Unix vs Windows NT

Microsoft's flagship OS hasn't overthrown Unix, but savvy system managers are definitely taking Windows NT more seriously

By Tom R. Halfhill

May 1996

It's official: Windows NT is off probation. Nearly four years after Microsoft's all-new, industrial-strength operating system hit the market amid the usual hype and hoopla, growing numbers of managers are satisfied that it's ready for prime time.

"A couple of years ago, NT was seen as not succeeding, partly because of the unrealistic projections that were made," says Hugh Ryan, director for architectures at Andersen Consulting. "But now it's being viewed as a more viable solution, especially for what I would call departmental servers. And people are evaluating its potential for enterprise-level solutions."

In addition to MIS managers' growing comfort with NT, users and vendors say three other factors are working in Microsoft's favor:

Is Unix Dead (Again)?

One vendor that has noticed the rise of NT is Platinum Software (Irvine, CA). In 1992, around the same time that Microsoft launched NT, Platinum introduced SeQueL to Platinum, a client/server accounting package for Unix/Sybase and NT/SQL Server. At first, most of Platinum's customers chose the Unix/Sybase version for their Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM servers.

"Then we started to see a shift," says Don Howren, Platinum Software's vice president of marketing. "Customers started making commitments to Windows NT and SQL Server, and now they are looking for production-level applications."

"The Alpha processors and faster Pentium processors are making NT a high-volume transaction-processing environment," says Mike Pennell, Platinum's director of product strategy. "If you look back a year or two ago, it really wasn't. With the introduction of these new servers, you're seeing a lot more competition with the Unix servers."

Intel-based servers that deliver more bang for the buck are driving the growth of Windows NT, according to vendors and users. Although NT runs on three different RISC architectures--the Mips Rx000, the Digital Alpha, and the IBM/Motorola PowerPC--the version that runs on x86-based systems is the most popular. Lately, Intel has greatly accelerated x86 development and is shipping faster versions of the Pentium and Pentium Pro CPUs that run neck-and-neck with the speediest RISC chips. When combined with Intel's huge manufacturing capacity and the well-known economies of the PC system architecture, the result is a price/performance value that's hard to beat. And for those who need maximum performance, NT on RISC is an option.

NT's ascendancy does not mean Unix is on the rocks, however. Other sources point out that there is still a performance gap between the midrange and the high end. Architectural limitations hobble low-priced x86-based servers when they try to tackle the really big jobs. Even the best of them have trouble keeping up with the fastest Unix boxes, especially when managing large databases. When Unix teams up with major-league database software (from Oracle, Sybase, or Informix), Windows NT and SQL Server face some formidable competition.

IS managers are expanding their use of both platforms. They've settled on the NT/low-end symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) server (four processors or less) as the trick setup for small to medium installations. And they continue to deploy Unix servers where bigger is better.

"Microsoft has oversold the scalability of NT," says Michael Goulde, a consultant with the Patricia Seybold Group (Boston, MA). "NT is very cost-effective as far as it goes. But, in part because of the hardware that's available for running NT, it lacks the scalability of Unix platforms. You can't take it as far."

Beefed-Up NT Boxes

A few vendors, like Sequent Computer (Beaverton, OR), do make SMP systems for NT that have as many as 28 CPUs. Still, most Windows NT servers are less sophisticated machines with one to four CPUs--they're basically reengineered desktop PCs. Disk I/O, video, and network cards probably share the same PCI bus, and the CPUs typically have 256 KB to 1 MB of secondary cache RAM. Compare that to Sequent's WinServer 70, which has a double-sided backplane with a proprietary high-speed bus, an independent VME bus for network adapters, as many as 32 fast-and-wide SCSI channels for disk I/O, and 2 MB of secondary cache per CPU.

"If you compare some of the cheaper four-processor Intel-based machines to, say, the Alpha 2100, the difference isn't just CPU speed. It's the complete system architecture," notes Goulde. With its heavy-duty hardware, "the 2100 is designed more like a minicomputer."

