Lions and Lambs

In one of his earlier writings back when he was actually funny, Woody Allen observed, with characteristic sardonic wit: "The lion shall lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep."

I thought about this quip recently while listening to a panel discussion about the growing presence of Windows NT in a world where most mission-critical applications are still running on mainframe and Unix platforms, with the obvious emphasis on Unix today. One of the panelists noted that all the talk about NT vs. Unix and the "wars" between the two is nothing more than journalistic expressions of boredom.

That is to say, there is no real war between the two, not in the minds of most IT managers. What is on their minds is the very real and thorny issue of how to develop a strategy of coexistence between the two. The panelist went on to point out that many and perhaps most companies will be characterized by hybrid NT-Unix environments from now well into the 21st century.

The data certainly bears him out. Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp. (IDC) says that last year, 40 percent of the units of server software sold were NT, about double the number of Unix server units sold. But 45 percent of the money spent on server software went to Unix-based systems. In other words, the big applications are still powered by Unix today.

Looking ahead to 2000, IDC estimates that unit sales of Unix server software will still be in the range of 20 percent of all units sold. There is every reason to presume those units will be, once again, support the heavy-duty enterprise applications.

I believe that even mission-critical applications will begin to migrate to Windows NT once the operating system can handle them (which is not any time soon), if for no other reason than the fact that NT is much more economical. But clearly it will be a dual operating system environment for some time to come in most places.

I thought to myself, Will this coexistence resemble in any way the "harmony" that came to pass between the mainframe and the PC in the 1980s? If that is the case, you’d better order some armor for you and your staff, because those two coexisted the same way the English and the French did in Napoleonic times.

It certainly doesn’t have to be an acrimonious pairing. In many shops, a quarter or more of corporate data files are already shared between Unix and NT platforms, according to estimates.

The challenges for managing this coexistence are daunting, because Unix and NT are very different environments. For one thing, Unix is more people-intensive and NT is more user-friendly. Unix is command-line-driven. NT is built for desktop ease of use. How do you stitch them together more effectively?

An increasing number of companies are finding that Computer Associates Int’l Inc.’s Unicenter TNG does a good job of knotting together the files from the two operating systems. Typically, TNG runs on the NT platform while various of its agents run on the Unix platforms.

Unicenter TNG is far from being the only thing that helps maintain a peaceful coexistence between NT and Unix. But the point here is that IT managers increasingly can make best-of-breed decisions when it comes to Unix- and NT-driven applications, and don’t necessarily have to make far-reaching architectural decisions that hinge on one platform or the other. Even though it can seem like a less messy idea to administer one platform, both Unix and NT have unique features that make the idea of having them both very attractive to many if not most companies.

The first step in figuring out how much NT and how much Unix to use is to look closely at business requirements. If those requirements are such that you are likely to see a sudden and steep scaling need, then clearly Unix is the operating system of choice, for today and probably for the next couple of years. Another criteria weighing in favor of Unix is transaction rates.

Longer term, however, NT is sure to gain more favor as it gains potency and scalability, if for no other reason that you don’t need nearly as many programmer and administrators to make it run. NT was designed from the ground up in that fashion.

But looking at Microsoft’s tentative steps with NT 5.0 and reflecting on a basic reality of the IT world that nothing happens as fast as most people think it will, it is clear that coexistence will be the norm for years. Figuring out how to make that work may be the most important post-year 2000 work you do. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.