MS Shifts Gears with Datacenter Server

Next month when manufacturers begin to sell powerful PC servers to run the new Windows 2000 Datacenter Server software, the event will mark a significant shift in the way Microsoft Corp. sells and supports its most sophisticated operating system.

If Microsoft and its hardware partners are successful, agencies that need reliable, powerful computers will have a less expensive option. But it may mean a trade-off in future product flexibility.

Microsoft will sell the Datacenter Server, the final piece of the Windows 2000 family, only through certified hardware manufacturers. To be certified, manufacturers will use a Microsoft test plan to prove that the high-end operating system runs properly on their products. The Datacenter Server cannot be purchased separately: It will come pre-loaded on the certified systems and priced as one unit.

But the control doesn't end there. Microsoft and its partners will also have to certify other hardware and software that can run on the machine.

In the past, Microsoft sold its products through resellers and manufacturers without trying to control customers' use of the products or making their proper use a prerequisite of technical support. Now, they say the lack of oversight had a negative impact on product performance.

"Windows NT [the predecessor to Windows 2000] got slammed for its reliability," said David Ouart, a consultant at Microsoft's government division in Washington, D.C. "When we were building Windows 2000, Microsoft talked to lots of customers. The customers who complained most about NT's reliability did things like putting NT boxes under peoples' desks and had few controls over them.

"The customers who got the highest reliability treated their NT servers like they were a Unix or data center box, with strict procedures for introducing new parts or software."

In exchange for exerting more control over the environment in which the software is used, Microsoft believes it can ensure that the system will run 99 percent of the time. That commitment will be included in the sales contract, said Microsoft spokesman Keith Hodson.

"The flexibility that everybody has had in the Wintel market has had an impact on [system] availability," agreed Irv Epstein, vice president of corporate alliances at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa. Unisys was recently certified by Microsoft to sell the Datacenter Server with its e-@ction Enterprise Server ES7000 systems. "The degree to which components are certified together influences the degree to which you will have availability," Epstein said.

Prices for a fully configured ES7000 will range from $150,000 for an eight-processor system up to about $850,000 for a 32-processor system. Epstein said that price range is about one-third less than comparable Unix systems.

Unisys will certify a set of off-the-shelf applications for the platform, from database systems to customer relations management packages. If customers want to run their own custom-developed applications on the Datacenter Server, Unisys may be able to certify the applications but would likely negotiate separate support and system availability targets into the contract, Epstein said.

That kind of control may be necessary to deliver the availability that the companies promise, but it calls for a degree of restrictiveness not traditionally a part of the Windows PC market.

"There's a big downside to this, and that's flexibility to the customer," said Al Gillen, research manager for systems software at International Data Corp.

"You're not going to be able to mix and match parts the way you could in the past."

For example, customers will not have the option of shopping around for what they believe is the best network card, but will have to choose from those that are certified. "There may be one, or maybe 10, but the fact of the matter is there will be some subset of the broad set of parts available for all Wintel systems."

That's a tradeoff that Epstein and Ouart say enterprise customers will be willing to make for almost perfect system availability. Industry experts note that buyers of proprietary systems have made similar compromises for years.

Epstein said customers are free to use third-party service providers to support their Unisys ES7000. But by going with the certified hardware manufacturers, customers can take advantage of a unique support structure.

For example, Epstein said, Unisys will support its ES7000 customers with a help desk in Mission Viejo, Calif., staffed by Unisys and Microsoft employees. The desk will have access to the Windows 2000 source code and can escalate a call directly back to Microsoft's support center in Redmond, Wash.

"Because the software is certified to operate with a given set of hardware and has been tested and verified, there are a lot fewer variables to chase down if something doesn't work right," Gillen said.

Other hardware manufacturers certified in the Datacenter program include Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. Other participants include Amdahl Corp., Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Hitachi Ltd., International Computers Ltd., NEC Computers Inc. and Stratus Computer Systems.

No government agencies are known to have purchased a Datacenter Server-based computer so far, but Epstein said many agencies are interested in the Unisys solution, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S.

Department of Justice and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

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