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Special reports - Open up - June 1999
It’s good, but it ain’t that good – yet. Annie Gurton talks to the industry about NT in a multi-platform environment

Without doubt, respect and credibility for NT is increasing. More users with larger solutions, many with a significant real time element, are introducing it either partially or totally at the enterprise systems level. Yet there is a continual and somewhat perverse industry obsession as to whether it will survive, flourish or even eventually come to dominate in the enterprise space. This obsession seems to be more in the hearts of the industry watchers than in the minds of the systems users. As Peter Slavid, Business Strategy Manager with ICL says, "Most IT managers are gradually introducing NT further and further up the enterprise, and most are happy with its creep away from the desktop into the enterprise-wide environment where it integrates quite happily and reliably with Unix."

NT at the enterprise level

There is a world of difference between being accepted to run alongside Unix, AS/400, Solaris or OS/390 and actually replacing the proven workhorses. Certainly, the enterprise is vastly different from the desktop, and, leaving aside the rhetoric which is clearly partisan in line with their allegiance, even those industry figures with declared partnerships with Microsoft are still cautious about their endorsement for NT at the enterprise level. Unisys, for example, is highly pragmatic these days, but takes a cautious line. It supports NT as an enterprise environment, but claims to improve its ability to handle tasks that require enterprise class performance, uninterrupted availability and easy administration. It has special hardware to optimise NT and uses its own cellular multi-processing architecture called CMP to permit NT to support mission critical applications more easily. In other words, according to Unisys, NT does a lot but still needs help to make it entirely reliable.

ICL’s Slavid’s view is that the main issue surrounding NT in a multiplatform enterprise environment is one of user training, and he explains that there is a tendency for criticism about NT to come from those without much experience or training in it. "There is great difficulty in finding and keeping NT skills with demand high and supply short. NT services are at a premium rate," Slavid says. "Those without NT knowledge or skills are usually those who are most critical of it."

These criticisms include the inability to scale up to larger numbers of simultaneously active users, reliability of applications and robustness so that solutions and applications do not crash or hang. There was a time when these fears were well founded and in NT’s early days there were several widely reported instances of system and user problems, an over-estimation of NT’s ability and a determination by Microsoft that NT should run before it could walk. However there is now a significant enough number of happy large sites for these stories to be permanently laid to rest.

Preconceptions and historical negative media messages

Steve Tan, Marketing Manager of enterprise software provider Hummingbird agrees that much of the resistance to NT as the heart of a mission critical solution is often due to preconceptions and historical negative media messages. He points out that some industries are more conservative than others and invariably take longer to come around to a new view: "Generally speaking, banks have their systems built around Unix and are unlikely, in the medium or even long term, to migrate away from that to any new system." Tan says that this is as much to do with the investment in the established infrastructure. "There will be personnel trained to manage, support and use the Unix system as well as the investment in hardware and software to consider," he says. "For this reason many sites will be reluctant to adopt and integrate NT at a level higher than the desktop."

However Tan does not believe that Unix is going to be a pushover, and it will continue to have its advocates. He says, "With the Unix vendors now consolidated to a handful and their research and development concentrated and pushing forward, NT will find that the barriers to its dominance of the enterprise continue to rise." Unix will continue to match every advancement that NT makes, he says. However Tan agrees that the force of Compaq and other big vendors behind Microsoft and with Digital crafting an opening for NT in the enterprise environment, the prospects for Unix look tough. "At the moment the integrity of NT is in doubt, and it stands in many IT manager’s minds as insufficiently robust, resilient or stable enough to fulfil the needs of an enterprise-wide environment that is well catered for by existing and proven technologies." But as Tan knows, this is a fast moving industry where, despite large investments and historical commitments, anything can change.

Data General

Nowhere is this more evident than with Data General, once an ultra-dyed-in-the-wool Unix advocate, and extremely hostile and negative towards the NT camp. Now most of DG’s enterprise sales are for NT. Bernard Foot, DG’s European Systems Marketing Manager says, "NT is still an issue for some IT managers, and there will always be those Unix, AS/400 or Solaris advocates who will laugh at those who use NT for enterprise mission critical systems management. But others are increasingly showing the willingness to be persuaded by the growing list of reference sites and NT’s proven ability to cope." He continues, "There may still be a limit to NT’s scalability and it’s clustering abilities, but our customers are saying: "if its alright for SAP to recommend that we build our new ERP or data warehousing system on NT then its alright for me to agree with them."

However, Foot points out that the message about NT in the enterprise space has changed dramatically over the past two or three years, and will probably continue to change. "In 1996 you wouldn’t have got many IT managers saying that NT is a good alternative to Unix or any of the other enterprise platform options. Now there are at least half as many saying that they are converted to it and they are happy."

The turning point for Foot came when DG stopped selling the Motorola platform and moved to Intel, and when Microsoft launched SQL Server 7.0. He says, "We weren’t expecting NT to be the success it has been when we adopted it, but the fact is that users can now see it working in large enterprises. It has also demonstrated that it can handle complex integration and data warehousing situations, and it has proved that it can do what IT managers want." Foot agrees that there will be some who are determinedly resistant to NT whatever the arguments and no matter how many reference sites there are. "My view is that NT is already a formidable and robust alternative to the traditional enterprise arena software platforms, but you can understand how an IT manger who cut his teeth on Unix, Solaris or AS/400, and who has sanctioned a heavy investment in something other than NT is going to be defensive."

