<B>Special Feature:</B> Unix/NT: Playing for All the Marbles

With Windows NT in the ring, the competition of the OSs is proving to show us a good game. And in the long run, it seems as if the end users are winning.

For years, smug Unix bitheads trumpeted the death of systems such as Digital Equipment Corp.'s VMS as the sales of "open" Unix systems soared. However, it may be that what goes around comes around.

The growth of Windows NT needs no more publicity. Although available from one source only, more folks seem happy each day to plunk down their company's dollars for Windows NT-based systems and software. So, while acknowledging Unix's dominance and advantages in many areas, can we start to look toward Redmond for the system that will make Unix bigots eat their words?

Vendors as well as end users must be keenly aware of market trends in order to produce products on platforms desired by their customers. As they look at their markets and applications needs over the next 3 to 5 years, are they betting it all on a particular platform? Or are they holding on to some of their marbles?

The Prize Shooter

With all the press coverage it receives, Windows NT seems, at first glance, to be the obvious choice. However, not everyone is buying into the Microsoft-only philosophy, at least not yet. Concerns still linger over scalability, reliability and high-end performance.

Glyn Meek, chief technology officer of Collective Technologies (Austin, Texas), a 400-person system management consulting firm, still puts NT in the "up-and-coming" category.

Says Meek, "NT is obviously becoming a factor in the large enterprise network and will continue to grow its market share over the next few years. However, we do not necessarily perceive it becoming the dominant server operating system in the enterprise in the same way that Windows has dominated the client operating system marketplace. Unix is a well-established and very reliable system which is offered by a wide variety of server system vendors, and since no single hardware architecture seems placed to dominate servers, this will work in Unix's favor."

Not sounding quite as cautious about Windows NT's viability, the national partnership manager for SAP America Inc. (Wayne, Pa., www.sap.com), Stephen Rietzke, points to the phenomenal growth in the number of customers choosing Windows NT to run the company's popular enterprise resource planning (ERP) SAP R/3 package.

"Since our first customers came on board in 1994, we've seen Windows NT installations grow to 30 percent of our installed base," says Rietzke, who believes the best is yet to come. "SAP functionality will explode with the release of Windows NT 5.0, because its development will facilitate new possibilities for SAP applications, such as SAP SCOPE, which utilizes 64-bit computing."

SAP's commitment to Windows NT can be further driven home by considering that new SAP modules are being developed first on the Windows NT platform rather than a legacy Unix platform.

"The development cycle is simply much shorter under Windows NT," Rietzke declares. "Additionally, some customers may find comfort in the fact that SAP develops for the NT platform first, because we know the demand is there. SAP then evaluates the demand for other platforms."

Chris McManus, spokesperson with Sequent Computer Systems Inc. (Beaverton, Ore., www.sequent.com), sees his company providing the best of both platforms to his customers while acknowledging Windows NT's evolutionary growth.

"While MVS and UNIX are dominant in the data center today, organizations are increasingly looking to take advantage of Windows NT for its cost effectiveness, application availability and ease of use," says McManus. "Sequent's NUMACenter server integrates Unix and Windows NT in a single managed system." This allows users to perform a gradual step-by-step migration of applications to the NT platform. "Sequent believes the marketplace for mixed-mode Unix/NT solutions will grow rapidly over the next few years, as a way to leverage the strengths of both environments," adds McManus.

Tom Camps, director of product marketing for business intelligence software maker Cognos Corp. (Burlington, Mass., www.cognos.com), concurs with McManus. He says, "While NT is increasing in market share, a market reality is that the larger the organization, the greater the incidence of a heterogeneous environment. This will remain a fact for some time."

The End User's Choice

What key factors play into a customer's platform decision?

Collective's Glyn Meek cautions users to not look simply at price to govern their platform choices. He says, "Overwhelmingly, the overriding customer desire has been system reliability. Unit cost has been a minor factor because when taken as a part of the whole cost of an enterprise network, the cost of the server operating system is not significant enough to change any of the other decision criteria."

Most of us were taught to pick the software first, and then pick the platform on which to run it. It's also very difficult in many cases to make a wholesale change in platforms. Even if the capital is there to make major hardware changes, often the investment in expertise in a known platform can lend overwhelming support to keeping the same hardware/operating system combination for new applications.

Cognos' Camps agrees. "An indisputable deciding factor for platform choice is application support. Not all applications are supported on all platforms, particularly legacy applications," he observes. "Furthermore, as companies build up in-house expertise in a platform, they reduce cost of ownership on future implementations on that platform. Therefore, they tend to continue to implement on that platform."

