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IBM helps "cluster" Windows NT

IBM and Microsoft tomorrow will demonstrate technology that quadruples the number of powerful Windows NT servers which can be "clustered" together.

IBM and Microsoft demonstrated technology today that quadruples the number of powerful Windows NT servers which can be "clustered" together to improve the configuration and reliability of computer services.

With the current Microsoft Cluster Services (MSCS), only two servers can be linked together in a configuration that allows one to take over when the other fails. But with IBM's clustering technology, code-named Cornhusker, as many as eight servers can be connected, said Brian Sanders, Netfinity marketing software manager at IBM.

Microsoft and IBM executives demonstrated the Cornhusker technology today at a keynote address at Microsoft's TechEd 99 conference in Dallas.

"We clearly need to have the deep experience in the enterprise and the services," said Michel Gambier, a product manager for Windows NT Server at Microsoft.

For some time now, Microsoft has been pushing its high-end version of Windows into increasingly powerful servers, the computers that dish up information, files, and computing services to users over a network. But NT--being renamed Windows 2000 in its next edition--has been dinged by analysts and companies for weaknesses in its ability to handle larger-scale tasks.

Cornhusker also represents an opportunity for IBM to expand on its "X-Architecture" initiative of bringing mainframe technology to the workaday computing world.

Clustering is a key feature crucial to Microsoft's effort to get customers to buy Windows NT instead of Unix or other higher-end operating systems.

"Our mutual customers will benefit from this technology for their Windows NT-based mission critical applications in financial services, ERP, government systems and other settings which place a premium on uptime and manageability," said Edmund Muth, group product manager at Microsoft in a prepared statement.

In contrast to Unix servers, Windows NT servers often are deployed in a one-server, one-function arrangement. For example, one server will handle email, another file sharing, and another one access to a database. In that model, NT clusters currently are expensive, because a company has to have one backup for each server.

With Cornhusker, companies can reduce costs by having just a single backup server on "hot standby" to handle whichever machine goes down, a configuration known as "n+1"--if you have n servers, you need n+1 nodes in your cluster.

The clustering software is a key part of IBM's guarantee of 99.9 percent uptime with certain configurations of its NT servers, coupled with fast-response technical support. Several other companies offer similar guarantees.

Although the Cornhusker technology works only with IBM's Netfinity servers, it uses the same interface as Microsoft's clustering technology, meaning that software developers theoretically won't have to change their programs to use the IBM technology. Microsoft has endorsed Cornhusker and is helping to develop it, Sanders said.

The Cornhusker technology uses the same interface as MSCS, so programs written for MSCS, at least theoretically, should be able to use Cornhusker.

However, IBM has been finding that some software companies haven't quite followed Microsoft's rules, instead writing software that can talk only to two servers in a cluster instead of a general number, said Don Roy, product marketing manager for Netfinity clustering. Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard, are also helping to bring higher-end features to Windows NT.

Microsoft is working on its own cluster technology for the next high-end version of Windows, called the Data Center Edition. That technology is expected to allow four-node clusters.

IBM will release Cornhusker this summer, Roy said. The product will be named "IBM Netfinity Availability Extensions for MSCS." Pricing hasn't yet been established.

Users won't be able to install the product themselves, but instead will have to rely on IBM, Sanders said. The reason is that IBM wants to make sure it works, not to make sure it can charge more money for the product. "We're not looking for a lot of money on the install. We want it to be a success, so we're shepherding it out into the marketplace," he said.

The system will come only on IBM's high-end Netfinity server, the four-processor 7000 M10 machine. In the future, it will work on the forthcoming eight-processor servers, and IBM hopes to get it working on the lower-end two-processor 5500 machines, Roy said.

Microsoft also previewed a software tool developed by high-end computer maker