The agreement calls for NCR to sell and support Sun's Solaris brand of the Unix operating system (OS) within its line of Intel-based server systems, which stretch to mainframe sizes. The accord will hit its stride once Intel rolls out its 64-bit Merced microprocessor, due to ship in systems sometime in 1999.
In recent weeks, Sun CEO Scott McNealy has increasingly painted the operating system market as one in which it comes down to a choice between Microsoft Windows NT and Solaris. Though that statement may be premature, Solaris has been successful within the Unix realm, but the operating system has not gained large acceptance within systems running Intel processors.
Under terms of the deal, NCR WorldMark server systems will migrate to Solaris starting in the fourth quarter of this year. These systems cover four-way multiprocessing systems typically used in departments of companies to enterprise servers running on 64 processors or more that can handle huge corporate computing loads. Sun will incorporate features of NCR's current Unix offering, called MP-RAS, in Solaris for that company's core markets: communications, retail, and financial institutions.
"It's a natural combination," said McNealy. "These are not toy computers."
The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) is the dominant player in the Unix-on-Intel market, but Sun officials have tried to position a new version of Solaris as an intranet-oriented platform for departments in recent weeks. This strategy is directly aimed at arch nemesis Microsoft and its popular Windows NT Server OS, but it also highlights a lucrative niche that Sun believes it can battle for effectively vs. SCO.
"We see this as an indication of a major consolidation in the [Unix] industry," said Rich Green, vice president of Solaris products.
Solaris was built to run on Sun's internally developed Sparc-based systems, but the company moved a version of the OS to Intel-based servers in 1993 and has released versions for both platforms ever since.
Analysts said Sun may have been hamstrung in previous years by the notion that Solaris might be more popular on Intel-based systems than its own Sparc-based products. Thus, marketing efforts for Solaris-on-Intel have been minimal up to now.
But SCO has built a business by offering a version of Unix for Intel-based systems. According to 1996 numbers from International Data Corporation, SCO garnered 36 percent of all Unix server software licenses, compared with 13 percent for Sun. Sun is the leader when server and workstation licenses are combined for the same period.
"What you see here is Sun intends to make up some ground," said Jean Bozman, an analyst for IDC. "Unix-on-Intel is becoming ever more prevalent." NCR officials said they had determined that research dollars could be better spent--given the migration of high-end Intel chips to 64 bits--and found Solaris to be compatible with the company's needs. The company will offer two-and-half years of updates to its MP-RAS and will continue to support the OS for several years, or as necessary.
The move continues Sun's drive to position itself as the most likely alternative to Windows NT. And more agreements with Intel-based vendors may be in the offing. "I don't think this is going to be the last of the Solaris-on-Intel announcements," McNealy said.