Sun moving into Microsoft's arena

Sun Microsystems Inc. is attempting to provide its customers with increased interoperability with Microsoft products with several upcoming products.

At Sun's Enterprise Computing Forum '98 in New York in September, the company announced: Project Cascade, software to be packaged with Solaris that will allow Windows NT services to run on a Solaris server; the SunPCi co-processor card that will allow Sun workstations to run Windows applications such as Microsoft Office in a native environment; and several of Sun's StorEdge arrays will now be optimized with NT support.

Questions were raised by several attendees as to whether or not these moves are an indication of Sun simply jumping on the Microsoft bandwagon.

"Absolutely not," said Tony Iams, a senior analyst with D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y. Iams was not at the conference, but said he has been fully briefed on the various announcements. "It's an extension of their existing strategy to envelop NT environments, adding value wherever they can with differentiated technology."

Sun executives at the conference speaking on Project Cascade were happy to point to NT's supposed failings, in particular low scalability and the need to frequently reboot NT machines.

"The issue of NT crashing all the time is definitely misleading," Iams said. "When people talk about having to restart NT, it's not because NT is crashing and has to be started up again, but it's because there are 50 different operations in NT that require restarts, and that number tends to be much smaller in Unix."

Iams said Sun can thus offer NT services on a Solaris foundation through Project Cascade with the benefit of fewer reboots. He added Solaris configurations can scale up to 64 processors, while "NT hasn't been shown to work very well past six or eight processors."

NT itself is not being scaled by Project Cascade, explained John Davis, group manager in workgroup server marketing for Sun in Chelmsford, Mass. Instead, the NT services are being laid on top of Solaris, which can be scaled.

"We're talking about the NT services that sit on top of the operating system -- the file and print services, the authentication services, the domain controllers and the trust environments," Davis said.

"The only thing that we can't do is run Microsoft applications, like BackOffice, Exchange or SQL Server, on the Solaris environment."

The Project Cascade technology is being licensed to Sun from AT&T. AT&T's Advanced Server for Unix is already available on other Unix platforms, according to Iams, and he pointed out a possible problem with Project Cascade.

"AT&T's licence has not been extended for NT 5.0. So AT&T is not going to be able to update this when Microsoft's security model is revamped when they move to Kerberos and Active Directory," Iams said.

"At this point, Cascade is only available for NT 4.0. Sun does say that they have a strategy for moving forward to NT 5.0, but they're not giving any specifics," he said.

Iams suggested Project Cascade will appeal most to those administrators running extremely large NT networks where servers are needed just to manage the network's primary and back-up domain controllers and associated trust relationships.

"If you don't have lots of servers to do that, then you're probably not hitting NT's limits, so this won't be as interesting to you. But if you're in the group that has lots of servers for that, then you'll be interested in this.

"Mixed shops are definitely going to be very interested. I would submit, though, that even shops that have no Unix installed, but are clearly feeling the pinch from NT's reliability and scalability limits, this may in fact be a reason to bite the bullet and bring in Unix. But that would only be for the very largest NT installations," Iams said.

Early access software for Project Cascade is expected to be available to qualified customers starting in November 1998. Sun said further pricing and availability information will be announced in the first quarter of 1999.

Sun's other major foray into the Microsoft space -- the SunPCi co-processor card -- is a PC card which fits inside Sun's PCI I/O-based Ultra workstations. The card can run Windows 95 or 98, fits into any Sun workstation with a PCI slot, has its own 300MHz AMD K6-2 processor and local memory to not interfere with Solaris, and can access the network through the workstation. It can be used for any PC application, and is presented on the workstation screen as another working window so information can be transferred back and forth.

"The SunPCi card is literally a PC motherboard squashed down onto a PCI interface," said Tom Karpowitz, technology manager of the desktop solutions group for Sun in Delmar, N.Y. "As far as software such as Microsoft Windows or applications are concerned, this is a real honest-to-God PC in your workstation."

Karpowitz explained that many workstation users need access to popular PC applications for word processing, office automation and e-mail. As a result, some customers have had to keep two systems on their desks. Sun hopes such customers will opt instead for the SunPCi card, which is expected to be available late in 1998.

"There are some similar solutions out there that are just software based," Iams said. "But most of those rely on some form of emulation. The advantage of this plug-in card is there is no emulation. You're actually running the Windows applications on the native platform that they were designed for."

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