Application support was important for Allina Health System (Minnetonka, Minn.). Allina is a not-for-profit health-care system serving Minnesota, western Wisconsin, eastern North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. Allina owns and manages 19 hospitals and seven nursing homes and oversees 1 million health plan members.

Casey Kurt, applications distribution architect for Allina, was feeling the pinch: "We were getting swamped with requests for ad-hoc reports. We used Cognos tools running on Windows NT to provide Web-based ad-hoc reports.

"Half of our entire organization is Windows NT/Web/Cognos based," he continues. "We either create or run a users query, convert it to pdf, and post it on our intranet Web site for the customer to consume. This has moved the burden of writing reports to a shared responsibility, with our customers starting to write more and more of their own reports. For us, the decision was easy. Cognos tools were what we wanted, and they were only available on Windows NT at the time."

SAP's Rietzke sees the key decision points that lean a user toward Windows NT as lower perceived cost of the Windows NT platform, not only in capital expenditures, but also in staff and ongoing management costs; the perception that Windows NT is easier to manage; the comfort factor with the Windows NT platform; and the ability of Windows NT to run across many manufacturers' hardware platforms.

Rietzke acknowledges that there are still cases where Unix makes more sense -- at least for now. "We see SAP applications of up to 2,000 concurrent users easily handled by Windows NT systems using a single SAP database," notes Rietzke. "Customers who require 5,000 to 10,000 concurrent users might consider looking at other solutions."

Even with 5,000 to 10,000 users, Rietzke asks customers to carefully project the number of concurrent users. "We see some customers who, after carefully analyzing their usage patterns, discover that the number of concurrent users falls well within Windows NT's ability," he observes.

On the flip side, Christine Vincent, SAP global project director, Sterling Diagnostic Imaging Inc. (Greenville, S.C.), is an SAP user that has not yet joined the Windows NT fold. A supplier of health-care delivery systems around the world, Sterling Diagnostic Imaging picked the other shooter.

Vincent remarks, "Sterling replaced 150 legacy systems running on various platforms with a single SAP R/3 running on HP Unix. By creating a single, universal SAP database, Sterling was able to become a truly independent, global company less than 2 years after it was divested from DuPont Medical Imaging."

The project was enormous. More than 500 Sterling business processes were integrated and redesigned during the implementation. SAP R/3 handles Sterling's global sales forecasting, manufacturing, product planning and costing, customer orders, deliveries and invoicing, inventory and warehouse management, global procurement, film manufacturing, and financial accounting and control. Thus, the company can now optimize each business process on a global basis.

Although falling within the 2,000-concurrent-user limit cited by Rietzke, Sterling's Vincent went with Unix anyway. "We selected HP Unix at the end of 1996 when we decided to go ahead with the global project, because of the high volume of transactions as well as static data we had to handle. At that time Unix was the only proven reliable solution able to meet our technical performance expectations. We had to cover 1,000 worldwide users on one database and ensure 24-hour/7-days-a-week high availability with failover capability for our manufacturing site."

On the Edge

Going forward, the only thing we can be sure of is that Windows NT and Unix will continue to do battle on some fronts, while finding themselves cooperating in an integrated environment at other sites.

Collective's Meek says, "Currently, the stability and flexibility of Unix is its chief advantage over Windows NT. Windows NT is still viewed with some skepticism with regard to its security capabilities. We think this situation will remain for some years to come, but Microsoft has obviously made a major commitment to the server OS market, is well aware of both the perceived and real shortcomings of NT vs. Unix, and has publicly stated its plans to address these issues. Once the two systems are -- or are perceived to be -- at the same technical competency and security level, the Microsoft marketing machine coupled with the ability to offer a homogenous server and client environment, something that Unix can not, may well start to significantly erode the Unix base."

Cognos' Camps sees user perception as a major advantage both platforms hold over each other, whether that be the perception that users can achieve lower total cost of ownership (TCO) from an NT-based system or that Unix systems scale better and are more robust. "The realities will vary by application and as new releases of platform implementations appear," he says.

SAP's Rietzke agrees that market perception of lower TCO for NT-based systems will go a long way toward powering Microsoft into the leading position in the future. He also agrees with Meek in the one-stop shop advantage Windows NT has over Unix.

Any of us looking for a good game has certainly found one. Unix and Windows NT will continue to shot for dominance for a long time to come. It appears however, that while neither platform can take home all the marbles at this stage in the game, customers won't have a difficult time finding a platform to suit most of their needs. As the game wears on, it is becoming more obvious that the clear winners will be the customers and end-users. -- David B. Miller is a lead consultant for Integrated Systems Consulting Group Inc. (Wayne, Pa.). Contact him at dbm560810@aol.com.