In some ways, disparities in the computer workstation market have disappeared. Improvements in processor and graphics technology have allowed systems based on Intel Corp. microprocessors to close the performance gap on their reduced instruction-set computing (RISC)-based Unix cousins.
On the other hand, some believe that Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system running on Intel Corp. chips has failed to deliver the promised benefits, at least to higher-end "power users" of workstations, giving Unix an edge there. Meanwhile, competitive pressures have pushed the price of RISC systems down close to those of Intel workstations.
And Linux, the open-source pretender to the Windows NT and Unix thrones, offers yet another possible solution.
This upheaval leaves unanswered the question that has bedeviled workstation users for the past few years: when and if to switch from Unix to Windows NT.
However, for many agencies, the answer is close at hand.
"[Windows NT] is for us strictly an office productivity system," said John Sheldon, technical services manager at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Laboratory, Princeton, N.J. "For anything scientific, it has to be some flavor of Unix. It's just not as flaky, and you get a little more direct interaction with the application."
There's also an application base to protect, he said. The scientific packages used at the lab were developed in Unix by sister labs within NOAA, and they are focused on subject areas specific to the lab's mission, so it would make little sense porting the packages to a completely different operating system.
Nevertheless, there is a trend in the workstation market toward the Intel platform and Windows NT. Market watcher International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., is predicting a yearly compound average growth rate of 18 percent for the Windows NT workstation market by 2004, and a minus 6 percent rate for Unix systems.
That hides a recent slower-than- expected reduction in sales of Unix systems, said Kara Yokley, an analyst with IDC's workstations research group, who thought a few years ago that Unix would be gone within three or four years.
"But the move to Windows NT has slowed considerably since then," Yokley said.
A major reason for the boost is Sun Microsystems Inc.'s introduction of its low-end Ultra 5 and 10 Unix systems, which compete directly with entry- level Intel-based workstations. Yokley said Sun sold about 350,000 Unix workstations in 1999 at a time when Windows NT workstations were becoming a mature segment of the market.
The company now has close to 60 percent of the worldwide market for Unix workstations, according to IDC, and two-thirds of the U.S. market.
"The demise of Unix has been greatly exaggerated," said Peter ffoulkes, manager of the software and strategy group of Sun's workstation product marketing division. "We've actually seen an increase in demand, even though that might not show up in revenues because of lower prices."
The main reason people have stayed with Unix is because Windows NT has not been able to do the "heavy lifting" that people want out of workstations, he said.
The 64-bit Intel chips that have been promised for a while are still not here, and there is speculation about just how well they will perform once they do arrive. The same is true of the 64-bit version of Windows NT.
Meanwhile, ffoulkes said, the 32-bit Intel processor that now drives non-RISC workstations limits users to a maximum of 2G of RAM, at a time when users are complaining that the 4G limit of Sun's high-end 64-bit RISC systems soon will not be enough.
A clear division has opened between users who have moved from Unix to Windows NT and those who have stuck with Unix, according to Munir Mallal, Unix software manager for Hewlett-Packard Co., which sells Unix and Windows NT systems.
Several years ago, people in the workstation arena were enthusiastic about Windows NT because of lower prices. Some HP customers turned to NT but found it wasn't ready, "and there was something of a backlash against the reliability of NT," Mallal said.
"Customers that need reliability, such as electronics designers, tended to stick with Unix," he said. "Others, such as mechanical designers that don't necessarily need that level of reliability, can move to NT and are [doing so] in increasing num-bers. They also tend to use more third- party applications, which are available for NT, whereas dedicated Unix users do more of their own software development."
Other potential Windows NT users have not made the switch because the floating point power of Intel chips, which comes into play for applications involving lots of data processing, has not been on a par with that of RISC chips, Mallal said. However, the next generation of 32-bit Intel chips will narrow that gap considerably, and the 64-bit versions will exceed the ability of RISC chips.
At one time there was a clear power advantage for Unix systems over Windows NT workstations, said Randy Andes, public workstation brand manager for Dell Computer Corp., but that's not the case now. Also, most people need their desktop systems to do much more than traditional workstations can, such as word processing and spreadsheet creation. And as people increasingly collaborate over the Internet on projects, systems also need to be able to handle that.
"Certain applications such as [geographic information systems] are also becoming more pervasive and moving onto "normal' peoples' desktops, as opposed to being handled in the back rooms only by techies," Andes said. "For that, the user needs to know they have the support available for the applications, which they feel they have with NT but might not with proprietary operating systems such as [Sun's] Solaris."
There's a push to move from Unix to Windows NT in government, particularly at the Defense Department, said Trey McKay, executive director for federal hardware solutions at Intergraph Corp. The push relates to cost and what the life-cycle support would be for Unix vs. Windows NT.
"It's also a training issue," McKay said. "The DOD sees that its employees are mostly familiar with a Windows system at home, and they don't then want to "back train' those em-ployees in the use of Unix for their work."
Because of the price, you can generally put more Windows NT systems on peoples' desks than you can Unix, said Joseph Fehrenbach, executive director of government programs at Intergraph. Also, seeing the build-up of Windows NT in the workstations market, developers are going for the NT universe first, choosing to port their applications to other environments later.
But getting dedicated Unix users to part with their systems is still tough. The one thing that might drive them to change is something everyone in government is concerned about: money.
Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.