Deciding Factors

Deciding Factors

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Suffering operating system anxiety? Read on to learn:

* What advantages Unix still holds over Windows * How Windows is catching up * How to determine which operating system is right for your business Montagues and Capulets, move over. Windows and Unix are today's fashionable feud. Feud, in fact, is too soft a word: This is war. Still.

When last we visited the operating system hostilities (see "Battle Lines", CIO, September, 1998), the battlefield was a mess. And it's not looking any prettier these days. Unix vendors have dug trenches around a few key issues such as scalability and reliability, claiming that Windows lags behind their OS variants in the ability to handle industrial-strength applications such as ERP and e-commerce. Microsoft has poured time and money into its OS and has declared its intent to invade Unix's turf at the highest levels of distributed enterprise computing with Windows 2000.

So which OS is going to win? Surprise: neither. Laura DiDio, senior network operating system analyst at Giga Information Group in Boston, predicts both candidates will remain standing. "They seem to think, 'There's not enough room in this town for the both of us', but of course there is." Windows' market share will grow, but Unix will continue to hold its own.

So you'll have to decide for yourself which operating system best meets your needs. But don't head to the polls unprepared. Consider the following key questions before determining where to bet the (server) farm.

The Issue: Scalability

Ask Yourself: How many users do I have per server? How much will this number increase?

Scalability is still issue number one. When a server gets pushed beyond its limitations, the performance of the application - if it doesn't crash completely - begins to degrade exponentially as more users or requests or transactions are added. Users start measuring response times not in seconds, but in cups of coffee.

Unix still holds a significant lead in the transaction load it can handle before sending users out for a java break. The biggest successful real-world Windows NT implementations have about 850 users working concurrently off one online transaction processing (OLTP) database server, says Thomas Bittman, vice president and research director at GartnerGroup (US). That's progress; in mid-1998, 450 was the best NT could handle. Still, for a big-league application like SAP's R/3, that gives Windows roughly one-third the scale of Unix, according to Bittman.

Windows 2000 is more robust. The Win2000 umbrella includes many versions, with the high end being dubbed the DataCenter version. According to Microsoft, Win2000 DataCenter increases the OS's scalability, for example, handling more SMP processors - 32 - out of the box than did NT - four. However, how those numbers will translate into concurrent-user support remains to be seen.

At the same time, the additions to the Windows code base raise new concerns. According to DiDio, it's bigger than IBM's robust MVS mainframe operating system. Furthermore, Windows' life is complicated by Microsoft's desire to sell it to users of all shapes and sizes. It's hard to build an operating system that runs desktops, departmental servers and high-availability enterprise servers. Putting out different versions requires more coordination by orders of magnitude than a single release. "Has Microsoft bitten off more than it can chew?" asks DiDio.

Perhaps as a result of this complexity, in the months leading up to the (delayed) release of Windows 2000, the operating system was shedding features like fleas off a shaking dog. The original plans included a database integrated directly into the OS, for instance. That feature was axed prior to release. Microsoft also changed direction on performance clustering, removing advanced clustering capabilities from the Win2000 product description and turning clustering services into a separate software product.

While Windows grapples with these issues, Unix isn't standing still. The enterprise Unix market is defined essentially by three major variants: Solaris from Sun Microsystems, AIX from IBM and HP-UX from Hewlett-Packard. (Just off the winners' podium is SCO Unix from Santa Cruz Operation, according to DiDio.) Those vendors continue to enhance the capabilities of their software. In scalability terms, Bittman says the biggest Unix installations run up to 2500 concurrent users. ("We know of one company that's trying to run 4500 R/3 users on a single Unix database server," he notes, "but it's failing.") That's up from 1800 concurrent users in mid-'98 and a far cry from Windows' 850 upper limit.

Several IS executives say scalability issues have been the primary factor in steering them away from Windows. Scott Turvey, a vice president for Nicholas-Applegate Capital Management, has 350 users or so accessing close to 100 servers. Nicholas-Applegate is a San Diego-based financial management company that takes data feeds from Wall Street and tracks the values of its investment portfolios in real time. Two-thirds of the servers are Sun boxes, ranging from small systems up to 6500s; Microsoft NT and Novell NetWare make up the rest. "NT scales only so far," he says, and with the heavy trading volumes the stock market has been experiencing, Turvey isn't eager to risk performance problems by running his heaviest applications on Windows. Turvey uses the Windows systems primarily because they support applications written exclusively for NT. "If the same software runs on both platforms, odds are we will use Unix because of the scalability issue," he says.

Mike Prince, CIO at Burlington Coat Factory in New Jersey, repeats that refrain. The retailer runs its core transactional systems on several big Sequent (now IBM) Unix servers. Smaller departmental applications like file-and-print services are on smaller Sun boxes. "Our Sequent systems run a really high-end Unix. You can get the same box with NT, but it doesn't scale like Unix," Prince says.

But not everyone thinks Windows can't handle a tough job. CIO Arthur Tisi runs The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Windows NT servers. A museum may not sound like a rigorous transaction processing environment, but Tisi is counting on Windows to host the museum's new retail-plus-info Web site, which incorporates image-intensive data feeds from the collections management system and various other applications. Tisi doesn't specify the transaction loads, but he is confident in Windows' ability to run this mission-critical e-commerce application.

Bottom Line: Before signing on to Windows, make sure it can scale to the levels you need.

The Issue: Reliability

Ask Yourself: How much uptime is enough?

Giga's DiDio says her research pegs Unix uptime at about 99.8 per cent. NT version 4.0 grades out around 99.2 per cent. That translates into 90 minutes of downtime per month for Unix, and seven hours or more for Windows NT per month. For bankers'-hours businesses, that difference is not necessarily significant, but for more and more companies competing on the Internet's open-24-hours schedule, it can mean big bucks in lost productivity. "Our view is that [Windows] will never be as stable as the leading Unix variants, due to the business model of trying to sell this thing in many markets," says Gartner's Bittman. "If you froze Unix today, Windows would catch up in reliability in about three years."

