Unix and NT Give Peaceful Coexistence a Try
By Willie Schatz
Unix and NT. NT and Unix. As a couple they sometimes get along as well as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. But other times, they're like the Hatfields and the McCoys.
The two operating systems have been inextricably intertwined since 1993, when Microsoft thrust Windows NT upon a fat, dumb and happy Unix world. Since then they've been by turns together and apart, united and divided.
"We're one of the operating systems in data centers now, and we recognize we'll be just one of the operating systems in data centers of the future," says Ed Muth, Microsoft Corp.'s product group manager for NT. "NT and Unix will co-exist in data centers for a long time."
"It's now NT and Unix, not NT against Unix," says Mark Silverberg, the chairman of the Unix Systems Cooperative Promotion Group and the Unix product marketing manager for Maynard, Mass.-based Digital Equipment Corp. But what else would one expect from the leader of a group already on the defensive?
His diplomatic words notwithstanding, Silverberg, Digital's representative to the group, leads a quartet of Unixphiles - the Santa Cruz Operation, Siemens/Nixdorf and the Open Group being the others - attempting to slow the inexorable advance of the NT juggernaut. United they still may not stand; divided they would topple in a nanosecond.
"We had to get the message out about the strength and benefits of Unix," Silverberg explains. "The general perception in the press and among analysts is that NT is blowing Unix out and taking over the operating system world. And NT clearly is growing faster than any other platform."
Microsoft is doing a terrific job marketing NT and selling it to chief information officers and senior executives in high-end organizations, Silverberg says. "There are more NT licenses sold than Unix licenses. And Unix sales are getting harder to justify because the senior managers Microsoft sells to are mandating that IT [operations] within organizations implement NT whenever they can," he says.
The bean counters and the check signers are getting the drift big time, Muth says. In its slightly less than five years of life, NT has captured 43 percent of the server market, he says.
"We decisively outsell all Unix versions combined," Muth alleges. "Most Unix servers sell between 30,000 and 70,000 units per year. Our models are approaching 30,000 per week. So their yearly sales equal our weekly ones. We've got a run rate greater than 1 million systems a year."
Microsoft has done much in recent years to alleviate technical concerns regarding NT, he says. "We know there are legitimate questions about NT's robustness and reliability. But for government agencies trying to do more with less NT is a no-brainer. In the last 28 months we've increased our server throughput by eight times. We can do more things with a fixed budget and we've got the broadest range of hardware choices."
Muth apparently isn't blowing smoke. Many Unix/NT users, vendors and observers believe that NT is absolutely, positively the road ahead.
Just ask Jeffrey Plotnick, a vice president at the Moorestown, N.J.-based Integrated Systems Division of Computer Sciences Corp., the giant systems integrator based in El Segundo, Calif. Plotnick is responsible for the Joint Computer-aided Acquisition and Logistics Support System project, a $1 billion soup-to-nuts, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract CSC has with the U.S. Department of Defense. The purpose of that contract, as Plotnick explains, is to "install systems on whatever legacy systems are around."
Running on Unix and NT platforms, JCALS provides aid and comfort to the DoD's quest to improve the acquisition, development, fielding and maintenance of U.S. military systems as part of the Defense Information Infrastructure. JCALS uses 94 percent commercial, off-the-shelf products to support more than 15,000 users across 500 servers throughout the services and the Defense Logistics Agency.
The JCALS Shared Data Environment has two key components. First is the Global Data Management System, which enables users to manage, distribute and subsequently locate and access data no matter where it is on the planet. Second is the Workflow Manager, which automates the work environment and enhances the work processes within and among DoD enterprises. CSC officials say the components are essential to the Defense Information Infrastructure's Common Operating Environment.
Plotnick talks the interoperability talk but walks the proprietary walk.
"In the beginning of this contract, users wanted Unix servers because they need robust database environments," he says. "The Unix-Oracle solution was perfect. But now NT is just about there for supporting industrial-strength [database management systems]. NT has really matured. We're seeing more and more demand for it, especially in the Navy. But there's probably still more [demand] overall for Unix because the Army and the Air Force have an installed base of fairly heavily Unix-based servers. That will definitely change over the next year, though."
Unix probably controls 98 percent of the JCALS server market, but that will shift to 50-50 in the next 18 months, predicts CSC's Plotnick. "There's a very strong desire to go to NT because of its [lower] cost," he says. "I can buy an NT server for 40 percent of the price I pay for a Unix server."
He put his money where his mouth is by recently installing an NT server to support the Navy's Naval Surface Warfare Center's Coastal Systems Station in Panama City, Fla. His JCALS programmers now are building their software applications to become NT server-compliant, making it easier to move the applications code among clients and servers in any configuration.
