Dispatches from the front, where the Unix-NT battle shows much improvement but no clear victory -- yet Reader ROI Microsoft's Windows NT platform has tremendous momentum in its bid to wrest network server market share from Unix vendors. In this article, readers will discover - The strengths and weaknesses of the NT and Unix platforms - How CIOs can guard against NT penetrating their IT infrastructure without their knowledge - Industry opinions on how the NT versus Unix battle will play outHarold Perriman, the CIO of XYZ Pty Ltd, has a bad case of indigestion and it's not from the spicy green prawn curry he had for lunch. In order to enable every salesperson in the company to access the same data, a dozen of XYZ's division managers want Perriman to centralise their sales-force automation (SFA) system, now running on Windows NT servers in a dozen separate workgroups, to a single enterprisewide system. Great idea in principle, but Perriman has serious misgivings about NT's scalability and reliability in an enterprisewide setting.
Simply put, he fears an NT system can't grow large enough and that if pushed beyond its capacity, it will crash and burn. What's more, with little NT expertise on staff, he doubts he can complete the project in the three-month time frame they've requested. In the early '90s, Perriman designed a Unix system that works very well. His staff knows Unix, and the systems rarely go down. "We should stick with Unix because it's what we know," Perriman states.
But NT is the wave of the future, the divisional business executives insist.
The company's SFA vendor has adopted an NT strategy for development and will de-emphasise its Unix offerings. XYZ's divisional sales managers have been impressed by how inexpensive the SFA system's hardware is and say NT has been easy for their IS people to learn, so they ask: "What's the big deal about training some of yours to manage this system companywide?" Perriman sighs and desperately tries to explain. "Look, it works fine for 25 or so departmental users, but it won't scale very well for the entire company, and it's going to cost a lot more than you guys think. It's bound to crash frequently under the strain of a much bigger workload. NT might be ready to support enterprise systems in a few years, but it makes no sense for us to move to it now." His words don't register. The business executives continue to push for NT. Later, alone in his office, Perriman reaches for the Maalox and launches into a scatological diatribe directed toward Bill Gates' ancestry. The fictional Perriman may represent an extreme case, but many CIOs will soon face similar challenges -- if they haven't already. But is Perriman's situation really as dire as he believes?NT Creep Microsoft and Unix vendors are competing for server dominance, with Microsoft striving to improve NT's scalability and reliability, while Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others work to boost Unix's lead in those areas. They are also working to make Unix less hardware vendor-dependent and easier to learn. This fluid situation makes evaluating the two platforms difficult. Faced with uncertainty about NT's viability as an enterprisewide platform, some CIOs may wish it would just go away. But, no matter what you think of the technical acumen, business practices and marketing muscle of the big software kahuna in Redmond, Washington, it's likely that sooner or later you'll have Windows NT servers running somewhere in your organisation. There seems to be a sense of inevitability among vendors and IS executives that Microsoft will eventually achieve its goal of making NT the dominant network operating system. Microsoft is cultivating a strategy akin to IBM's during its heyday, says Jeff Tash, president of Hewitt Technologies, a Massachusetts-based IT consultancy. "It used to be said that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM," Tash says.
Microsoft, having won the desktop operating system wars and now reaching for dominance on servers, wants a similar rarefied reputation, he says. Such a reputation, partly based on potent marketing clout that Unix vendors can't match, helps Microsoft sell NT to technically inexperienced non-IS executives who have gained significant IT purchasing responsibility in recent years.
According to a September 1997 Windows NT Adoption study by International Data Corp (IDC) in the US, 48 per cent of departmental server purchases today are made by executives outside central IS departments. Consequently, line of business executives sometimes purchase NT servers without the CIO's knowledge. "Before you know it, you've got hundreds of these NT servers all over the place," says Thomas Bittman, vice president of platforms and operating technology at GartnerGroup in the US.
NT Balance Sheet
NT's momentum is more than marketing hype. It has some compelling advantages over Unix, particularly when deployed in small workgroup environments.