Still, some users are testing the limits of NT. At Oregon State University (Corvallis), the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences handles data collected by field researchers and weather satellites. The platform? NT and SQL Server on a pair of dual-Pentium Hewlett-Packard servers to manage about 100 GB of data. The college is working on a NASA project called the Earth Observing System, which will launch several more satellites into orbit over the next few years. When that data starts pouring in, the database will expand into the terabyte range.

Mark Abbott, a professor who helps run the program, says his goal is to produce videos and animations that will let scientists more easily visualize this vast storehouse of raw data. That's why he chose NT and SQL Server to replace an Ingres database on HP-UX (Hewlett-Packard Unix). "We wanted stronger links between data analysis and data management," says Abbott. "That's something NT is very good at. The technical strengths and directions of NT were very compelling."

The lower hardware and software costs of NT-based systems were also compelling. Some of the data-manipulation programs the college is using cost only $60. "We wanted to get on the price/performance curve of the PC market," explains Abbott. "Ninety-five percent of our money comes from competitive federal grants, so we're more like a business than a university."

As his databases grow, however, he's aware that NT may not keep up. "Scaling and robustness are still major concerns, which is why we still have some Unix boxes."

Microsoft continues to work with Sequent and other SMP vendors to improve NT's scalability, but Unix will retain this advantage for some time to come. "NT scales pretty well with Unix up to six or eight processors, but not beyond that," acknowledges Bob Robinson, Sequent's product marketing manager. Scalability problems arise from both the hardware limitations of PC-based servers and inherent limitations of NT itself--limitations that Microsoft naturally disputes.

Windows, Meet Windows

Of course, NT isn't the only server OS that can take advantage of cost-effective x86-based hardware. So can Novell NetWare, IBM OS/2, and SCO Unix. SCO Unix itself is running on about two million x86-based servers--more than any other version of Unix, according to SCO. Obviously, there must be additional reasons why increasing numbers of MIS managers are choosing NT.

One factor, they say, is that it's easier to integrate Windows NT with their existing hardware and software. Installations that already have Windows PCs on their desktops naturally lean toward NT when they have to choose among server options. They would rather deal with a single OS vendor, and NT has an instantly familiar look and feel. On top of that, Microsoft Office commands an overwhelming 85 to 90 percent share of the market for application suites, according to Dataquest and other market researchers. And BackOffice, particularly SQL Server with its low price, provides a powerful incentive to try NT, especially if you're charged with rolling out a departmental client/server database system on a limited budget.

"We're seeing heavy NT adoption in companies with widespread Windows on the desktop," says Ryan of Andersen Consulting. "There is a sense that Unix is a more technically demanding environment, both in terms of productivity and connectivity issues."

These were some of the factors that convinced Penn State University (State College, PA) to switch from Banyan Vines to NT for about 1000 networked computers in classrooms and student labs. Most of Penn State's client machines are running Windows for Workgroups on 75- and 100-MHz Pentium PCs; there are also some Power Macintosh 7100s. To handle these desktops (and upwards of 100,000 users, counting full- and part-time students), the network has about 25 servers, mostly 486 and Pentium systems.

Penn State evaluated NT for years before making a commitment. Finally, in March '95, the conversion began. It took about six months, and so far the school likes the stability, security, and economy of NT.

"We wanted something robust that we could expand," says Al Williams, manager of distributed system services. "TCP/IP support, Ethernet routing support, and Mac OS support were all part of the basic package. Some of these services would have been extra on Banyan Vines, and they would have been costly." The Macintosh creates a well-known problem for network operating systems like Vines and NetWare: It supports long filenames. In order to make Vines or NetWare support long filenames, you have to run a separate namespace--one that isn't always compatible with sharing volumes between PCs and Macs. NT provides long-filename support for Macs natively. NT also supports AppleTalk networking protocols.

Corporate and commercial software developers say NT and OLE offer more interesting possibilities for integrating their applications with Microsoft Office and BackOffice. They can build custom solutions using OLE objects and an expanding array of rapid application development (RAD) tools, such as Microsoft's Visual Basic, PowerSoft's PowerBuilder, and Borland's Delphi. Unix does not support such a wide choice of popular RAD tools.