Feel-good factor

The reason why NT is competing so effectively in the enterprise arena is the same reason why it gained a toehold on the desktop and gradually, then swiftly, became dominant – Microsoft’s marketing machine and the safety-feel of a widely accepted standard. Even though there are many who will spell out why Microsoft products are not necessarily the best in technical and performance terms, the confidence and feel-good factor of buying Microsoft is high enough to compensate for any technical short-comings. James Smith, Business Development Manager at Attachmate says, "NT offers a good platform for vendors to develop on because it has a wide range of tools and services available, and third parties understand it and also develop for it. It is quicker and easier for vendors to get a product to market by writing it for NT." But Smith believes that there are still problems with NT when it is required to scale up. "No matter how good the connectivity or middleware, fundamental flaws in NT can’t be hidden," he says. "Scalability is the watch-word at the moment, and IT managers in large companies who want to talk about corporate-wide server-based applications, are still baulking at NT."

According to Smith, their fears usually surround NT’s reputation for poor and unreliable scalability. "They would still rather stick to the Unix platform they know, which they are sure will do the job," says Smith. "Many still view NT as a print and file server solution, not an enterprise-wide mission-critical application platform. Maybe it is just perception and reputation, but at the moment those things are too widely spread, too entrenched to be dismissed. People still just don’t see NT as man enough for the job."

Despite what DG’s Bernard Foot claims about the growing demand for NT in the enterprise, there are many others who are more cautious and sceptical. John Bondi, VP of Server Product Marketing at SCO, for example, says: "The enterprise culture puts strong demands on continuity and reliability and these are not traditionally the attributes associated with NT." In Bondi’s view, the imminent arrival of Windows 2000 will not help. "Enterprise organisations do not necessarily have power and economy as their priorities. Flexibility and reliability are possibly even more important, which is why we are finding that SCO’s Unixware 7 is still growing very strongly in the enterprise space. It delivers the flexibility of Unix with the reliability of proven performance on increasingly powerful servers."

NT is still not dominating the enterprise environment

NT is still a great distance from dominating in the enterprise environment, even if it has made great advances. SCO’s Bondi is sceptical that it will ever achieve much more penetration than it has already. "The enterprise world is hugely and healthily varied, and has an enormous existing base. Although we need systems which can be easily integrated with existing infrastructures, and which allow organisations to evolve their computing systems, there are other, better, more established and proven options than NT." Bondi believes that there will always be part of the enterprise market that is Microsoft, it will never achieve the homogenous dominance that it has on the desktop, but in Bondi’s view, that is not necessarily a bad thing. He explains: "A single-vendor environment is bound to be proprietary in some way, and that is unhealthy. IT managers are too cautious and sensible to put all their enterprise eggs in one basket, even if they are happy to conform on the desktop."

This perception that NT is proprietary is a strong reason why many IT managers avoid it. Unlike many desktop users, they are independent, informed and able to do their own technical support, and feel less in need of the Microsoft comfort-factor. Mark Howells, Technical Director of Soft Option Technologies says, "NT is still viewed by many as a closed operating system and Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace Java, for example, is seen as a warning by the IT managers. Any career minded, self respecting IT professional will want applications and solutions which are completely vendor independent." He continues, "In selling to the enterprise market they are selling to an entirely different purchaser than on the desktop, where people are more inclined to be persuaded by the argument that there is safety in numbers."

ICL’s Slavid says that the way to ensure that any lingering fears about NT do not, in fact, manifest themselves is to take on an NT-experienced solutions partner. "IT managers who want to move NT from the desktop further up the enterprise and build mission critical applications around NT should make sure they have a partner with a heritage of implementing NT or mixed platform systems, who knows the high-end computing market."

Strong competition

Perhaps a few years down the line it will be a different story, but at the moment it is certainly true that Unix and the AS/400 in particular are still strong in the enterprise and show no signs of capitulating to the upstart NT. Nigel Montgomery, European Marketing Manager for Aspect Computing says, "In the battle between Unix and NT, it will be the AS/400 that will win! The AS/400 is more friendly to use and just as powerful, proven and reliable as Unix, and both have much more than NT promises for the foreseeable future."

Charles Southwood, Managing Director of Boole and Babbage agrees, saying, "The feedback we get from IT managers is they are still very wary of NT and not prepared to commit their critical systems to an NT environment until they are sure that it will deliver the reliability and scalability they need." In Southwood’s experience, businesses are dabbling with Microsoft and NT on the desktop, but are keeping their mission critical applications on Sun Solaris, IBM AS/400, OS/390 or a Unix environment. "The same clients are telling us that they believe that in time Microsoft’s investment in marketing will enable NT to ‘tough it out’ and succeed in taking a large chunk of the market, and consequently most IT managers are already adopting NT at some level, so they are familiar with it and are prepared if, at some stage in the future, it does achieve the necessary flexibility and scalability. "Their money is not on NT in the enterprise at the moment," says Southwood, "but everyone is keeping their options open and I think we can expect that when NT finally comes of age technically, it will achieve the maturity and respect in the enterprise that it craves."

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