According to Bittman, the initial cost of setting up an NT network, particularly one running on low-cost Intel-based servers, is usually lower than a Unix network. That advantage dwindles when considering subsequent costs, though. "The TCO [total cost of ownership] among Unix, NT and [IBM] AS/400 is pretty much equivalent," Bittman says. NT, with its graphical user interface, is easier for network administrator trainees to learn than Unix. What's more, NT, which functions on any hardware vendor's Intel-based servers and Digital Equipment's [nee Compaq] Alpha servers, offers more vendor independence than Unix. Sun Microsystems' Solaris Unix platform, for instance, runs only on Sun hardware. Some observers consider NT more versatile than Unix in both small and medium-size networks because of its widespread use to support financial applications, Web servers, LAN file and print management functions, and a host of other tasks. "We've never said that NT is the best solution for any of these [tasks], but it is good enough," Bittman says. Unix users typically employ more than one operating system to accomplish that many tasks; many use Novell's NetWare LAN operating system, for instance, as a file and print management server. The average number of clients supported by a single NT server is about 25, according to Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC in the US. When the number of users on an NT server goes beyond 30, however, NT becomes less robust and less reliable, according to Kusnetzky. Compared with Unix systems, NT doesn't scale well, isn't as stable when handling large-scale, enterprisewide applications and is hard to manage centrally. Despite Kusnetzky's warnings, some organisations have gone way beyond the 30-seat threshold with NT, though those installations don't yet match Unix's scalability capacity. The largest successful NT deployments on a single server for database transaction processing to date support about 450 concurrent users, Bittman says. By contrast, the largest successful single-server Unix database deployments support 1800 users. "The trade press would have you believe that NT is replacing mainframes," Bittman says. "But there are very few mission-critical systems running on NT today."News from the Front The real battle between the systems is shaping up between small workgroups where NT dominates on new installations, and large enterprise deployments with more than 500 users where Unix, mid-range systems and mainframes continue to rule. Microsoft asserts that NT can now handle most mid-tier applications, but NT's limited track record in that realm provokes criticism from analysts and leaves CIOs wary. Scott Turvey, vice president of the information management group with Nicholas-Applegate Capital Management in San Diego, uses NT on a few servers, primarily to support applications provided by information services such as Reuters, but he uses Solaris for the bulk of his back-end operations.
He doesn't consider NT viable for heavy-duty networking demands such as providing access to the company's near-terabyte Sybase relational database.
"[NT] won't scale," Turvey says. "The performance isn't there. It's not stable enough." Turvey's perception of NT reflects current mainstream thought among CIOs and most IT analysts.
Of course, Microsoft has been working vigorously to change that perception. In May 1996, during Microsoft's much-hyped Scalability Day, chairman and CEO Bill Gates declared that 95 per cent of all businesses could now run their enterprise applications on NT. But Microsoft has been overzealous in its promotion of NT's performance in enterprise settings, says Bob Sakakeeny, an analyst with Aberdeen Group, a technology research and consulting firm based in Boston. He's critical of Microsoft's claims regarding NT's ability to scale to eight processors and beyond on a single server. NT currently scales well on a four-way box, but beyond that, it consumes much more CPU power to function than comparable Unix systems, Sakakeeny says. That set-up sometimes requires that large-scale NT systems be deployed on more servers than a comparable Unix system. "We acknowledge that NT is still not as scalable as Unix on the very high end," says Paul Stanton, Microsoft's director of marketing for the enterprise customer unit. But Stanton asserts that NT can support 95 per cent of business applications on the market. Such claims irritate analysts; Sakakeeny reports several Aberdeen clients who have attempted large-scale NT installations have had serious operational problems -- or have grossly underestimated the cost and complexity of the projects. While it's possible to roll out NT to hundreds of users, Unix -- with its superior stability, reliability and more mature management tools -- is still clearly the better choice in larger-than-workgroup situations, Sakakeeny says.
Despite analysts' criticisms, there is evidence that NT is gaining momentum on the enterprise level. This year, more than half of new SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning software installations of all sizes are running on NT. About 80 per cent of those installations are in the small to medium-size category of 400 concurrent users or fewer, says Steve Rietzke, national partnership manager for SAP America based in Redmond, Washington. Compaq Computer claims to have one of the largest R/3 installations on NT, with 600 concurrent users, though GartnerGroup's Bittman has not verified any installation above 450 users.
Rietzke claims NT can now support 90 per cent of new R/3 customers -- all but the very largest installations. Analysts have doubts about the validity of that claim, but they expect Microsoft will boost NT's scalability significantly with NT 5.0, which is expected to be released next year (though Microsoft has not yet set an official release date). GartnerGroup predicts single NT servers will be able to support about 1500 users on a network by 2002. But for now, introducing NT across the enterprise is a risky strategy made more difficult by a dearth of NT expertise in large settings. "NT expertise on an enterprisewide scale is rare and quite expensive," Kusnetzky says. Although learning the basics of NT -- particularly for small workgroups -- is easier than getting a rudimentary footing in Unix, NT is more complicated to manage on a large scale than most people think, Bittman adds.
Microsoft is investing heavily in NT support services, but the company had little experience in enterprise network systems before launching NT in 1994 and is playing catch-up. Turvey believes Microsoft is still not prepared to offer enterprise support, a critical point for CIOs, he says. Microsoft's Stanton acknowledges that demand for NT support is currently high, but adds that the company has worked hard to boost its enterprise support capability and now supplies worldwide, 24-hour support to about 2000 customers. In addition, he says, Microsoft's partnerships with many service providers, including HP, Digital, Ernst & Young LLP, Arthur Andersen, Unisys, and Amdahl, have bolstered NT enterprise support considerably. "[Despite those efforts] we will continue to hear people say it's not enough because the demand is so great," Stanton says. Heavy demand for services equates to a strong endorsement for NT, he contends.
