The Window of opportunity

Years of backroom planning and strategizing on the operating system front are finally creeping out of the corners and into light.

Take Novell, which this month announced its intention to include the Linux kernel in NetWare 7.0. It joins Sun, IBM and Oracle and others in courting, and just as importantly, being seen courting, the open source platform that is the enemy of their enemy. Even SCO got in on the action recently, suing IBM – claiming that it deliberately hurt the Unix-on-Intel market in a bid to boost Linux.

But the big news, the official advent of Windows Server 2003 is, as of this writing, just around the corner. (See page 20 for a review).

The notion held by many industry observers that Microsoft has never truly cracked the enterprise is both true and false – it simply depends on how one defines “cracked.” Assuming most companies take a best of breed approach, then most user desktops and some back office tasks are being run on Windows today. Microsoft has also steadily chipped away at NetWare’s old stomping ground. Apache, meanwhile, now runs most corporate Web servers, with Linux employed here and there. Unix-based apps still carry out a good chunk of the beefier back-office tasks.

This status quo has survived intact for some time, despite a relentless onslaught from NT 4.0 and Windows 2000. So much so that the word from Redmond these days sounds remarkably similar to those spoken on the eve of releases past. In essence, officials are still trying to appeal to a core enterprise audience, some of whom to view Microsoft with suspicion.

Politics aside, administrators have historically pointed to two key reasons for avoiding a serious look at Windows, and which taken separately or together offset its ease-of-use and rich ISV benefits. One is reliability – Windows isn’t steady enough to run mission critical apps, they say. The other is security.

So it comes as no surprise that Microsoft’s Win 2003 Web site tackles these issues head on. On the security front, Microsoft says users can expect improved PKI, enhanced single sign-on, and the automatic disabling of certain legacy features. The site also includes a series of beta-tester testimonials, who talk about the improved manageability and control abilities offered in Win 2003.

Obviously it’s too soon to tell what impact Win 2003 will have in the enterprise, and it’s likely many will wait a year or two for the code to settle down, regardless. The early word is that the improvements are genuine – one New York research firm has issued a report in which it calls Windows 2003 the first “mature” version of the platform, calling it “capable of running very large workloads on very large mainframe-class systems.”

It is here that we’ll also see if Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Initiative, where all its developers were essentially halted and taken to security school, paid off.

The stakes are very high. Hype and Redmond-bashing aside, Linux is making serious inroads. And if given any reason to doubt the viability of Windows, some CIOs will remain skeptical.

The time has come for Microsoft to show everyone that its deep stores of expertise and talent, its decade of Windows refinement, its money and time spent on fixing glaring holes, have finally paid off.

Nobody, least of all Microsoft, wants to be talking about the next version of Windows – whenever and whatever that may be – in quite the same terms.

Correction: Due to erroneous data provided by Internet Security Systems Inc., incorrect information appeared in my April 4 editorial, and in a news item. The number of computer security incidents and attacks detected at businesses worldwide rose 37 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2002 and the first quarter of this year.