The firm also cited IBM's strategic goal to become the leading NT supplier of consulting services, something Microsoft is not equipped to match.

Still, the NT software contest won't be a two-horse race. Aberdeen notes that PC makers Dell and Compaq are pushing NT.

Further, Compaq's recent acquisitions of Tandem and Digital Equipment will give it a cross-platform play similar to IBM's.

Beta code for IBM's suites will be available April 1 to any registered reseller, and the suites are due to ship before July.

IBM's suites will include IBM's DB2 database software, TXSeries transaction server software, MQSeries messaging software, Tivoli management tools, and the company's Domino Web-based groupware. Big Blue also is pushing its "install tool" for easy setup.

IBM also is highlighting its application development tools for building NT applications that tie into its other products. Prial said the company will focus primarily on Notes-based development and Java tools.

IBM's intense interest is something of a switch in strategy, given the company's traditional preference for applications designed to run on its own PC, Unix, and mainframe operating systems.

IBM is debuting the suite at a business partner convention because channel sales are key to its strategy for smaller customers. IBM's sales force will sell the NT suite in large enterprises, with fulfillment through outside distributors. For smaller firms, it will rely on systems integrators and resellers to offer the suites as part of a package of software and services.

The small-business version will include the Domino server, IBM's DB2 database server, a fax server, and small-business "templates" developed for specific industries by resellers. The medium and enterprise packages will add storage management, communication, and backup-recovery software. The enterprise version will add network management, transaction processing, and messaging middleware, such as IBM's MQSeries.