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Stratus pins future on Windows 2000

Stratus Computer, known for high-end machines that rarely crash, is moving its eggs to the Windows basket in a move that could open doors for both companies.

Stratus Computer, known for super-high-end computers that rarely crash, expects its new Windows servers will become its most important product and open doors for Stratus and Microsoft.

The company this week unveiled its ftServer, a Windows 2000 server in which every component has an integrated back-up system that takes over if the primary one fails.

The technique, although decades old, has been limited almost exclusively to highly customized computers running specialized operating systems other than Microsoft's Windows. Such machines are typically used by customers that cannot tolerate crashes, such as banks and stock exhanges.

Stratus' advanced designs, though, have the potential to lift Windows out of its low-end market, said D.H. Brown Associates analyst Tony Iams. "Hardware failure has been taken off the table with this system," a factor that will help Windows 2000 live up to its promise, Iams said.

The Stratus systems running Windows, slated to ship in September, will be guaranteed to stay up and running between 99.999 percent and 99.9999 percent of the time, said Mike Thompson, senior vice president of sales and marketing. Within three or four years, most of Stratus' revenues will come from the Windows systems instead of its more proprietary designs, Thompson predicted.

Those are bold claims that Microsoft is no doubt anxious to back up after years of gazing wistfully at the thick profit margins collected by high-end server makers.

Major computer makers such as IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard in the 1990s moved to Windows NT, Windows 2000's predecessor. But Windows NT and the Intel-based machines on which it ran were less powerful and more crash-prone than expected. In the meantime more advanced computers using the rival Unix operating system have been thriving.

Success for the ftServer could also help Stratus avoid the fate of other Massachusetts server companies, which have seen their elegant, proprietary computer architectures get swept aside by Unix, Linux and other technologies that have become more popular.

Currently, most of Stratus' revenues stem from its traditional product line, based on Hewlett-Packard PA-RISC chips and a proprietary Stratus operating system called VOS. Earlier, Stratus also added a server line using Hewlett-Packard's version of Unix, called HP-UX.

The Windows machine Windows 2000: The next generationshould bring in more revenue than the HP-UX design within a year of its introduction, and "there's no question in my mind it's going to take over VOS in a three-to-four-year window," Thompson said.

Typical configurations of the Stratus machine will cost between $30,000 and $75,000, Thompson said. That price tag is intended to undercut the current "failover clustering" technology, a combination of software and hardware that lets one machine take over if its mate fails. Failover works, but it typically takes between 30 and 90 seconds for the handoff to take place, a performance hit that some customers aren't willing to accept, said International Data Corp. analyst Jean Bozman.

The machine has the processing horsepower of a four-processor server--except that it actually has eight or 12 CPUs, depending on whether the customer opts for double or triple redundancy. If a component goes bad, the computer detects it and automatically calls Stratus technicians who send a replacement part that can be put in without shutting the computer down, Thompson said.

Of course, there's a catch. The more important it is that the server never fails, the more a customer can expect to pay in recurring support fees. Those fees haven't yet been set, Thompson said, but will increase according to how closely the customer wants to be tied in with Stratus and with software companies such as Microsoft or Oracle.

Stratus initially will sell most of the machines on its own, but eventually more of its revenue will come by selling its machines under the name of manufacturers such as IBM, Dell, Compaq or HP. "We already have one...deal signed. We'll be doing a press release in June with one of the top five manufacturers," and Stratus expects current discussions with others to lead to other deals, Thompson said.

The strategy is a sensible way to gain a foothold in the Windows market, which doesn't always welcome unusual designs. The partnership will let Stratus gain access to the market through companies that have experience with high-volume sales, Iams said.

Last year, HP signed up with one of Stratus' competitors, Marathon Technologies, which offers a different approach to redundant hardware. It essentially divides computing tasks across four separate computers.

"They definitely pioneered that market," Iams said. But Stratus will undercut Marathon as well as offer machines with four-processor power compared to Marathon's two-processor design, Thompson said. The Marathon systems are expected to cost between $55,000 and $100,000, HP said last year.

Though protecting against hardware failures is important, software failures are more commonly a problem with Windows. Stratus addresses this issue by "hardening" the drivers that let software communicate with hardware such as network cards, Thompson said.

Stratus, a privately owned company based in Maynard, Mass., has more than 1,000 employees, with 250 working in engineering and 400 in customer service. The ftServer was three years in the making, Thompson said.

It's biggest competition is with Tandem, a company Compaq acquired in 1997. The high-end machines of Tandem and Stratus are to power stock exchanges, ATM networks and several other financial computing tasks.

The new Windows server will be sold initially to Stratus' financial customers, who are interested in a Windows server for tasks such as online stock trading or online banking. Later, the company expects to sell machines to specific industries such as manufacturing or health care customers.