Moving Up the Food Chain

Last month's Beta 2 release of Windows 2000 Datacenter Server is another milestone in Microsoft’s tireless effort to make a credible bid to land high-end server deployments. To play in this space, Microsoft needs to prove its product and support programs are adequate. The upside, if Microsoft and its hardware partners are successful, could be lucrative.

Wanting to grow the Windows product family up the food chain is an old yearning for Microsoft. In early 1997, the company created a major media event around the subject of scalability, which was followed several months later by the release of Windows NT Server 4.0, Enterprise Edition. The problem back in 1997 was that the only scalability Microsoft and its hardware partners were able to deliver was horizontal, through elaborate failover and load balancing atop of a highly distributed data structure.

The release of four- and eight-way systems built on Xeon processors and Intel’s Profusion SMP architecture significantly addressed this shortcoming. Yet during this timeframe, the competitors that would face competition from higher-end Windows NT configurations -- Unix SMP systems -- were not standing still. Unix vendors introduced 24-, 32-, and 64-way SMP designs, as well as that all-important operating system software that supports and exploits this hardware. It is quite possible that some Unix players will have 128- or 256-way systems available while Microsoft is still working out the kinks in its 32-way support.

Today, Windows NT and Windows 2000 are limited at eight-way configurations as Microsoft continues to gear up for the launch of Datacenter Server, the company’s first product that will break through the eight-way barrier.

Datacenter is more than a build of Windows 2000 not limited in its processor and memory support. Datacenter Server makes full use of Intel’s 36-bit PAE (Physical Address Extension) technology that is available in the Xeon system designs, meaning the system can address up to 64 GB of physical memory, plus Datacenter Server will support up to 32 processors in an SMP configuration.

Datacenter Server will be the first version of Windows 2000 to support four-node clustering, although Microsoft is hinting that four-node clustering will be made available to the Advanced Server product with the next release of the product, code named Whistler.

Beyond the physical attributes, Microsoft added some features specific to Datacenter, including a high-speed, system-to-system connection called Winsock Direct. Another new technology is Process Control, which gives a system manager the ability to define rules for what processes get assigned to which physical processor, ensuring that a runaway process doesn't consume all of a system’s processing cycles. Process Control also makes it easier to configure a system that can adhere to specific quality-of-service agreements that might be in place.

These features are nifty, but what will make or break Datacenter Server is a new level of partner relationship between Microsoft and its hardware OEMs. This program mandates that partners participate in a 24x7 support center, offer high-availability programs, and institute a set of best practices for customers to ensure component and system configurations are controlled using mainframe-like management methodologies. Hardware OEMs are required to validate each and every hardware package that will be sold with Datacenter Server.

The key to the success of Datacenter Server is Microsoft’s partners -- a dozen of the biggest hardware OEMs: Amdahl, Compaq, Dell Computer, Data General, EMC, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, IBM, NEC, Stratus Computer, and Unisys. These partners will supply the on-site resources that will make Datacenter Server installations work the way Microsoft promises they will.

On the other hand, the Datacenter Server program calls for Microsoft to perform an intimate dance with all 12 partners at once, which may slow the program’s ability to quickly respond to changing needs. At the bottom line, it is clear that this level of support won’t come cheap, a subject neither Microsoft nor its hardware partners are discussing yet.

There’s one more hurdle that the 32-bit Datacenter Server product faces. Datacenter Server is expected to emerge from the OEM channel late this year, close to the timeframe when IA-64 systems will debut. So early Datacenter Server customers, will find themselves buying 32-bit systems at a time when 64-bit systems will be making their first appearance. At this time, Microsoft’s plan is to hold off on a 64-bit version of Datacenter Server for six or more months after the release of the next-generation Windows 2000 products. If you are considering Datacenter Server, make sure to get an upgrade roadmap for the accompanying hardware. --Al Gillen is research manager for system software at IDC (www.idc.com) and former editor-in-chief of ENT. Contact him at agillen@idc.com.