The Big Mo
Plotnick sees the large-scale movement of users to NT-centric, thin-client network computing environments as a harbinger of the surging NT demands.
He adds that Unix/Oracle still might have the edge in robustness and reliability, but NT is picking up steam in those critical categories. NT also is easier to administer, which means one doesn't need a doctorate in rocket science to make the office run.
"And NT helps solve the cost of networking and systems administration, which is a major problem in client/server environments," Plotnick says. "If you use NT on the client and the server side, all you need to support PCs is people who know NT and Windows 95." But, if organizations also use Unix, they need either people trained in both operating systems or two technical staffs.
"When there are fairly limited needs, NT really succeeds."
- Steve Sundman
Doug Stevens, a partner in the Vienna, Va., division of Grant Thornton LLP, an accounting and management consulting firm, has a similar vision. His company "aggressively" recommends NT, unless there is very persuasive evidence not to use it. That criteria most often is the technological equivalent of "if it ain't broke don't fix it."
"If Unix platforms are installed and they've got some stuff running and the [database applications] are in place, it stays," Stevens says. "But it's a very different story when you're looking at departmental applications, particularly in civilian agencies. The momentum is clearly with NT. Inertia is with Unix. When you're looking at options or starting from scratch, NT is cheaper, easier and faster."
The NT-way-or-the-highway trend isn't confined inside the Beltway. The competition between the operating systems is no contest for Garron Shannon, the PC network manager and programming professional for the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, College of Engineering, at Washington State University in Pullman.
Like most university computer departments, his has traditionally used Unix. But starting in 1996, Shannon's department began purchasing NT systems. After examining the Big Five issues (performance, ease of use, security, management costs and interoperability), the competition between Unix and NT wasn't close.
"If you are considering performance, ease of use, security and the cost of management, when making the decision between Unix or NT, NT is the clear choice," Shannon wrote in the April 1997 issue of UnixIntegration. "Hidden costs such as lead time required to build a new network, or not so hidden costs such as higher prices for Unix hardware, make the decision easier in today's market."
"We've got a run rate greater than 1 million systems a year."
- Ed Muth
A year later, Shannon is even more passionate about NT. Even though the purchase price of a Unix box is falling to meet the stiff competition from NT, it's too little, too late, Shannon tells Washington Technology. Serious rifts in comparable pricing for power have made the PC/NT platform even more desirable, a hammerlock that will grow even more impenetrable when the anxiously awaited NT 5 hits the street later this year, he says.
But the ensuing environment may be a long way from paradise.
"Each of us who uses NT and other Microsoft products knows the problems that plague applications released from Microsoft," Shannon says. "However, that does not stop us from using them [once the fixes are out]. Why would that be? I can only say this ... because they work, and work well. With one low-cost and complete package [NT 4.0], I can do anything in my business. End of story."
For Unix as well, at least from the view from Pullman. Shannon believes the only real competitor to the NT platform for many years will be LINUX. He sees a migration of die-hard Unix users to the LINUX platform. He says LINUX is powerful, works like Unix, runs on a cheap hardware platform and has many graphical user interface features built into it.
The NT worship committee is not limited to individuals. International Data Corp., the Framingham, Mass.-based market analysis firm, wrote last fall in its Windows NT Adoption '97 Study that NT is being rapidly adopted by IT and business units within large companies, frequently at the expense of small Unix servers and Unix desktops. Nevertheless, the study says, companies have and will continue to have significant numbers of mainframe, Unix, NetWare and AS/400 systems in addition to NT.
So what we have here may be corporate peaceful co-existence. But for users it's the next 100 years war.
IDC contends that, from an end user's point of view, there is a definite Unix vs. NT competition. Both are general-purpose systems, both target traditional as well as intranet and Internet deployment styles. And both claim to be the system of the future.
IT planners like big, scalable, reduced-instruction-set, computer-based servers that support very large databases and division-level applications. But these same planners loath replacing their expensive custom commercial applications in Unix systems without good financial and operational justification. "Instead, the trend is to augment large servers with smaller NT-based systems," the IDC report says.
IDC contends that IT planners are clearly moving toward solution architectures that rely heavily on interoperability across these platforms. Many organizations (40.6 percent) plan to migrate some mainframe database functions to Windows NT, according to an IDC survey last year of companies and government agencies. In addition, nearly half of the respondents plan to migrate some other Unix database functions to NT.
Companies moving database application functions do it because of NT's lower purchase cost and its acceptance as a de-facto standard. Those staying with Unix like the capability of its servers and cite the lack of a cost advantage to move.
So what's this really all about? In a word: marketing.
