Sun Deals an NT Interoperability Card

Despite years of nasty rhetoric, Unix giant Sun Microsystems Inc. extended an olive-branch in early February to Microsoft Corp. and its Windows NT operating system.

Despite years of nasty rhetoric, Unix giant Sun Microsystems Inc. extended an olive-branch in early February to Microsoft Corp. and its Windows NT operating system. Sun announced a new PC processor card option -- SunPCI -- for its Ultra-class workstations.

Unlike most major Unix vendors, Sun traditionally has refused to embrace Windows NT. The company choose instead to define a market position that countered Microsoft’s operating system. According to Peter ffoulkes, a principal analyst with Dataquest (, Sun’s latest move allows it to both embrace Windows NT on its own terms and strengthen its position among Unix workstation vendors.

"Does this strengthen Sun’s position over other Unix vendors? Absolutely," ffoulkes contends. "It removes yet another reason to move to NT, and at the same time it provides a cost-effective solution that is a much less expensive alternative than an RS/6000 [workstation from IBM Corp.] and an HP PA RISC system [from Hewlett-Packard Co.]"

Slated to sell for $495, Sun says the SunPCI card will allow users to run Microsoft Windows and DOS applications in native Win32, Win16 and DOS environments. Featuring a dedicated 300 MHz AMD K6-2 processor and 64 MB to 256 MB of PC memory, the SunPCI card is complemented by software that facilitates the sharing of networking, storage, video display and input devices between the PC and Solaris operating environments.

More specifically, Sun says that users of its Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations can run Microsoft productivity applications such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word on their existing Solaris machines -- without adding additional PCs or using Windows emulation tools.

"If you want to have guaranteed reliability, you need a hardware solution: Tools like Softwindows [from Insignia Solutions (] are useful, but they’re not as good as having a PC on the desktop," ffoulkes says. "So the issue was whether or not you’re going to have a Windows PC and a Unix workstation on the same desktop, but now that Sun is providing an integrated hardware solution, they’ve got an even better position."

The SunPCI card is Sun’s latest effort in an ongoing initiative to define a low-cost, high-performance Unix workstation capable of turning the tide against the encroachment of Windows NT workstations in low-end and middle-market segments. In January 1998, Sun introduced the Darwin-class Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations, sub-$5,000 machines that leveraged a commodity PCI architecture and a revamped Internet-based sales model. Dataquest’s ffoulkes sees the SunPCI card as a logical complement to, and extension of, the Darwin paradigm.

"Sun fully understands the need to run PC applications. So certainly at the time [of the Darwin announcement] the hardware [Sun]PCI card was part of the roll out plan, it’s just that it’s taken a bit longer to come to fruition," he says. "Sun very clearly understands that the price/performance rules are being set by the Intel and NT markets today. And they really are working very hard to deliver the benefits of Unix and at the same time compete head to head with the Intel/NT vendors."

While acknowledging the technical wizardry underlying the new SunPCI card, Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group ( remains slightly skeptical. According to Enderle, a similar initiative by Apple Computer Inc., featuring an integrated Cyrix 6x86 processor from Cyrix Corp. running Windows 95 in conjunction with its MacOS, got a lukewarm reception.

"Looking at most of these [integrated processor card] solutions, it’s my impression that if I were to do it, I’d just bring in another low-cost machine," Enderle says. "It’s just simpler, and you don’t have to worry about NT tools doing funny things to your Unix partitions, for example."