Digital Will Stick With VAX -- But Unix Is In

Lawrence Edelman
The Boston Globe

October 23, 1990

Digital Equipment Corp. yesterday pledged continued allegiance to its VAX brand computers, but in a telling sign of the stresses pulling at the Maynard company, it again insisted it is equally committed to non-VAX machines that run the Unix software system.

There were few surprises as the Maynard company released details of the new VAX 6000 models that had been expected for months, as well as new editions of small VAX computers and workstations. As industry analysts had expected, the high-end minicomputers pack 85 percent to 100 percent more processing wallop than existing models, but cost just 16 percent to 18 percent more.

But despite the big improvement in what the industry calls price-performance, analysts said the new VAXes are still expensive compared to a new generation of computers employing a design called reduced instruction-set computing, or RISC, and running the Unix operating system. Rivals such as Sun Microsystems Inc. are scoring big with RISC machines, often at the expense of VAXes, which generate a big chunk of Digital's $13 billion in sales.

Perhaps that is why Digital -- which has been talking about so-called "RISCy VAXes" for more than year -- yesterday reminded the industry that it plans to offer its own RISC-based VAXes in two or three years. It also repeated its oft-stated intention to allow VAXes, which are powered by the VMS operating system, to run software originally written for Unix machines.

Digital said this VAX-Unix strategy proved its commitment to "open" systems, which mix and match hardware and software from a variety of vendors.

"We are a dual operating system company," said William R. Demmer, a Digital vice president, referring to VMS and Unix.

He said Digital will revise the 13-year-old VMS to conform to an open system standards called Posix and X/Open. This, he said, will ensure that software written for Unix will be able to run on and exploit features of VAX, including clustering and networking. Digital will incorporate a version of Unix from the Open Software Foundation, a Cambridge-based consortium it helped form to counter American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s control of Unix development.

In another sign of its Unix commitment, Demmer said that Digital will next week announce that customers will be able to use Unix to orchestrate networks of dissimilar computers. Previously, they have had to use VMS.

Yet analysts noted that Digital executives have in the past vowed to support Unix, only to have president Kenneth H. Olsen issue contradictory signals. His comments typically focus on Olsen's belief that Unix, used widely by scientists and engineers on high-powered workstations, is unfit to manage complex corporate networks comprising many machines of different makes and operating systems.

Digital insiders say that infighting over Unix has at times been savage, splitting the company into pro- and anti-Unix factions. It appears that the pro-Unix forces have won out, however, as the company issued a press release yesterday full of pro-Unix quotes from several executives, including Olsen and his No. 2 man, John F. Smith.

"Ken is being forced into being a Unix supporter," said one analyst who asked not to be named.

How aggressively Digital markets Unix remains an open question, given the past reluctance of its sales force to pitch the system as an alternative to the more profitable VAX. "The customer has to put a gun to the salesman's head before he comes up with a Unix solution," said Stanley Shein, who runs Absolute Software, a Newton software developer.

Digital has been reluctant to build RISC-based VAX minicomputers -- it already sells RISC workstations -- because such a line would carry much lower profit margins than conventional VAXes.

But William Bluestein, an analyst with Cambridge-based Forrester Research Inc., says the company has realized that it can no longer ignore the price-performance advantages Sun and other RISC competitors have gained over VAX.

"Digital is coming to grips with the tremendous shift in the cost of computing" that RISC machines have brought about.

At the same time, he said, Digital has yet to reduce its costs to the level where it can earn decent profits on cheaper RISC products.

Copyright 1990