"OLE becomes the infrastructure with which you can customize and deploy our applications at customer sites," Pennell at Platinum Software says. "We can not only integrate with the standard suite of Microsoft front-office products such as Word and Excel, but also with other financial-specific products, such as a tax-processing or an add-on order-entry system."

Of course, similar technology is not exactly unknown on Unix. A good example is Sun's Neo (Network Objects), a distributed object environment. Neo allows users to integrate Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) objects and even OLE objects with applications and databases across a network. Neo works with Java applets, too.

Besides, although it seems as if Windows rules the world, not everyone is primarily concerned about integrating desktop PCs into their networks. "We've had customers who looked at NT but chose Unix because they don't have Windows clients," says Jeff Ait, vice president of SCO's Internet strategy. "There are a lot of different clients out there--automatic teller machines, cash registers, character-based terminals, telephony devices."

Still, there's no question that MIS managers want easy, seamless integration with the Windows PCs that dominate corporate desktops. Although some managers express reservations about Microsoft's industry dominance, they also crave the stability of industry standards. NT dovetails with the desktop hardware and software on which the vast majority of companies have decided to standardize.

Struggle for the Internet

Dislodging any OS from a site where it's already entrenched is difficult, even for a force as powerful as Microsoft. MIS managers tend to be fairly conservative folks who stick with things that work. That's why Microsoft and the numerous Unix vendors are hotly pursuing new installations where legacy issues--including systems, software, user training, and administrative support staff--are mostly nonexistent and the terrain is wide open.

Examples of these potentially lucrative new markets are interactive TV networks, the World Wide Web, and the high-speed networks required for the $500 network computers envisioned by such companies as Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and IBM. Interactive TVs and $500 computers are still highly speculative, but the Web is here now and growing fast.

Market research indicates Unix systems have jumped to an early lead on the Web and that Sun is doing particularly well. Some analysts think Sun is basking in the glow of Java, its multiplatform language for Web applets. "Everyone is very excited about Java," says David Flaxman, partner for advanced technology at KPMG-Peat Marwick (Radnor, PA), a systems integrator and consulting company. "People perceive that Sun is setting the standards for the Internet, so they want to buy a Sun for their Web server. That's not necessarily a rational connection, but it's there."

By contrast, Microsoft's strategy until late 1995 seemed proprietary. Microsoft originally promoted the Microsoft Network (MSN) as a self-contained alternative to the Internet and released a development tool for on-line publishing that worked only with MSN. Last December, at a press event in Seattle, Microsoft altered its course and embraced the Internet.

Among other things, Microsoft announced it would move parts of MSN onto the public Web, turn its MSN publishing tool into a standard Web tool (Internet Studio), integrate a Java run-time engine into its free Web browser (Internet Explorer), and bundle its Internet server software with future versions of NT Server.

Microsoft's turnabout is welcome news, but it came too late for early Web adopters. Two years ago, when entrepreneur Larry White was launching a new Web-based magazine for photography enthusiasts called HyperZine, he and his partner chose a Sun SparcStation 20 for their server. HyperZine (www.hyperzine.com) now runs on Solaris 2.4, Netscape's Netsite, and an Illustra database. White uses Perl scripts and Microsoft Access to link Illustra tables into Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) pages, so his on-line magazine generates many of its Web pages on the fly in response to user input.

The same SparcStation server hosts about a dozen other Web sites for White's clients. Each Web site has its own Domain Naming System (DNS) address, so they appear as independent sites to Web surfers. "That's why we felt we needed a workhorse like the Sun," White explains. "At the time, we didn't feel that confident with NT. The same with the Macintosh server solutions."

If he were starting today, though, White says he'd consider NT. "I'll do anything it takes to get the job done. I'll use a Sun, a PC, a Mac, an Amiga. Whatever is best for that solution at that moment."

SCO foresees even greater potential for Unix on intranets--private corporate networks assembled with the same server software, client browsers, and publishing tools developed for the public Web. An intranet could be as small as an internal LAN, or it could use the public Internet as a virtual WAN. "The intranet opportunity for Web servers is probably 10 times as large as the Internet opportunity," says SCO's Ait.

