Benchmarks Stack Up for Windows/SQL Server

Microsoft Corp.’s plans for the data center depend on more than Windows 2000. The company is also betting on its SQL Server relational database management system.

Recent activity among hardware OEMs on industry benchmarks shows that SQL Server -- which only runs on Windows NT and Windows 2000 -- may have the mettle to compete for serious database business.

It’s no secret Microsoft wants to steal business from Unix/RISC vendors such as Sun Microsystems Co., IBM Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co. in heavy-duty transaction processing and decision-support applications.

The emergence of eight-way servers based on Intel Corp.’s Profusion chipset give Microsoft an opportunity to reach customers whose applications represent the low-end of data center requirements. The Profusion chipset also represents a ceiling for mainstream Windows/SQL deployments in the data center. Microsoft cannot compete with the pricey systems with dozens of processors from IBM and Sun that have earned the trust of data-center administrators and hold the highest benchmark numbers with the Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC,

With Windows 2000 Datacenter Server expected to be released a few months after the base operating system, Microsoft promises to deliver four-node clustering. This will allow a 32-processor system based on Windows/SQL Server.

To be sure, there are exotic methods for pulling together more Windows NT/2000 systems in the data center. Microsoft has been working with partners on system area networks with its Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, and IBM’s Cornhusker technology allows eight-node clustering of Windows NT Server 4.0, Enterprise Edition. IBM markets that technology as part of a mostly IBM product set, which would include IBM’s Netfinity servers and DB2 database.

As usual, the opportunity for Microsoft is in coming up from the bottom. What they’re coming up to this time, however, is the top tier of enterprise computing. The sweet spot again is Windows NT/2000-loaded eight-way servers built by any one of a number of hardware vendors that will compete viciously on price.

First, hardware OEMs and Microsoft have to prove the stuff works. Early indications -- and that’s all these benchmarks really are -- say the stuff does work.

Unisys Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. each submitted results on the online transaction processing benchmark, TPC-C, that show the Profusion/Windows NT 4.0/SQL Server 7.0 combination is beginning to challenge HP’s N9000 series on HP-UX (see story on page 8). To no one’s surprise, the Windows price/performance ratio is excellent.

A more surprising series of benchmarks appeared in the middle of last month, when Unisys, HP, and Compaq all published results under the new TPC-H benchmark for measuring ad hoc querying capabilities (see story on page 26). Those systems were running beta versions of Shiloh -- the code name for Microsoft’s next version of SQL Server -- and Windows 2000 Advanced Server.

The systems are close behind the performance of a Sun Solaris system running an Informix database, but the Windows 2000/Shiloh systems had about a third the price/performance cost of the Sun-Informix offering.

It would be easy to make too much of the results. The Sun TPC-H came out in July, and there had been no more activity on that benchmark until last month. It would be surprising if Sun didn’t respond with a more muscular system that blows the Microsoft numbers out of the water on performance. Systems running Oracle Corp. or IBM databases haven’t been heard from yet, either.

I know benchmarks don’t say anything about whether a platform will stay online 24X7 and that the performance can’t be expected in production settings. I am also aware that TPC price/performance ratios represent an incomplete picture of the overall cost of a system. But benchmarks are like college degrees. What you learned in college often has very little to do with what you need to know in the workplace. But in a lot of places, you’ve got to have the degree to be considered.

Microsoft is producing the numbers it needs to be considered in the data center -- albeit against low-end Unix/RISC systems.