Bullish NT Vendors
Stanton's estimate of the situation may be right. Even NT sceptics are not ignoring the platform. Turvey says his staff will continue to monitor Microsoft's NT improvements and he suspects he'll be using it more in the future. That outcome could be realised, in part, because of Microsoft's clout in the software industry. Based on Microsoft's dominance on the desktop and momentum in the server market, scores of software vendors are focusing their future product development on NT. Most analysts say Microsoft won't achieve the same level of dominance on servers that it has on the desktop, but there's no doubt it will be a significant force. "Our view is that NT is not going to take over the whole world," Bittman says, "but it is going to take over a good chunk of it. Vendors know that, too." Software developers also find NT attractive for their products because it runs on many hardware platforms. Unix systems in contrast come in several proprietary flavours, so vendors have to develop several versions of their Unix products rather than just one, as is the case with NT -- or two if they offer an Alpha version.
For some companies, NT's hardware independence is a convincing argument. The Chase Manhattan Bank, for instance, a company with about 77,000 desktops, has a plethora of desktop and mid-range platforms from IBM, Sun, HP and others.
Although the bank will continue to run and support many Unix systems, it is aggressively moving a number of functions to NT, says Lynn Houseknecht, Chase's senior vice president of distributed computing services. Chase is deploying NT as a file and print server and to support Lotus Notes, e-mail, the corporate intranet and some specialised line of business applications. But Houseknecht says Chase will not try to port applications designed for Unix environments to NT, nor will it attempt to use NT for transaction-heavy, mission-critical systems such as trading floor systems, capital market systems and market data feeds. With the exception of those kinds of high-end systems, NT is suitable for many enterprisewide systems, Chase believes. And, like many IS shops, Chase wants to consolidate the number and types of servers across the enterprise. "We would like to move to a more homogeneous environment because we believe having many operating systems drives up costs," Houseknecht says. But it's not easy to get multiple business units to standardise on any one platform, he adds. Chase formed a companywide Global LAN Community Committee last year to establish standards with an eye on more operating system and hardware homogeneity. That committee recommended widespread use of NT on Intel servers to an executive committee headed by Chase's CIO. As a result, Chase aims to move the majority of its LAN servers to NT within a year.
Like Chase, some organisations want to move aggressively to the NT platform.
Others are sticking with the more mature Unix platform. For IS managers who haven't decided yet, the NT-or-Unix decision will be heavily influenced by what types of systems their organisations already use. If you have just one flavour of Unix, there is no compelling reason to go with NT as a network operating system, according to Louis Heibert, a senior analyst with Progressive Strategies, an IT consulting and research firm based in New York City. In the end, choosing NT or Unix is frequently not a 100 per cent either/or decision.
For instance, Chase will continue to use Unix for high-end applications. Many organisations will use both platforms to some degree for the foreseeable future. During the next few years, the battle lines between NT and Unix will be redrawn many times. In this period of uncertainty, CIOs should monitor changes and hedge their bets. If you don't have any enterprise NT expertise on your staff, it would be wise to recruit some. But also watch Microsoft's attempt to position NT as ready for large-scale enterprise systems with a critical eye.
It's premature to abandon Unix on heavy-duty mission-critical applications, particularly if Microsoft doesn't deliver on its promised scalability and reliability improvements. Unfortunately, evaluating operating system environments is likely to get more complicated over the next several years.
Keep the antacid handy.
The Common Wisdom
Common wisdom is rarely common and seldom wise, but at the moment most people believe the NT-Unix debate shapes up like this:Unix SCALABILITY The largest single-server installations support about 1800 users.
COST Total cost of ownership for Unix, NT and IBM's AS/400 mid-range systems is comparable. AVAILABILITY Unix can cluster multiple servers so that if one fails another can automatically fill the breach.
STABILITY Unix is widely acknowledged to be more stable.
EASE OF LEARNING Unix is perceived as arcane, but vendors are scrambling to make it easier to learn.
SOFTWARE AVAILABILITY Unix currently holds the edge in the number of available applications.
HARDWARE INDEPENDENCE Unix systems run on several proprietary formats.
MANAGEABILITY Some say Unix manageability still needs improvement.
SUPPORT SKILLS IS personnel have had more experience with Unix, but skilled workers are not easy to find.
VENDOR SUPPORT Unix enterprise support is established.
MOMENTUM Unix installations are still growing, particularly in high-end, mission-critical settings. But Unix is losing ground to NT in workgroup settings.
SCALABILITY According to GartnerGroup (US), the largest successful NT single-server implementations support about 450 users.
COST The entry price for NT software and hardware usually beats Unix.
AVAILABILITY NT's clustering ability is improving but still immature.
STABILITY GartnerGroup, Aberdeen Group, IDC and others say NT tends to crash more often in enterprise settings.
EASE OF LEARNING A GUI helps make learning the basics of NT easy.
SOFTWARE AVAILABILITY NT applications are expected to outnumber Unix applications in a few years.
HARDWARE INDEPENDENCE NT can run on many vendors' servers.
MANAGEABILITY Central NT management is difficult.
SUPPORT SKILLS There is a critical shortage of NT expertise in enterprise settings. VENDOR SUPPORT Microsoft is working to improve support.
MOMENTUM NT has tremendous market momentum and superior brand image. Many observers predict it will eventually be the dominant server platform. -- P Fabris
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.