For example, SCO currently has only two servers on its public Web site, but about 200 servers on its private intranet. When ordinary users log onto SCO's home page (http://www.sco.com), they can't get past the two public servers. Employees, however, can gain secure access to the intranet and use it like a private Web.

SCO's employees are starting to format many of their documents--such as product data sheets, press releases, white papers, and brochures--in HTML, the lingua franca of the Web. That way, coworkers in remote offices can retrieve, view, and print the documents with any Web browser. High-quality color printers generate copies of data sheets on demand, reducing the amount of out-of-date sheets headed for the trash. Plus, documents bound for public consumption are already in the proper format for the public Web servers.

None of this has escaped the attention of Microsoft. As part of its born-again Internet strategy, Microsoft is adding Internet features to all its relevant products.

By the end of this year, Microsoft promises, Office applications will let you save, open, and print HTML documents. (Word already has an add-in called Internet Assistant that provides these features.) Built-in browsers will bring the informational resources of the Web to your desktop. New OLE controls for Visual Basic will let programmers build Web connectivity into their programs. And VB Script will provide an alternative to JavaScript for applets. The Internet may have been born and nurtured on Unix , but Microsoft wants it to flower on Windows.

It's a Standoff

Clearly it makes little sense to declare a winner in the ongoing and evolving NT vs. Unix battle. We can draw some conclusions, however.

-- Windows NT is definitely gaining ground in corporate installations, but because the global computer market continues to expand at a prodigious rate, NT is not killing off Unix. On the contrary, Unix is likely to thrive into the next century.

-- Unix is still the best solution for large databases and other enterprise-scale jobs. That won't change until Microsoft radically improves the scalability of NT and SQL Server on SMP machines with six or more processors. Also, NT has no time server, which may rule it out for large on-line transaction processing (OLTP) systems.

-- NT is winning more mind share among users. It's new, it's hot, it's from Microsoft, and it has "Windows" in its name. Unix suffers from discrimination against old age and from disunity among vendors. People who cut their teeth on Windows are moving into authority and will increasingly look toward Microsoft for solutions.

-- Microsoft's slow embrace of the Internet has worked to the advantage of Unix. But by bundling Internet software with NT Server and making its leading applications Internet-aware, Microsoft can establish NT as the no-brainer choice for companies that are setting up new Web sites and intranets.

-- Microsoft has a strong tools strategy with Visual Basic, VB for Applications, VB Script, Visual C++, and OLE. However, as users become more Internet-savvy and multiplatform-minded, that strategy must become less proprietary and Windows-based. Sun has blazed a path with Java that Microsoft needs to follow.

In the end, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to which OS is better. Experts who want to craft the best possible solution for a given business problem must be knowledgeable enough and open-minded enough to adopt either OS--or both.


                                        UNIX    WINDOWS NT

Standard application installation 
 (network and local)                     N           Y
Automatic detection of hardware        Some          Y
Multiple network protocols           Optional        Y
Windows SMB file sharing             Optional        Y
Macintosh file sharing               Optional        Y
Unix NFS file sharing                    Y       Optional
Vendor device driver support (PC)      Poor         Good

Windows NT is faster to install because it's smaller than most
Unixes. NT's standard Macintosh file and print support is a boon for
mixed-platform enterprises, and you'll generally have an easier time
finding NT device drivers for new hardware.


Y  = yes    
N  = no


                               UNIX    WINDOWS NT
User log-on required            Y       Y
File-level access permissions   Y       Y(1)
File-access control lists       Few     Y(2)
Security auditing               Most    Y
Role-based access               Few     Y

Windows NT has excellent standard security features. Commercial Unix
implementations offer varying levels of security, but none can rival
NT's simple administrative interface.


(1) Windows NT and Unix both offer read, write, and execute permissions
on each file. NT adds "take ownership" and "change permission" to these.

(2) Windows NT access-control lists apply not only to files but to all
objects managed by the OS. 

