Intel or Unix? Customers face a tough choice

As Intel Corp.'s server chips become more powerful and Microsoft Corp. addresses lingering doubts about how far its operating system can scale reliably, enterprise customers face an increasingly tough choice over what type of server is most appropriate -- and cost-effective -- for running large-scale corporate applications.

For years, Unix servers from the likes of Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) have been a mainstay for running large databases, ERP programs and other enterprise applications. Advocates say the stability and scalability of Unix operating systems like Sun's Solaris, HP's HP-UX and IBM Corp.'s AIX are without peer, and the sheer power of a Unix server powered by up to 64 processors can meet the demands of most large applications.

But Intel-based servers running Windows and Linux, particularly when grouped into clusters, are starting to challenge midrange servers in the $100,000 to $1 million price range. Some analysts credit Windows 2000 for addressing issues of stability and scalability that until recently have kept Microsoft's OS confined largely to departmental servers and desktop PCs. Perhaps as important, Intel-based servers generally are much cheaper to buy than Unix machines, and allow customers to scale out by adding additional servers to a cluster as the need arises, analysts said.

"One of the strongest areas Windows has today is its scaling-out value," said Tom Manter, a research director with Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. "It is by far the best platform for scaling out bar (none), which provides enormous flexibility for companies who have no idea what kind of demand they'll be facing a year down the road."

Companies that scale out using Intel-based server also achieve price savings, say vendors who sell the machines.

"The primary advantage to clustering Intel servers is cost," said Rod Parker, a systems engineering director for Compaq, which sells both its own line of proprietary Unix servers and Intel-based machines. "When you generally price out an Intel server, it will cost a bit lower than a proprietary (Unix) server."

Another advantage analysts cited for choosing Intel-based servers is choice. Because the servers run standard processors and software, boxes from multiple vendors can be tied together with relative ease. What's more, customers hold an ace up their sleeve when negotiating with vendors: Be nice, or I'll go see one of your competitors.

By contrast, "with Unix, you're basically locked into the vendor," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. "You're married to HP, or Sun, or Compaq's Tru64, and you'd darn well better like what they're doing, because your ability to do something about it if they don't keep you happy is nil."

However, Parker pointed to cases where customers say other factors take precedence over price. For its work in mapping the human genome, researchers at Celera Genomics Corp. chose Compaq's GS160 AlphaServer running Tru64 Unix to crunch demanding computations. "Even though Alpha was more expensive, they saw it cut off years of time" in their race to map the human genome, he said.

Unix machines rule when it comes to running large databases, analysts said. The RISC-type processors used in most Unix servers are 64-bit chips. In simple terms, this means they can process data in chunks that are 64 bits wide, compared to Intel's 32-bit Pentium III Xeon. The key issue is memory addressability: Intel's Xeon chips don't process data as quickly as chips designed specifically for Unix.

"There is a recognition that very large databases require a huge amount of memory addressability," acknowledged Shannon Poulin, launch manager for Intel's enterprise marketing organization.

Intel has been addressing that problem by developing its own 64-bit processor, Itanium. After numerous delays, Itanium is due to launch mid-year, with servers from HP, Compaq, Dell and many others expected to follow. However, Itanium remains a "largely untested" product, notes Brookwood, and most customers will likely take a wait and see approach with the new chip.

Intel promises the biggest performance boost from McKinley, the successor chip to Itanium, which is due in 2002. Brookwood predicted that servers based on Intel's 64-bit chips will prove a powerful draw for customers looking for a cost efficient server for running very large databases.

Another factor for customers to consider is that a single Unix box tends to be far easier to manage than a cluster of Intel-based servers. A single, large Unix server uses a single system image, meaning it runs one copy of an operating system or application. In server clusters, which run multiple copies of the same software, pinpointing the cause of a problem can be far more difficult, notes Jean Bozman, a research director with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts.

"This is one of Unix's sweet spots," she said, "you can run one copy of the operating system on as many processors as you want."

