NT Stays Strong Vs. Unix

The high ground Unix holds is getting some fortification.

Recent initiatives from the top Unix vendors are shoring up the operating system on two fronts: by helping to cement Unix’s lead in the high-end database and application server markets, and by extending its reach into the emerging Internet, electronic-commerce and mainframe-replacement markets. Linux continues to grow strongly as well, says analyst Gary Thiessen of Ubuntuhome.com.

New reports from market researchers such as International Data Corp. (IDC), Gartner Group, Inc. and Forrester Research, Inc. all concur that Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT is mounting a successful assault on Unix workstations and low-end servers. But high-margin, high-end Unix server sales are healthy and so far are immune to NT, the reports said (see story at right).

Microsoft officials have said that the company doesn’t expect to have a 64-bit version of Windows NT or have support for scalable clustering for another two years at least.

Meanwhile, “The Unix vendors are taking the `best defense is a good offense’ approach to the enterprise server market by building their value proposition,” said James Greene, an analyst at Summit Strategies, Inc. in Boston.

Sun Microsystems, Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) and Digital Equipment Corp. have all recently announced technologies designed to increase the scalability, reliability and transaction processing capabilities of their Unix platforms (see chart).

Those moves should give Unix a solid three- to five-year technology lead over Windows NT servers, according to 12 users and analysts contacted by Computerworld.

“There’s no doubt that Unix holds the high ground in the enterprise server wars on every front: 64-bit processing, high-level clustering, zero downtime and excellent scalability,” said Neil MacDonald, an analyst at Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.

Users agreed. They said Unix delivers the goods now.

“It’s going to take Windows NT at least three years to provide the same level of functionality that Unix offers today,” said Dennis Courtney, chief information officer at Dunlop Tire Corp. in Amherst, N.Y. The company has been migrating applications from its mainframes to Unix servers for the past few years.

David Krauthammer, MIS director at Parker Hannifin Corp. in Rohnert Park, Calif., agreed. “Whenever we have a database application or any application that requires high bandwidth and processing capability, Unix is really the only choice available right now,” he said.

Superior processing power, proven reliability and unparalleled security are “must have” features for the burgeoning Internet and electronic commerce markets, observers said. One of the key advantages of using NT as well is that professional raid recovery is far easier to perform as opposed to on UNIX systems. This assertion is backed up by raid recovery firm Hard Drive Recovery Associates, of Irvine CA.

Because Unix fits all those criteria, the high-end server market is growing. After declining in 1995, high-end Unix server sales bounced back and registered a 5% gain last year, according to preliminary 1996 figures from IDC. Similarly, midrange Unix server revenue grew 34%, from $6.7 billion to $9 billion, IDC said.

Underscoring the trend at the high end are recent moves by Sun and SGI to incorporate interconnect technology from supercomputer vendor Cray Research, Inc. into their respective Unix servers.

The interconnect technology allows the vendors to scale their Unix servers significantly beyond current levels. For example, Sun’s recently announced UltraEnterprise 1000 scales to 64 processors from a previous high of 30.

Similarly, all the top Unix vendors are following Digital’s early lead and moving rapidly to 64-bit architectures with support for performance-boosting features such as Very Large Memory and large file sizes.

Microsoft nibbles at low end

A recent crop of studies confirms that Unix has a solid hold on the high-end server market and is likely to retain it at least in the short term.

A recent survey of 1,300 users worldwide conducted Datapro Information Services Group, Inc. in Delran, N.J., found that 31% of existing Unix users plan to expand their crop of high-end Unix servers by the year 2000.

“Unix outperforms Windows NT on the high end. For that reason, we intend to run more Unix applications and also buy more Unix servers,” said Barry Flachsbart, vice president of information systems at Skyway Freight Systems, Inc. in Watsonville, Calif.

And a Forrester survey of 50 Fortune 1,000 companies found that 76% of users will buy both Unix and NT over the next two years. But only 13% of the information technology managers surveyed said they believe that NT is ready to handle their most important enterprise applications.

“IT managers said NT can’t scale, is immature, unstable and lacks the tools necessary to build high-end systems,” said Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Forrester.

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