Y = yes  


                           UNIX        WINDOWS NT

Text and graphical 
  management tools         Most            N
Remote administration   
  and diagnostics           4            Optional
Graphical volume 
  management              Optional         Y
DHCP                       Few             Y

Unix is easier to manage from a distance than Windows NT, but a user
at the console will find NT much easier to maintain. DHCP makes
adding a host to a LAN as easy as plugging in a cable. 


Y = yes    
N = no


                                 UNIX    WINDOWS NT

Multiplatform support             Some        Y
Multiprocessor support            Some        Y*
Client-only edition               Some        Y
Support for MS-DOS applications    Y          Y
Support for 16-bit 
Windows applications            Limited       Y
Support for 32-bit 
Windows applications               N          Y
Support for Posix 
applications                       Y          Y
Support for X Window 
applications                       Y          N

NT and most Unixes let you add more same-type CPUs or use a faster
CPU. NT runs identical source code across CPU types. NT has a
workstation and a server edition; some Unixes offer
less-resource-intensive files and services. DOS and 16-bit Windows
applications require an Intel CPU; some Unix systems emulate the
Intel CPU in software. 


Y = yes    
N = no 

* Up to 32 processors


                                  UNIX    WINDOWS NT

Per-process memory protection      Y           Y
Recoverable file system           Few          Y
Remote diagnostics                 Y        Optional
Storage volume management       Optional       Y
Disk mirroring and striping     Optional       Y
Both Unix and Windows NT benefit from mature designs, and most regard
them as stable. Unix systems must improve to rise to NT's excellent
standard disk fault-tolerance. 


Y = yes  

Unix vs. Windows NT: The (Edited) Vendors' View

Unix ( Steve MacKay , vice president, Solaris products group at SunSoft) faces off against Windows NT ( Mike Nash , group product manager for Windows NT Server)

BYTE (to SunSoft): Why do you think Solaris Unix is better than Windows NT?

MACKAY: Scalability, reliability, and performance. Solaris has demonstrated linear scalability to 64 processors in a system, has databases larger than 5 terabytes, and lets thousands of users connect. NT does not come close. Solaris systems stay on-line for months, handling transaction after transaction. This defines mission-critical enterprise and Internet computing. And that is why the largest relational databases run on Solaris, not on NT.

In recent database performance benchmark testing (TPC-C) on a Compaq Proliant 4500, Solaris with Oracle7 outperformed NT with SQL Server by 30 percent. It takes a lot of NT marketing to overcome objective results such as this.

NASH: In the TPC-C tests, the difference is only about 5 percent. In normal operating modes, with acceptable transaction times, equal Unix and NT systems deliver roughly equal performance. Microsoft SQL Server has a limitation of 4 TB, but a 4-TB database would give you slower response time on any system.

NT has structured exception handling for capturing error conditions and responding to them uniformly. The file system is designed to recover from all types of disk errors [and is] protected by a U.S. government-certified C2 security architecture. When performance, scalability, and reliability are comparable, the important issues are service, support, and cost of administration and maintenance. NT Server provides huge savings in these areas.

NT Server is the only OS that delivers the same API set, user interface, and administration model on Intel, Mips, Alpha, and PowerPC processors. Customers [can] deploy whatever hardware is appropriate at any time. With Unix, you get locked into a particular vendor's Unix variant.

BYTE (to Microsoft): Why do you think NT Server is better than Unix?

NASH: NT Server is the only true multipurpose OS. It combines the performance of file and print servers and the power of Unix application servers with the ease of use of Windows.

A single cross-platform API lets developers write code once and target many platforms. Users benefit from the easy-to-use Windows environment. Administrators [can] learn, use, and manage one system with powerful file and print services plus robust and reliable applications services.

NT Server is interoperable with other systems such as NetWare; it integrates with legacy systems while offering a smooth migration. And NT Server supports up to 32 processors.

MACKAY: This discussion is not about NT versus the various versions of Unix, but about Solaris and NT. If the network is the computer, then we're talking about what it will take in this new paradigm: computing on the Internet.

Microsoft's story holds together as long as the picture is monolithic: Windows dominates the desktop, NT is the application server, and everything is tied together with OLE. This isn't modular, flexible, or easily customizable. Application code to update could be on thousands of desktops, leading to high administration costs.

