Microsoft jets to server world

The hotly contested world of midrange servers will be one of the first battlegrounds facing Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Server 2003 after its April 24 launch.

Staring down the software giant are Unix and Linux, which have remained the most popular midrange server operating systems to date.

But with the promise of more powerful Itanium processors on the horizon and companies such as IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. expected to deliver eight-way 64-bit systems, Microsoft has an opportunity to strengthen its standing in the enterprise.

Most observers agree that Windows Server 2003 has the technical muscle to elbow its way deeper into the enterprise and can effectively compete against the crop of Linux distributors also looking to edge their way up in the enterprise.

“We will have to run [Windows Server 2003] through its paces here, but if it proves reliable and scalable enough for the buck, then we’ll take a harder look at it for replacing some of our lower-end Sun stuff,” said Marc Huff, a network administrator at a large pharmaceuticals company in the Midwest.

Industry observers agree, arguing Windows is still perceived to be more suitable for hosting low-end application environments and for handling typical file-and-print responsibilities.

“Windows Server 2003 is a step in the right direction — it is a better product than Windows [Server] 2000. But most customers we talk to have still not drawn the conclusion that Windows and Unix technologies are equal. Performance is not the issue, but perception is,” said Al Gillen, research director of system software at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Still, Gillen and other observers sense a developing turf war within larger enterprises as delivery of Windows Server 2003 draws near. On one side are long-time Unix administrators who continue to scoff at almost anything Microsoft delivers labeled for the enterprise. On the other side are Windows supporters who think Windows Server 2003 is more attractive from a price-performance standpoint and will be gentler on shrinking IT budgets.

Throwing a spotlight on the OS competition is growing demand for midrange servers thanks to a number of rapidly improving Intel Corp. and proprietary hardware technologies. And the success has, to some degree, come at the expense of pricier high-end systems.

IDC noted in its most recent server data that systems priced less than US$100,000 continue to be the bright spot in an otherwise depressed market. The low-end server market grew close to 14 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, as compared to an overall decline of 5.2 percent for all systems.

“I wouldn’t go too overboard on the recent midrange success, but it is heating up because of what we see as a return to normality of the traditional server market. There will be some dogfights in the midrange Unix space this year,” said Vernon Turner, group vice president of server research at IDC.

In its report IDC attributed much of this growth to the increasing power and function of low-end systems. Unix vendors have pushed higher-end tools such as partitioning and redundant components further down their product line. Intel sellers have responded in kind with more powerful servers that add more and more Unix-like tools and faster chips.

Sun Microsystems Inc. in particular has seen a spike in demand for its four-processor v480 server, said Souheil Saliba, vice president of marketing at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun. The company claims to have gained more revenue share quarter-on-quarter than any other major vendor in the four-processor space, regardless of operating system.

“Is Linux beginning to catch on in the four-way space? Absolutely,” Saliba said. “But from a raw numbers point of view, it’s still not that impressive in terms of revenue and units. It does give us a little bit of pause, and we see that, but a lot of it comes at the expense of Windows and not Solaris.”

HP has been the midrange Unix server leader, by most researchers’ reports, but company executives disagree with Sun about Linux’s ability to unseat Unix.

“We see both Windows and Linux growing faster than Unix,” said Peter Blackmore, executive vice president of HP’s Enterprise Systems Group. “We see Linux replacing some of the low-end Unix applications. It does not tend to replace low-end Windows.”

Blackmore expects continued improvement of midrange servers, which means customers should see a variety of capable platforms no matter what operating system they prefer.

IBM, scheduled to deliver more powerful Intel and Power-4-based systems this year for the midrange, doesn’t see Windows 2003 pounding big dents in Unix market share, although company officials believe it will have a fair amount of success among existing Windows-based users.

“I think Windows 2003 will be a nonevent for enterprise users, although it will be a good upgrade path for Windows 2000 users. I just don’t see a dramatic shift in its ability to handle enterprise workloads against the classic Unix boxes,” said Karl Freund, vice president of pSeries server product marketing at IBM in Austin, Texas.

While IBM will pursue the midrange mostly with its 64-bit proprietary hardware and software, it will also go hard after that market using its 32-bit Intel-based xSeries with Linux, which they believe will scale up quickly.

“Today Linux does not scale well beyond four processors, but that will change. With our Power [chip] open-source effort, we are looking to drive higher levels of scalability and reliability for Linux on both the p[Series] and xSeries,” Freund said.