"While vendors position Unix vs. NT as the battle of the 1990s, IT [operations are] proceeding to use both systems and [regard] interoperability across these high-volume platforms as a key requirement," IDC's report concludes. "Companies planning to adopt Windows NT into corporate computing environments will very likely use this new operating system in conjunction with Unix and/or mainframe systems. IT strategies that emphasize proven cross-system applications and standards-compliant databases should be able to use mainstream products and service providers.
"If IT [operations plan] ahead for workloads and system management, Windows NT servers and Unix servers will coexist well. Unix vs. NT is a reality for marketing but a myth for IT."
Then a powerful myth it must be. Why else would the Unix Systems Cooperative Promotion Group heavily promote a white paper published last November alleging that "no other environment enjoys the support of every major system supplier" and "the Unix system is the users' and suppliers' operating environment of choice?" Because the best defense is a good offense? Perhaps.
Telling It Like It Is
"I concur that there is an NT phenomenon," admits Steve Sundman, systems engineering manager of the Santa Cruz Operation's government systems group. "It's a major force in the operating system environment. And because operating systems are so crucial to a complete solution, NT has had a traumatic impact on all solutions."
But most people responsible for providing large IT services ignore the marketing hype and stay with Unix, Sundman says. "The marketing hype is completely swallowed at the lower levels in departments where organizations don't centrally manage IT," he says.
"When there are fairly limited needs, NT really succeeds. But is it really the most cost-effective and the most reliable way to do crucial jobs in the government? Each user has to decide that individually. If they understand what they need and what it costs to do it, Unix is a very viable contender."
That's a long way from Unix's days as a champion.
That's why Silverberg and his colleagues are telling it like it is in their white paper. They claim five advantages for Unix over NT:
- Unix today is more robust, reliable and scalable than NT.
- Windows NT technology remains fiercely proprietary, a sharp contrast to the open standards that define the Unix system. Microsoft continues to be ambivalent to the world of standards. Therefore, choosing NT entangles customers with nonstandard utilities, directories and software tools.
- Unix today is available on a wide spectrum of computer hardware. Particularly when high performance is at issue, hardware suppliers suggest the Unix system, rather than Windows NT. The primary appeal of NT is for low-end, office-centered, departmental applications.
- Unit shipment growth rates for Windows NT exceed the rates for the Unix system, which is to be expected for a new product. However, revenue growth in Unix systems sales is much higher than NT. It is reasonable to expect Windows NT to take a share of the operating systems market, along with other, more specialized operating systems. However, there is no concrete evidence today to indicate that NT will be dominant.
- Windows NT Server 4.0 is still not a full-function server operating system. While it does support multiuser computing via third-party add-on tools, it lacks certain fundamental features that Unix is known for providing, such as directory services for managing user access and peripherals over a distributed enterprise network.
Silverberg's group isn't alone, although it often may appear that way. The Standish Group, a Boston-based market research firm, is as down on NT as IDC is on Unix. In "The Sun Also Rises: Solaris Vs. NT," written last fall, the firm used 10 selection criteria to compare NT and Solaris, a version of Unix from Sun Microsystems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. The 10 criteria used when considering an enterprise/Internet/intranet operating system were: reliability, security, scalability, availability, manageability, interoperability, adaptability, ease of development, affordability and ease of use.
The final grades? Solaris got an A-; NT, a C.
"The strongest differentiators were scalability and availability," the report concluded. "Many users said NT is a 'resource hog' because of Microsoft's overuse of its" graphical user interface.
"NT was particularly faulty with its availability," the report noted. "One user says it crashed as much as its Windows 95 desktop. That's obviously exaggerated, but not by much. However, as NT improves, these complaints will diminish."
In the meantime, Sun Microsystems has a window of opportunity to push Solaris as the Internet/intranet server of choice, the Standish Group reported. But that window may not be very wide or open very long. Time probably is not on the side of Sun or any other Unix vendor.
"Except for the Justice Department's antitrust suit, we see nothing stopping the Microsoft blitzkrieg into the midrange server space," says Nick Gall, an analyst at the Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. "Unix is definitely retreating to smaller, more expensive, more powerful machines. NT pretty much owns the departmental level and is moving to workstation level applications such as [computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing]. NT today is where Unix was four years ago, but it's gaining rapidly."
That shouldn't be a surprise. We're talking Microsoft here, remember. But NT's warp-factor-seven ascension has shocked even industry veterans.
"I'm very surprised," CSC's Plotnick admits. "I thought it'd take more years for the massive defection. Now it's clearly coming sooner rather than later.
"And Compaq buying DEC gives them a solid [NT] product line starting at the desktop through the high-end workstations. I think DEC already was selling more NT boxes on its Alpha chip than Unix boxes," a trend that will clearly accelerate once the acquirer and the acquiree figure out who's doing what with whom.
"That's going to make NT even more unstoppable," Plotnick says. "Scott McNealy [Sun Microsystems president] better start reading the tea leaves."