NT does not have the reliability and scalability required to run business-critical applications on networked servers that may have hundreds of thousands of users hitting on it every day, which is where we are with Internet-based applications.

SunSoft's vision of the user world presumes a modular, distributed client/server environment, where mission-critical databases are on mainframes or large application servers, and clients can be anywhere, running on anything. In this model, the GUI interface decouples from the business logic, which in turn decouples from the database. In a traditional client/server environment, the application resides on thousands of desktops, every one of which has to be updated. Administration costs are high. But not for the SunSoft model, because the code resides in one place.

BYTE (to SunSoft): Where do you see Unix in five years, in market presence and technology?

MACKAY: Solaris is driving the future of Unix, including databases, Internet servers, communication servers, and how people organize and run their businesses. Microsoft has missed the Internet wave, so its growth will be limited.

The key technologies will be scalability, support for standards, object technology, and directory services. With Solaris, we already deliver on these technologies, and we will continue to invest in these areas in the future.

NASH: Microsoft has certainly not missed the Internet wave. We are likely to create the next major surge with Internet Information Server (IIS). With NT Server and IIS, we are offering a high-speed server that is simpler to own and operate than anything from Sun. By contrast, the licensing, training, maintenance, and support costs to run a Unix Internet solution are prohibitive. In a 1995 IDC article, Starwave comments that "an Internet infrastructure similar to a current Unix installation using NT servers and software could save at least $60,000 on hardware and several thousand dollars on software licensing."

BYTE (to Microsoft): Where do you see NT in five years, in market presence and technology?

NASH: Today's customers are using NT Server in Unix environments . They will migrate applications to NT Server because NT will offer leading-edge technology, such as Network OLE and seamless integration with Windows. NT will evolve to support new hardware platforms. NT Server will offer more sophisticated support for building distributed applications with Network OLE.

NT Server will offer integrated namespaces to enable users to access resources regardless of the repository. As a first step, the upcoming version of NT will provide native support for DNS. A later version will include a more hierarchical, flexible directory that is upward-compatible with the current NT directory service.

Through ODSI [Open Directory Service Interface], these namespaces--including Street Talk and NetWare Directory Services--will be integrated and accessible by users as one namespace. Developers will benefit from writing to one API (ODSI) to create applications that take advantage of this multidirectory namespace.

MACKAY: Today, Solaris uptime is measured in months, not days. Today, Solaris incorporates such industry standards as CORBA, which facilitates scalable, language-independent, network computing. Today, we support XFN [X/Open Federated Naming], which facilitates universal access to various directory naming services. Today, the networked objects and management technologies of Neo and Solstice are tightly integrated with Solaris.

An Internet server OS must be able to grow. Over the next two years, Solaris will be extended to support a file system of nine million TB. It will also have a 64-bit kernel, addressing, networking, and asynchronous I/O. Yet, 64-bit Solaris will maintain compatibility with existing 32-bit applications and data sets.

BYTE (to SunSoft): What will be the important new features of the next major Solaris release?

MACKAY: A network-oriented object model for Solaris. Neo--SunSoft's networked object environment technology based on CORBA --is already available. Many u se it as their foundation for rapidly deployed enterprise applications. When Neo is paired with Sun's Java, the result is powerful, distributed applications that can bring global resources together to create the information needed to drive critical business processes. Think of Neo plus Java as programming the network, where truly the network is the computer.

One major innovation for systems software will be the move to 64-bit systems. Already there are full 64-bit microprocessors entering mainstream use; for example, the UltraSparc.

These 64-bit systems will bring new scalability and performance to classes of applications that rely on large databases--for example, data warehouses or network-wide transaction-processing systems--or that incorporate real-time visual computing, such as 3-D animation applications. It is the Unix software vendors, including SunSoft, who have been working to develop a set of standard APIs for Unix on these new 64-bit systems.

NASH: How will this technology really interact with millions of desktops, many Windows-based? If Sun were embracing openness, then its server strategy would tie in with existing desktop standards seamlessly. This is a huge strength for Microsoft.

