While still vapourware for now, analysts predict within five years Intel's revolutionary new 64-bit Merced chip -- with its promise of significantly better price/performance than Intel and RISC architectures -- could cause a consolidation of hardware platforms.
Unix vendors with a keen eye on maintaining market share into the future are getting right behind the initiative, even as Microsoft aggressively pushes NT as a major business platform capable of fully satisfying the needs of the enterprise. Meanwhile Windows 95 shows no sign of giving up its stranglehold on the desktop. Add it all up and it means that if you're like other decision makers making enterprise-level operating decisions now, you'll want to do so with one eye firmly on the future.
While NT Server continues to evolve as an enterprise-level operating system, analysts say it's still playing second fiddle to Unix in the large enterprise and is unlikely to fill all the needs of big business until the next century.
If enterprises are deploying NT at an ever-increasing rate, it's largely in its traditional supporting role as a file and print and applications server. Unix is still the star of the strategic systems show, they say, thanks to superior scalability and reliability.
Server market shares have shifted dramatically over the past 18 months. Worldwide, shipments of Windows NT Server grew 80 per cent in 1997 to 39.8 per cent market share. But while shipments of Unix operating environments remained flat at 15.8 per cent, International Data Corp (IDC) insists NT's growth has not been at the expense of Unix. And if the number of units of NT workstations sold exceeded those for Unix-based workstations for the first time in 1997, (1.3 million workstations equipped with NT compared to 660,000 units with Unix) Unix still wins hands down on the dollar value of the market. IDC forecasts that by 2001, the dollar value of the NT market will be just $US19 billion while Unix will enjoy $US35 billion market share.
With Unix still dominant in the enterprise space, Hewlett-Packard product marketing manager John Knaggs says the Year 2000 problem will help drive the operating system's future success.
"A number of people, rather than get all their COBOL programmers out of retirement to try and re-engineer everything they've got, are basically saying: hang on, the later we've left it, the worse the situation is. Let's implement a brand new Y2K compliant Unix solution'," he said.
As Unix lays firm claim on the high ground, positioning itself on superior performance and higher availability than Windows NT, Knaggs predicts a smaller number of sales longer term, but still significant revenue for Unix vendors.
And he says the advent of Merced, and a reduction in the number of RISC chips, will see a reduced number of "flavours" of Unix -- a move which will ultimately benefit consumers. A joint development of Intel and Hewlett-Packard that promises to run x86 and Unix applications equally well and at lower cost than current RISC-based workstations and servers, Merced has won the support of every major Unix vendor except IBM.
Sequent and Digital will even work toward a single Unix implementation for Merced.
"With a single predominant architecture, Unix will work to play in a very high-end space, and will be strongest in platforms of from 16 to 64 processors, and NT will work everything up to 16 processors and maybe beyond," Knaggs said.
He says Hewlett-Packard is currently achieving 50,000 transactions per minute on Unix. The best 8-way Intel box today is achieving just 16,000.
"NT is going to do a lot for a lot of people but it will come down to integrity, stability, reliability and the high availability capabilities that are provided by clustering. NT is still very immature in that area," he said.
SCO regional marketing manager Scott Caulfield fervently agrees. According to IDC, SCO currently has 88 per cent of the Unix on Intel market.
"Unix today is a product that is very stable and very mature, and unlike NT, Unix is enhanced as it moves forward as opposed to being re-engineered, to give compatibility both backwards and forwards," Caulfield said. "So as an enterprise customer running an application or running a mission-critical business, I have a lot more confidence in the product," he said.
SCO already has 64-bit links, 64-bit naming conventions, and a fair bit of 64-bit functionality in its operating system. Caulfield says that means buyers can deploy Unix on Intel now and -- when Merced comes out -- simply swap the hardware out from underneath it and get straight onto a full 64-bit version of Unix.
Sun is similarly bundling its Solaris operating system with NCR's Intel-based WorldMark servers as an option for customers looking to make the move to servers based on Merced.
Caulfield says organisations around the world with billions invested in Unix hardware and applications are looking sceptically at NT as a product that is completely re-engineered each time a new version comes out, causing compatibility issues no organisation running mission-critical applications can afford.
As Microsoft intensifies its efforts to tackle Unix head-on, it is packing NT 5.0 full of enterprise-oriented functionality. The company claims its enterprise edition of NT 5.0, due sometime next financial year, will cost more than the basic version but will provide performance and availability features that match up well to those in Unix.
Windows NT 5.0 is predicted to include numerous new features, including support for next generation microprocessors, increased memory, improved communications services and Zero Administration Windows technology to remotely manage Windows systems.
NT 5.0 Workstation will be available at the same time as NT 5.0, Enterprise Edition, and Microsoft is also developing a 64-bit version of NT it promises will be available when Merced ships.
Legacy programs written for 32-bit Windows will be completely compatible with 64-bit NT, and the 64-bit version will use tools with which developers are currently familiar, such as DDI and APIs.
The company says NT 5.0 Enterprise Edition will support clustering across up to four nodes and enable users to run the operating system on 16- and 32-way SMP machines.
Microsoft Windows product manager Tony Wilkinson says the aim is to offer a version of Windows that's focused on consumers (Windows 98) and a version of Windows that's focused on business requirements (NT).
"As we go forward, we're planning to add new things that will reduce the cost of ownership through the Zero Administration for Windows initiative, and also enable new classes of applications."
But the biggest technology gap between NT and Unix remains on the scalability front. Forrester Research recently found 62 per cent of IT managers at large organisations viewed NT as unscalable.
While NT's eight-processor scalability is a positive, it still pales in comparison to what Unix can do. IBM's AIX can run across a massively parallel 512-node system, and each node can be an SMP computer.
On the desktop
Windows 3.1/95 still has by far the lion's share of the desktop market, but analysts predict the move to Windows 98 will be gradual.
Overall, the signals on processor direction and foreshadowed operating system directions means that many decision makers will find their choice of operating system clear.
Unix vendors will continue differentiating their server products from NT Server on the basis of their greater scalability, superior clustering ability and 64-bit Unix functionality.
And while there's no doubt NT will make a fortune for Bill Gates, the analysts say, Unix is expected to continue to dominate the high end of the enterprise market.
Meanwhile . . . Windows 95/98
The other side of the Microsoft coin is Windows 95 and its new sibling, Windows 98. Gartner Group analyst Bruce McCabe says take-up of 98 is unlikely to be particularly dramatic, describing it as largely a cosmetic upgrade.
"It fixes a lot of little issues but it's not a wholesale change in the way things are done or the architecture," he said.
"It offers more efficient storage, it offers faster opening and closing times, it is hopefully more robust, and there are other little interface issues, but it is not going to cause the hype and excitement," he said.
As Microsoft moves forward with NT Workstation 5.0 and Windows 98, it is working hard to focus on delivering consumer requirements through Windows 98 and business needs through NT Workstation, Wilkinson said. Nor will there be another release of Windows before the Year 2000.
Wilkinson says Windows 98 will provide support for very high performance games and multimedia, the Internet and a new category of applications such as digital imaging.
It should also be substantially more stable than Windows 95.
But companies already running NT 4.0 or counting the days until NT 5.0 hits the streets will probably have little use for Windows 98. Only those happily running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 will want to evaluate Win98 for its potential to reduce internal support costs, analysts say.
In future, Microsoft plans to continue to have both a consumer-focused and a business-focused version of Windows, but will strive to eventually have as much of the same technology as possible across those platforms. After the Year 2000, expect Microsoft to move towards core technology based on NT.