Microsoft's recent release of Windows 2000 Datacenter will mark the software giant's most ambitious attempt to penetrate the corporate glass house.
Whether Datacenter has the weight to break through remains anyone's guess. But the attempt will undoubtedly mark a significant change in the way Microsoft and its partners deliver software and hardware.
The development may also eventually let IT executives re-evaluate network operating system choices and server deployments. That re-evaluation process, however, won't come without painstaking tests to prove Datacenter is worthy to host core enterprise systems.
Datacenter is Microsoft's attempt to compete with long-established, mid-range Unix and minicomputer systems that run mission-critical enterprise applications.
"There is very little competition between Unix and [Windows] NT once you go beyond four processors," says Ed Martinez, senior systems architect with Prudential Insurance Company of America. "With Datacenter, we hope to get some flexibility to keep some systems on the Intel platform."
Encouraged by results
Martinez is encouraged after four months of testing Datacenter and hopes to eventually use it to host databases, consolidate servers, and save on rack space, ports and peripherals.
"We're looking at high-end SQL [database] applications and see some advantage in leveraging more processors and memory per box. Instead of managing lots of servers, we can manage fewer high-end boxes," he says.
Datacenter may be an alternative to Unix in situations when Martinez wants eight or more processors per box, although he has no intention of replacing any of his Unix systems.
The Datacenter operating system, the last piece of the Windows 2000 line to be rolled out, is targeted at high-end databases, server consolidations and hosting environments. Its defining characteristics are support for up to 32 processors, 64Gbytes of memory and four-node failover clustering.
Unlike Microsoft's other Windows and NT software, Datacenter will only be available from OEMs, which will configure and test their hardware and the operating system as a single unit as well as offer 24x7 support and guarantees such as 99.9 per cent uptime.
Prudential's Martinez and others, however, are having a hard time evaluating Datacenter because there are no certified applications. "That makes it hard to push it through its paces," Martinez says.
The testing process for validated Datacenter applications began in August, and not even Microsoft's SQL Server is certified - although it will run on Datacenter.
Given that and the important roles Datacenter would be taking on, Martinez says it will be early next year before Prudential even evaluates when and where to introduce the operating system.
"If you don't have the right application, you could be wasting your money on Datacenter," he says.
Others are also taking measured approaches.
"You can count on Unix staying in our Phoenix data centre," says Fred Wettling, infrastructure architect for Bechtel, an engineering and construction company in San Francisco. But Wettling says the company may consolidate up to 120 NT servers used for front-end applications, such as those from SAP, and Datacenter could be a candidate for that project. The evaluation process, however, will be long and exhaustive.
It's a process sure to be repeated across many large companies.
"In order to compete with Unix, Datacenter has to show reliability and scalability," says Tony Iams, an analyst with DH Brown and Associates.
Hardcore Unix users won't switch to Datacenter, Iams predicts, but he says Microsoft has three key strengths that should be considered by those comparing Datacenter and Unix. They are: price, performance ratio; Datacenter's ability to run across many hardware platforms; and integration of services such as Microsoft's Active Directory.
"Unix still has an advantage with its 64-processor support and 64-bit systems, but the gap has narrowed," Iams says.
Where Datacenter is likely to get immediate traction is with IT executives committed to Windows but unsatisfied with its performance limitations.
Bill Bolt, vice president of IS for Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks and the National Basketball Association's Phoenix Suns, says. "We're not a Unix shop today and we don't want to add platforms and spend on training, so we need Microsoft to deliver."
Datacenter is like no other Windows operating system. The processor support, increased memory and clustering improvements are but a handful of its high-powered features. The software includes Process Control Tool, which lets applications be dedicated to certain processors to ensure smooth operation.
There is also network load balancing and WinSock Direct for high-speed communication between applications on the same network.
Features such as those are not strangers to the Unix environment, in which vendors such as Sun Microsystems and Compaq Computer have offered them for years. The Unix systems also marry operating system software to hardware and back the combination with dedicated support services.
Microsoft's answer is its Datacenter Program, which includes a 14-day stress test original equipment makers must pass to validate that their hardware is optimised for Datacenter. Any subsequent changes to the hardware are subjected to a seven-day test. Applications for the platform must also pass a certification test.
The attention to detail will be reflected in Datacenter's price. While the cost will reflect hardware, software and services, an average eight-way system from Datacenter partner Unisys averages about $US174,000. A high-end 32-way server will cost up to $900,000.
Compaq, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Unisys have certified hardware, and six more vendors will be added next week, according to Microsoft. In June, Unisys was the first to demonstrate Datacenter running on a 32-way system.
OEMs also will be required to set up a support centre staffed by Microsoft and the OEM's personnel.
In May, Compaq and Microsoft opened a joint support centre in Washington.
"The critical part of the Datacenter equation is how you back it up," says Robin Hensley, Datacenter director for Compaq.
As part of that effort, Compaq will oversee updates to the operating system, pushing out configuration changes every six months to its end users.
"There will be no change management done by customers," Hensley says.
Compaq plans to release two Datacenter servers next week - a ProLiant 8500 eight-processor system and a ProLiant 32-processor system. Early next year, Compaq will add a 64-way ProLiant system.