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Jury still out on Microsoft's data center impact

Two years after the introduction of a version of Windows for the data center, it is difficult to assess the impact it is having on a market dominated by Unix.

When Microsoft released the Datacenter version of Windows, the company aimed its marketing muscle at enterprise back-office business systems. Two years later, it's difficult to determine whether Microsoft has made much of a dent in a market dominated by Unix.

When it comes to the high end, Microsoft says Windows offers a lower cost of ownership than Unix or Linux in nearly every situation. Bob Ellsworth, director of Microsoft's enterprise technical team, said he can think of just one instance where running Windows in the data center may not make sense. "That's when a customer is using a homegrown application for Unix that is developed internally," he said.

It's hard to tell whether customers are buying Windows for back-office applications in any meaningful quantity. Microsoft discloses the names of few, if any, customers who run its high-end version of Windows. Market research firms don't yet have fresh figures depicting how much success Windows has had against Unix and Linux, though numbers for 2002 and 2003 are expected soon from International Data Corp. and Forrester Research.

Some experts are skeptical about whether Microsoft's lower cost of ownership argument is resonating. For one thing, it's not always sensible to make the switch. "If someone has a Sun shop and has a [Sun Fire] 15K server in the background and a lot of smaller SPARC systems, there is no case to be made for rolling out a 15K server and trading it for a shiny SQL Server," said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm.

When a customer has a mature, proven system, resident Unix skills and experience using a platform that has played the big-system game a lot longer than Windows, there is no cause to switch to a Windows server, Haff said.

Haff said that a Unisys server running Windows could be cheaper than eight big Sun servers, but by the time a customer switched databases, finished employee training and integrated Windows with the Unix environment, any savings would be gone.

On the other hand, if a customer has a Windows environment and also has a single Unix server running an Oracle database, switching that server to Windows is a viable option, Haff said.

In addition to pitching its lower cost for high-end environments, Microsoft also boasts of its integrated stack and redeveloped SQL Server, said Dana Gardner, an analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston consulting firm.

"But the value proposition is going to change quickly, because companies like Oracle, Sun and IBM will offer more performance for less money," he said. "They will do this by offering Linux on low-cost hardware."

In the past, choosing between Unix and Windows had everything to do with the past experiences of chief information officers, developers and IT administrators. Microsoft has worked hard to fight off old prejudices against Windows performance by offering numerous benchmark studies as proof that Windows is just as reliable and scalable as Unix and Linux.

Indeed, Microsoft still has an uphill struggle. The company is still new in the big-systems business. Windows 2000 was really the first version that was credible for large systems. Windows Server 2003, which began shipping in April, is the first version of Windows to include features found in Unix, such as resource management.

And 64-bit Windows is also new. The 32-bit platform has limited memory without the use of special addressing modes, which rob the software of performance, Haff said.

Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, advises customers not to choose an operating system for the entire enterprise, but rather to choose software that is right for each application.

In a recent report, Schadler said that few companies, other than those starting out fresh, can settle on a single platform for applications development. For one thing, customers can't ignore existing IT assets that lock a company into a platform. Although Web services standards may soon reduce the challenge of accessing data across those platforms, they won't eliminate deficits in platform skill or wipe out data integration woes, he said.

There will always be business imperatives that outweigh IT standards, he said. If a business needs an application, it will buy it regardless of which platform it runs on. IT executives can also expect acquisitions and reorganizations to introduce new operating systems into the enterprise.


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