Scalability Day falls short

Doubts remain about Windows NT-based servers' ability to tackle high-level, enterprise-computing-size jobs.

4 min read
Microsoft (MSFT) today gathered a number of big names in the PC server business at what it called "Scalability Day" here, all in an effort to prove Windows NT is ready to tackle enterprise-size jobs.

But it's not clear yet if Microsoft convinced anybody.

Guests and performers included Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Tandem, and NCR.

Compaq (CPQ) stepped into the spotlight to demonstrate 25 Pentium Pro-based ProLiant 5000 servers--all running Windows NT--in a simulation of a banking operation that can process more than 1 billion transactions in a single 24-hour period. That's four times the volume of calls that AT&T completes in one day, Compaq said.

Hewlett-Packard (HWP) showed off an NT-based NetServer system capable of handling 100 million Web site hits a day. NCR (NCR) demonstrated a four-way server, and Unisys (UIS) exhibited a ten-way Pentium Pro computer.

But despite all the muscle-flexing, some analysts still doubt that Windows NT is ready to handle 1,000 or more users.

"These are capabilities that aren't capable of being delivered anytime soon. Microsoft is trying to freeze the market," said Pete Lowber, senior analyst with Datapro. "I'm really very skeptical. What are they delivering now? Wolfpack this summer is delivering capabilities that were available on Unix in 1990."

Another analyst said of Compaq's demonstration: "I guarantee you won't find [a Fortune 1000 information systems manager] putting up money on that solution for their critical applications today," said John Oltsik, senior analyst with Forrester Research. "It does grab attention. They are putting on a wonderfully choreographed show as an acknowledgment that they recognize the problems NT has and that they are putting money towards solving those problems."

Microsoft's Cluster Server, which formerly went by the code name Wolfpack, is a software-based clustering scheme, a system that allows servers to be connected and to talk to each other. If one of them goes down, another server takes over the work of the first, allowing a company to continue to operate even in the event of a server crash.

But clustering is only a start in the race to deliver enterprise-class scalability, and many companies aren't convinced that Microsoft is up to the challenge yet. In a recent Forrester report that surveyed technology managers at Fortune 1,000 companies, 62 percent of respondents said Windows NT isn't scalable.

According to Oltsik, when technology managers say they are looking for a network operating system that can scale, they mean several things. First, they want the OS to operate efficiently when more processors are added to a system. Although there are eight- and ten-processor Windows NT servers, Lowber says that NT only efficiently uses four processors.

Second, managers want the OS to be able to keep track of users numbering in the thousands. "Today it [NT] tops out in 100 to 200 user range," Oltsik said. The third requirement is the ability to handle large databases ranging in size up to hundreds of gigabytes, a capability which has been demonstrated but won't be ready until the release of Windows NT 5.0, which is expected in the first half of next year.

Although even Microsoft doesn't claim that NT is as scalable as Unix, Mike Nash, Microsoft's director of marketing for Windows NT Server, argued that the scalability Unix players talk about represents "a very small portion of the market" where companies buy multimillion-dollar systems. Given that the real market is somewhere between this and ordinary workgroup servers, Nash said he expects Windows NT Server to become increasingly competitive.

"It's the same success cycle," Nash said. "We saw it on Windows, and we're seeing it again on Windows NT Server."

But two other factors also cast doubt on Microsoft's analysis of the market. First, not all of its partners are following its lead.

Compaq executives, for example, today offered a different view of how NT will fit into current enterprises. Ronnie Ward, vice president and general manager of the company's Server Solutions Division, said the company will not go after networks running Sun boxes, a clear target of Microsoft's efforts.

"That won't be our initial entry into the market," Ward said. "That's not really the thrust of where we will be."

Instead, Ward said Compaq would focus on selling solutions to the small LAN or large enterprises that don't have any previous Unix experience.

Not only is Microsoft still not on a par with Unix technologically, some customers say it falls short in service. When Forrester asked people what they think of Microsoft's ability to support enterprise users, 40 percent said Microsoft support is bad; another 40 percent said it was adequate.

Microsoft is aware of this problem too. The company said today that it will offer new programs for enhanced customer support this year.