With Network OLE's strong integration between client and server, we are in the best possible position to deliver seamless client/server integration. Network OLE [in beta] works seamlessly with Windows, Windows 95, and NT Workstation clients, which together represent the majority of the desktop market.

Sixty-four-bit technology is interesting, but it's not a customer requirement now. It has little meaning unless key applications exploit this architecture. NT Server will deliver 64-bit technology if this offers significant benefits beyond the current architecture.

All attempts have failed to deliver the promised Unix integration. These efforts will continue to fail. Giving customers the freedom to switch between Unix systems would eliminate the competitive edge these companies have over each other.

BYTE (to Microsoft): What will be the most important new features of the next major release of Windows NT?

NASH: The Windows 95-compatible user interface will automate network management tasks. DNS and WINS [Windows Internet Naming Service] will let NT users connect to corporate servers through the Internet. Network OLE will extend sharing of components between applications by enabling cross-network integration. We are improving the performance of file and print services. And we've improved the DMA path for network reads.

MACKAY: Will NT survive in a transaction environment where hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users are hitting thousands of applications in a network of servers? Market-share leadership is a tenuous thing. Just ask IBM and Novell.

Steve MacKay, Sunsoft


Mike Nash, Microsoft

A Vote for Unix: Performance, Reliability, Security

Gene Diveglia is a Sun worshipper. As vice president of information services for Intelligence Network On-line (Clearwater, FL), he's convinced that Sun hardware and Solaris 2.5 are the best possible solutions for his fast-growing company.

Intelligence Network On-line is a business-oriented Internet service provider (ISP). It also provides a wide array of other Internet services for businesses, such as Web pages and custom networks for companies that have remote operations and need a WAN with Internet access.

Intelligence currently has about half a dozen corporate customers whose hundreds of employees regularly use E-mail, newsgroups, and Web services. Another client is a local county government with thousands of employees. In addition, Intelligence provides Internet services to several thousand individual subscribers. The Web sites maintained or leased by Intelligence collectively receive about two million hits per month.

To support this business, Intelligence has a ton of Sun hardware. Half a dozen 490- and 690-class servers with dual CPUs handle most of the transaction-based services, such as E-mail, news, Web browsing, shell accounts, and authorization. Four smaller servers--Sun SparcStation Classics and LXes--handle Domain Naming System (DNS) name resolution, manage the network-wide databases, and provide accounting services. Two more Sun servers are primarily for in-house development and operations. There are also about a dozen SparcStations for internal use.

Everything ties into a three-segment network. One segment is the internal network for the desktop workstations. Another segment is a local backbone that carries most of the transaction-based activity. Finally, there's an external backbone for the WANs, frame-relay networks, and connections to other service providers. Intelligence is now migrating its internal backbone onto ATM and will experiment with moving the WANs onto ATM soon.

Why is Intelligence exclusively a Sun shop? Diveglia says that Sun and Solaris offer the best combination of performance, reliability, and security. While some Internet service providers are bootstrapped startups that cater to hobbyists, Intelligence is a more established provider that specializes in corporate and governmental clients. "That makes us more conscious of security, performance, and reliability issues," he says.

"Unix has been around for so many years that it's pretty well understood," Diveglia points out. "But the PC market and Windows applications have undergone such hyper growth stages that it's difficult to believe they have the same completeness and level of understanding that exists in the Unix market."

In addition, says Diveglia, Unix systems are capable of handling more traffic than PC-based servers. "The PC architecture just doesn't support the kind of multitasking we'd like to see in a heavily transaction-based environment like the Internet," he explains. "On the Internet, you've got lots of activities happening simultaneously: news transfers, mail services, authentication, authorization processes, accounting processes. NT just didn't address that in a server environment."

Although he acknowledges that NT is an up-and-coming OS, Diveglia points out that Unix isn't exactly standing still. Unix in general, and Solaris in particular, continue to evolve and improve. "It's become more attractive over time, not less."

A Vote for NT: Good Performance, Mainstream Integration

Larry Blevins believes Windows NT is good for your health. Or at least that it's good for the 261,000 people enrolled in the Harris Methodist Health System (Fort Worth, TX), the "fastest-growing health-maintenance organization in north Texas." Blevins and Harris Methodist have bet heavily on NT Advanced Server, and so far it's a bet that is paying off.