Even more critical: Win2000 is a major release, and its first incarnation will predictably be less stable than the latest tune-up of Windows NT. Carl Jackson, IT systems coordinator at Texas-based Altura Energy, runs a pure Windows shop with 1000 users working off 75 NT servers. Altura Energy beta tested Windows 2000 from its inception, and Jackson says his company is waiting about six months before rolling out the upgrade. "I want to give the product some time to gain stability and hear what the problems are - and unfortunately probably wait for a service pack," Jackson says. Other users echo that intention, and Bittman says they are wise to do so. "We expect Windows 2000 to be less stable than NT for a year," he says.

Bottom Line: It likely will be 2001 - at the earliest - before Windows' reliability is comparable to Unix.

The Issue: Windows' new integrated features Ask Yourself: Do I need these?

While the scalability and reliability turf remains an uphill fight for Windows, Microsoft has a strategy for going around Unix vendors' flanks. Windows 2000 includes several features that are more tightly integrated than those of their counterparts in the Unix world. These features could play a key role in winning over users. Microsoft's secret weapons, according to Tony Iams, a senior analyst at analyst firm DH Brown Associates, are Kerberos security, active directory technology and the Microsoft Transaction Server, which is integrated directly into the operating system. A quick rundown:

Kerberos security verifies that users on the network are valid. Its key selling point is that it does so without transmitting passwords over the network, reducing risk of interception.

Active directory technology helps track users connected to ever-more complex corporate networks and the permissions and resources those users need.

MTS, the Microsoft Transaction Server, serves as the manager for application and database transaction requests. When a user or client computer makes a request, MTS screens the request and, if necessary, forwards it to database servers.

Iams says these features are particularly attractive to corporate and third-party application builders. "These features are a very compelling target for developers who are working to deliver a new generation of Web-enabled applications," he says; in fact, Iams goes so far as to say that that's the primary raison d'être of Windows 2000. Added together, these features "potentially leapfrog [Unix] in terms of support for extranets and applications where you have relationships with [outside] parties", he adds.

"Is any one of these features going to make somebody switch?" asks The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Tisi. "Probably not, but what it shows is that Microsoft is thinking properly about this." Tisi's e-commerce application, with its data integration requirements, is a perfect showcase for the usefulness of these Win2000 enhancements. "The future of IT is all about data integration," he says.

Bottom Line: Unix users can get these services, but not with the same level of integration and ease that Windows 2000 will provide.

The Issue: Staffing

Ask Yourself: Who's going to run this stuff?

Staffing is a murky variable in the OS equation. Giga's DiDio says the lack of experienced staff for enterprise use of Windows will be OS's biggest hurdle. Tisi counters that while Unix expertise is plentiful, his shop needs something more specific - HP/UX expertise. The division of Unix adherents into various flavours makes Unix at least as hard to staff as Windows, he says. And Nicholas-Applegate's Turvey echoes that sentiment. "When Sun comes in with new features related to clustering, you discover there are only two clustering people on the West Coast," he says. So if one system is truly a better choice in this area, it will only be because a particular skill base is more plentiful in the desired industry or geography.

Bottom Line: Determine if you have the staff to run your system of choice - and, if you don't, how willing you are to hunt them down.

The Issue: Cost

Ask Yourself: Is Windows really cheaper?

Practitioners remain divided over the cost issue. Windows 2000, like Windows NT before it, runs happily on Intel-based hardware, which is significantly cheaper - and uses cheaper replacement parts' - than the high-end hardware hosts from Sun and company. But analysts at Gartner contend that the total cost of ownership is pretty much the same, once staffing costs and extra costs to beef up Windows systems' reliability are figured in.

Tisi disagrees strongly. "If you have unlimited money, sure, go get a bunch of Onyx workstations," he says. "But in the real world it's about price/performance, and I defy anybody to deny that Windows gives better price/performance. The hardware is much more commoditised."

Bottom Line: Weigh all the cost issues - not just what you'll spend to get the stuff, but what it will cost to keep it going.

Tally Up: Different businesses will reach different conclusions. Companies with midsize transactional needs can gain some cost advantage by going with Windows and may enjoy some of the added features. Really big enterprise applications dependent on scalability and reliability still belong on Unix for now.

Of course, the boundary that defines "really big" has moved higher and higher. Already Windows' capability reaches at least to 850 users per server, with the proviso that wise men say wait nine months before putting Windows 2000 into production systems with that kind of load. How high will this boundary turn out to be when Windows 2000 gets real-world tests? The higher you test, the more risk you accept. Electronic commerce applications are the most difficult call to make. The tight integration of MTS and other features in Windows 2000 makes it an attractive development and hosting platform for e-commerce, but e-commerce transaction loads are the least predictable of any enterprise application. Some CIOs will use Windows' maturation to their advantage, and others will undoubtedly push too high and stumble. What will you do?

Don't Forget Linux

While Microsoft struggles to chase Unix at the high end, it suddenly finds a new Unix variant, Linux, nipping at its heels from behind. The low end is clearly where Linux fits into the spectrum for now. It is reliable and secure but lacks much of the robust functionality of the proprietary Unixes at the high end, according to Tony Iams, senior analyst at analyst firm DH Brown Associates. "It's behind even NT in these [functionality] areas," he says. Still, as more and more big vendors jump into Linux - it's available on IBM servers, for example, and Silicon Graphics has donated the source code of its high-end journalling features to the open source cause - Linux will attempt to climb the corporate ladder just as Windows has.

- D Slater

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