So long, Wintel

Windows on X86-32 hardware has been the de facto safe platform since the release of Windows NT 4.0 in 1996. PC servers still lead the corporate market in value and breadth of configurations, and IT can thank Microsoft, Intel, and AMD for forcing vendors to commoditize everything from fast hard drives to 512MB memory modules.

The so-called Wintel platform has driven down prices of all hardware from the middle tier down -- even Macs are affordable. So when you wave goodbye to Wintel, do so with some reverence and hope that the beneficial changes it brought to the market will stick after it's gone.

Of course Windows isn't going away, and nobody's pulling the plug on x86-32 hardware. But what's happening, and faster than many observers (including me) expected, is that the platform playing field is getting wider and more level. The surprise is who's doing the landscaping: companies such as Sun Microsystems, IBM, and Apple, the very outfits that espoused the locked-in model that Microsoft is now so eager to emulate with its enterprise software. Even Intel realizes Wintel won't be the market's touchstone for much longer -- it will be just another platform choice.

This isn't the triumph of good over evil or a street gang of Davids defeating a blundering Goliath. Religion and morality don't enter into it; it's pure survival economics. The only safe bet is a hedged bet, and that's as true for vendors as it is for IT.

Everybody's hedging. Sun, as is IBM, is raising the visibility of Linux, but they're both keeping it penned-in pretty tightly. Neither company believes Linux is yet safe or scalable enough in its present state, so Sun casts it as a desktop OS. On its midrange and high-end servers, IBM hosts Linux on partitioned and virtual processors for safety, and recommends running Linux on no more than eight CPUs in the same box.

Even the market's most steadfast one-trick pony, Apple, is finally branching out. With so much uncertainty surrounding the Motorola PowerPC processor on which it relies, Apple has lined up options. It's widely reported that Apple has OS X ready to roll on Intel and/or AMD processors, and the open-source Darwin project (representing most of OS X Server and running on Intel) is sufficient proof of that.

The 32-bit x86 CPU won't be the market's only commodity processor much longer. Apple is pushing PowerPC into that space, and IBM is doing the same with Power4+. The G5 project at Motorola and the Hammer project at AMD have been delayed, but IT will embrace these mixed-mode (32-bit and 64-bit) CPUs and the ultrafast buses that will support them.

The new safe platform won't be a single OS/CPU combination. It will be any platform that meets IT's higher standards for flexibility, value, and interoperability. The long-term success of Intel's 32-bit enterprise technology is not tied to Windows, and that's a good thing for both Intel and the IT market.

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