Soft ICP: PC & Linux Hardware

The Future Has Always Been Linux.

Once, There Was Windows NT

As NT boldly goes where only Unix went before, hopes are high for a distributed computing environment that will work happily with existing PC hardware and software. But can NT really supplant Unix, with its 25 years of proven network reliability?

Until now, serious networked applications users have turned to Unix to find tools capable of doing the job. Unix may still not have found favour on the desktop, but it was designed to be both multitasking and multi-user — making it great for the network, despite problems getting Unix and PCs to co-operate.

This paradigm is now under threat. The growth of Microsoft Windows, along with the company’s promise to deliver the 32-bit NT operating system, has raised users’ hopes that a genuine alternative to Unix is close at hand — with backward PC software compatibility.

Yet Microsoft will be at least four months late with NT. The product is a lynchpin of the company’s future success and its push into higher computing. Even taking into account the announced delay, NT has been under development for some time. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s CEO, recently revealed that the NT project actually started before IBM and Microsoft began joint work on OS/2. As one analyst said in a recent issue of PC User, Unix has been around for a quarter century and is only now coming up to scratch. Microsoft will have an almost impossible task emulating that progress with NT in a much shorter time.

So, although many corporates are basing their future plans on Windows and NT, it may take years before they have a robust enough environment to ignore Unix for good. This raises some questions about the immediate server software buying plans of large corporates. With so many pledging support for NT, often because the software comes from Microsoft and fits so closely with Windows, it will be interesting to see how they cope with waiting until NT is ready to do the job well.

Microsoft has always intended NT — written in the C language — to be the version of Unix Gates actually wanted, instead of the versions offered by older vendors. And with companies such as Sun Microsystems working hard to allow Windows applications to run on Unix without a trace of Microsoft systems software on the machine, it seems that Gates’ giant could be treading on difficult ground.

The struggle NT will face getting onto the corporate server was illustrated recently by a Unix International report, which showed that Unix and NT will be strong on the server and desktop, respectively. While there will be some crossover, this independent survey showed that Unix will continue to meet the demands of users who want a clean and reliable distributed computing system.

One significant applications area where Microsoft has to show convincing support is relational databases. Many servers on networks are set up merely to house large data repositories, liberating hard disk space on the client desktops. Oracle, Sybase, Ingres, Informix and other high-end database vendors have developed clean, fast products which principally run on Unix. Microsoft’s Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) interface, which will slowly be built into its products, must have the support of these vendors. Microsoft already has a significant alliance with Oracle over ODBC and is wooing the others. The ODBC connection will allow information to be shared between databases and other programs in the Windows environment.

Yet Oracle has also demonstrated its database breaking new ground in transaction processing, working with Compaq hardware and Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) Unix. In fact, Compaq and SCO have signed a European OEM agreement to bundle their products. Paul Oliver, SCO’s strategic accounts manager, predicts that 30 to 50 per cent of Compaq’s new ProSignia XL servers will ship with SCO Unix. SCO also has full XPG.4 branding from the X/Open organization, one of the highest open systems markers. Microsoft remains scornful of X/Open and similar bodies, but may find this attitude disadvantageous when it comes to selling into the upper computing echelons.

It has always been clear that Microsoft’s plan to tackle both the front and back-ends of the operating system world is ambitious. In PC User recently, Microsoft’s vice-president for systems strategy, Jonathan Lazarus, argued that product shipment volumes speak for themselves. This is all very well, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Unix might never be a major force on the desktop, but it won’t lose its customers in the server sector easily either. So, the minority of Unix users on Intel-based machines pinpointed by Microsoft are really a significant population of MIS decision makers. They are more conservative, have more to lose, and may not be so taken with the revolutionary spirit that helped Microsoft conquer the PC market.


Categorised as: Unix

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