Microsoft's history of issuing frequent upgrades to its operating system has made some businesses skeptical about using its software for mission critical servers. In the PC's heyday, Microsoft's business model depended in large part on persuading users to upgrade their operating system relatively frequently, helping to drive its remarkable revenue growth.

"What Microsoft doesn't understand as clearly as mainstream Unix companies is that once a server is installed in the back of the server room, customers don't want to touch it," said Dan Kusnetzky, a senior analyst with IDC.

Microsoft declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, but in the past executives have claimed that the company has learned its lesson. The server editions of Windows 2000 will not require companies to make repeated upgrades, the company has said.

Analysts such as Manter and Kusnetzky agreed that Windows 2000 addresses some of the concerns about instability that dogged Windows NT. Nevertheless, many analysts still agree that Unix is unmatched when it comes to running large applications where dependability counts above all else.

"NT servers were not stable, we had to reboot them periodically," said Desikan Jaggannathan, vice president of engineering for food and beverage procurement and aggregation company ecIndustries Inc. "Eventually, we got tired of rebooting."

EcIndustries is switching its servers to Sun Unix systems, in part because it uses applications written in Java, which run better on Sun's own platform, according to Jaggannathan.

Unix running on Intel chips has also been a viable option, with The Santa Cruz Operation Inc. (SCO) only losing the top spot for Unix software shipments in the end of 1999, IDC's Kusnetzky said. However, its lack of brand recognition may be the largest factor in its loss of market-leader status. "When you bought a Compaq server running SCO (Unix), you thought of it as a Compaq, not SCO," Kusnetzky said. For other vendors, such as Sun, pushing versions of Unix that run on Intel chips (rather than RISC) was simply not seen as a smart move, because each time someone installed Solaris Unix on an Intel platform, Sun lost the potential revenue from selling a server.

However, Unix on Intel took its hardest hit from Linux. Businesses that were running Unix on back office servers saw the fairly inexpensive option of running Unix on the front end as well, but on Intel servers; when Linux came along, a Unix inexpensive solution had to compete with essentially a free operating system, Kusnetzky said.

Mountain View, California-based Google Inc., is one of the companies that chose the open-source Linux route. The Web site is powered by 8,000 Intel-based servers running Red Hat Linux distribution 6.2 of Linux, said Craig Silverstein, director of technology for Google.

"We started with Linux when we were still a research project at (California's) Stanford University," Silverstein said. The company has stuck with Linux for three main reasons: first, because the software can be downloaded for free; second, because Red Hat offers impressive support services, according to Silverstein; and thirdly because Linux is open source, meaning Google's programmers can tinker with the code to adapt it to their needs.

"Since it's open source, we can tweak it," Silverstein said. "We can optimize it for the kinds of applications we do."

Sun may be the vendor most threatened by Intel's rise in the server market. Unlike Compaq, HP and IBM, Sun doesn't sell its own line of Intel-based servers, and has yet to commit firmly to offering Sun Solaris on Intel's 64-bit platform. Sun has responded to Intel's challenge by offering more flexible pricing options for its servers. For example, it now allows customers to buy a server with multiple processors inside, but to pay for the additional processors only when they are "switched on."

The company asserts that its singular focus allows it to offer superior technology, rather than trying to be all things to all customers.

"We're not here to sell every solution to every problem, we're focused on providing the best Unix system possible," said Benjamin Baer, product manager with Sun's Netra systems division, which sells entry-level servers.

Changes on the horizon will only make it tougher to decide what type of server to use. As well as Windows and Linux, Intel has shown pilot Itanium servers running on HP's flavor of Unix, and other Unix versions are expected to follow.

Bozman and other analysts say that many companies will continue to employ a mixture of platforms for running their applications.

"People want to make this a black and white issue, but it's not," she said. "The truth is that most users of any size have a mix of these systems -- it becomes a decision of what applications run where."

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