"Our entire HMO runs on the client/server Windows NT-AS platform," says Blevins. "We're getting great performance, and that's the best testimonial you can get."

Harris Methodist operates six hospitals, a hospice program, and an air ambulance, and it has 8000 employees and 3600 participating physicians. Revenues last year topped $800 million. Yet, even though most professional health-care software runs on MS-DOS and Unix, Harris Methodist began building its client/server system with NT nearly three years ago after extensive evaluation at its own test center.

Today, Harris Methodist has 200 servers, and almost all of them are running NT. Most of the servers are Compaq Proliant 2000 and 4000 systems with 486 or Pentium CPUs. They connect to about 4000 PCs, mostly 486-based IBM and Compaq systems, with a smattering of older 386 and newer Pentium machines. Some mobile workers have IBM ThinkPads. Almost all the PCs are running Windows for Workgroups 3.11, though a few run NT. In the back office, the whole network ties into a pair of IBM 9000-series mainframes.

Employees at Harris Methodist primarily use their computers to process claims, issue checks, maintain the membership database, track finances, and exchange E-mail. They use off-t he-shelf software--including Microsoft Office, which Blevins calls the "corporate standard"--and custom applications written with SQL Server, Visual Basic, Microsoft Access, Borland C++, and Borland Delphi.

Before switching to NT, the company was much smaller and had only 10 to 15 servers running OS/2 and AIX. NT emerged as the server OS of choice, according to Blevins, because it seemed less complex and more modern. "Unix is closer to the mainframe, as far as complexity is concerned," he says. "It has its roots in the mainframe era, whereas NT was designed from the roots up in the desktop PC era."

Blevins says he has more confidence in NT's future. He notes that AT&T sold its Unix source code and Unix Systems Laboratories (USL) to Novell, which in turn sold them to SCO--and each time they changed hands, the price went down. He also points to Dataquest's projection that Unix market share will dwindle to less than 2 percent by the end of the century.

"I'm not predicting the demise of Unix or anything like that," he says. "But I think Unix is becoming more of a niche OS than a mainstream OS. That'll probably raise a few hairs, but I think it's true."

Market Forces

Without a doubt, at least some of NT's growth is coming at the expense of Unix. We interviewed some technically savvy users who have switched from Unix to NT, or who said they might switch if they were reengineering their installations today. Market research firms such as Dataquest predict that NT will dominate the industry by the turn of the century. Yet it's worth keeping in mind that industry analysts and journalists made similar predictions when Microsoft introduced NT in 1992, and NT's adoption rate has fallen well short of expectations.

NT's slow start is not surprising. Despite the computer industry's reputation for fast-paced change, fundamental shifts often happen at a glacial rate. It has been 11 years since Intel introduced the first 32-bit x86 processor (the 386), yet the vast majority of x86 users are just beginning to enter the 32-bit world of Windows 95 and Windows NT.

Those inertial forces are even stronger at corporate sites where Unix and NT are battling head-to-head for the loyalty of MIS managers. You don't migrate an enterprise or even a departmental network onto a new OS overnight. That's probably why NT appears to be doing best at new sites that don't have to deal with major legacy issues. Meanwhile, Unix is hanging tight at larger companies that have already invested heavily in information technology.

"While NT has slowed the growth of Unix--and has dampened it most at the uni- and quad-processor levels--Unix is still holding its own," says Pauline Mist, VP of Digital's Alpha server business. "We still see our Unix numbers going up quarter after quarter. Our midrange Unix boxes with Oracle have continued to set quarter-to-quarter sales records."

Based on its own research and data from analysts, Digital forecasts that server business by revenue in the year 2000 will be 40 percent Unix, 40 percent NT, and 20 percent legacy systems (including MVS, OS/400, and OpenVMS). "But NT will by far dominate in unit numbers because it will come up from the desktop," says Mist.

Tom R. Halfhill is a BYTE senior editor based in San Mateo, California. You can reach him at thalfhill@bix.com .

Copyright 1996 CMP Media LLC