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Windows NT on mainframes

Hitachi and Digital announce they are cooperating in moving the Windows NT operating system onto mainframe-class computers.

Hitachi and Digital Equipment (DEC ) today announced that they are cooperating on software technology that will move the Windows NT operating system onto mainframe-class computers, another sign that Microsoft's most powerful operating system is set to move deep into high-end computing territory.

The joint work on server systems using either

In dangered?: A Hitachi mainframe
Endangered?: A Hitachi mainframe
Intel or Alpha processors signals an ongoing decentralization of computing power from the once almighty mainframe.

Increasingly, companies are looking to use a number of smaller computers strung together to form a virtual mainframe in order to process huge amounts of information. The ultimate objective is lowering costs. Using standardized software and hardware, this type of computing power will become more affordable.

"It is a general trend worldwide that business-critical applications are moving away from the mainframe; that has been happening for some time now," says Philip Auberg, director of Windows NT system software marketing for Digital.

The two companies will work on software that will boost the number of servers that can be strung together, or "clustered." This type of arrangement allows corporate customers to tie servers together to form a fail-safe network of backup computers in order to prevent computer outages and downtime.

The two companies will also work on improving software that will allow clustered servers to share the processing load when working on huge amounts of information, the companies said. In other words, a number of separate computers work together to form a single, powerful virtual computer.

Digital's pact with one of Japan's largest computer makers comes just after Compaq, the world's largest PC manufacturer, announced intentions to buy Digital for $9.6 billion.

The development agreement follows reports last week from Japan which said NEC will use an upcoming version of Windows NT and Intel's 64-bit Merced processor in future mainframe computers.

NEC is studying ways to run NT applications, in addition to existing mainframe applications, on one hybrid system.

Analysts say taken together, the developments show companies are serious about weaning themselves off of expensive mainframe computers.

"The nature of commoditization of architectures is that it has been like global warming--it's a slow trend that's been going in one direction for a long time," says Nathan Brookwood, semiconductor analyst with Dataquest, referring to an ongoing transformation of highly proprietary, large-scale computers into more standardized machines.

Moving people to standardized machines takes a lot of work on software, says Digital's Auberg.

"The secret to success in making that kind of move to more distributed computing...is in software," Auberg says. For instance, the companies are working on moving Hitachi mainframe software to Windows NT systems for use in the Asian market. Analysts expect that it will be three to five years before programs being to move over to NT, though.

Importantly, Digital and Hitachi will also work on software that will allow more powerful Windows NT-based multiprocessor computers. Here, Windows NT has its work cut out for it. Unix-based computer vendors such as Sun Microsystems and IBM have the upper hand since they already have the capability to use dozens of processors in one system. By comparison, the performance of Windows NT servers offers diminishing returns after more than four processors per system are used unless proprietary hardware and software is used.

But Digital says it is working with Microsoft on ways to increase the number of Alpha or Intel processors in a system to anywhere from 14 to 64 processors and beyond by early 1999.

Clustering differs from multiprocessing: In the first arrangement the computers are strung together, while in multiprocessing the microprocessor chips are tied together within a computer.