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Microsoft makes scalability pitch

Microsoft debuts new Enterprise Editions of NT and BackOffice, but many vendors are skeptical of the software giant's scalability initiative.

NEW YORK--Microsoft (MSFT), determined to show that its Windows NT-based technology is capable of handling the largest enterprise-scale tasks, today introduced new high-end versions of its Windows NT operating system and BackOffice applications.

And as expected, big system vendors already well acquainted with scalability are taking a dim view of Microsoft's initiative.

At an event here labeled "Scalability Day," Microsoft debuted new Enterprise Editions of Windows NT Server 4.0, SQL Server 6.5, and an Enterprise Edition of the entire BackOffice Server bundle, which includes NT Server, SQL Server, and new high-end versions of Exchange Server, Proxy Server, SNA Server, Systems Management Server, and Site Server.

NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition includes support for up to an eight-way symmetric multiprocessing server. Special OEM versions of the operating system from hardware makers will offer support for SMP systems with more than eight processors.

"This is all very necessary to get the Internet to realize its full potential," said Bill Gates, chairman and CEO of Microsoft.

The new version of NT also includes server clustering technology, code-named Wolfpack, Microsoft Transaction Server, formerly code-named Viper, and Microsoft Message Queue Server, formerly code-named Falcon.

"I think they've definitely got some momentum here and they definitely have some high-end capabilities," said Robert Craig, senior analyst for the Hurwitz Group.

To address criticism that Microsoft cannot support enterprise-scale applications, the company also announced three new support plans to cater to large-scale operations. Executives also showcased the technologies in a series of demonstrations using PC-based systems running NT and related BackOffice components to deliver a system handling 1.1 billion transactions per day, for example.

"Scalability is not just a measure of one single thing," noted Paul Maritz, group vice president for platforms and applications at Microsoft.

However, the benchmarks Microsoft used as proof of NT's scalability were not accompanied by independent certification. "I'm interested in seeing an audited independent proof point," the Hurwitz Group's Craig said. Microsoft executives said certification of TPCC-based benchmarks could not be completed in time for the event.

Microsoft has not announced pricing for the new enterprise versions. Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition and SQL Server 6.5 Enterprise Edition are slated to ship in the third quarter of this year. BackOffice Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition is expected to debut in the first quarter of 1998.

Also absent were further details on the Wolfpack clustering initiative. The product, which does not yet have a name, is currently in second beta with initial release--covering initial failover capabilities--due this summer.

Microsoft trotted out a video showing a variety of high-end customers articulating strategies for implementing Windows NT Server for BackOffice applications. But there is some question of how quickly corporate enterprise networks will migrate to an operating system that has not been proven in transaction environments typically run on Unix-based machines.

"It is being used in business-critical situations. Is it being used in business-critical situations in an enterprise? No, only on a small scale," said Dov Goldman, president of Dynalog Technologies, a network integration and outsourcing firm that installs Windows NT based in Valhalla, New York. "Customers are using it. They're having problems, but they're using it."

"I think that clustering might change that, but clustering as a solution for scalability introduces a lot of complexity," he said.

Unix systems vendors took several hits from Microsoft today, with Sun Microsystems bearing the brunt of unfavorable comparisons based on price and performance issues. Sun, which has a Solaris server operating system that scales up to 64 processors, has taken an early lead in providing servers for Web sites. The company, a heated rival of the Redmondians, viewed the Scalability Day concept with typical skepticism.

"I think it'll be a long time until the people in Redmond can scale like we can scale," said Janpieter Scheerder, president of Sun's SunSoft software subsidiary. "It seems to me they have a long way to go. Microsoft's approach seems to be: Let's call a marketing event and we've fixed it.

"Anything we say is going to seem awfully defensive, but we don't have any reason to be," he noted.

Other Unix systems vendors who offer Windows NT-based servers and workstations also expressed reservations about Microsoft's enterprise push. They said NT certainly has its role in the low-end of heterogeneous enterprise networks, but that is a long way from the transaction-intensive demands of applications that businesses rely on.

"They aspire to these types of applications to the point that it has blinded them to the realities of where they are today," observed Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's Software Solutions division. "I think Microsoft is moving into a realm that is way beyond its capabilities."

"This is not what customers are doing with their PC servers today. These are all interesting claims, but where is the proof of real customer workloads running over an extended period of time?" Mills wondered.

A handful of hardware makers, including Data General, Tandem Computers, and Unisys, today announced 8-to-64 processor hardware supporting Windows NT Server Enterprise Edition.

Business application vendors, such as SAP, Baan, and PeopleSoft, today demonstrated versions of their software running on the new version of NT.