Windows NT Gains Ground
By Willie Schatz
Wendy Henry's client has been blazing the Windows NT frontier long enough. Now she and her U.S. Postal Service techno-pioneers can sit back and relax.
"We've been on the bleeding edge a while," says Henry, a USPS consultant with Johnston McLamb Case Solutions in Chantilly, Va. "We've really been pushing the high-end envelope. Now we want to do what's safe."
So the Postal Service will stick with its NT 4.0 environment and won't switch to NT 5.0, scheduled for release in the third quarter of 1999. After all, it's only been two years since the agency traded NT version 3.51 for version 4.0. According to Henry, the agency made the switch to gain more stability.
The postal service's Oracle Corp.-based 4.0 configuration runs NT on Digital Equipment Corp. SMPs (symmetric multiprocessors) to support large data warehouse and online transaction processing applications. The system, which has more than 1,000 users, aggregates data from diverse sources, such as mainframes and flat files, to give users a consolidated view of the information.
The network, which ran at a storage capacity of 90 megabytes when the USPS first kicked the tires on 4.0, now uses 50 gigabytes to run 90 million rows nightly within one hour. That doesn't leave room for many picoseconds of downtime.
The financial information carried on the network is then distributed to postal centers nationwide. Before, NT 4.0 users had to log on to as many as six or seven sources to get what they came for. Now they log on to one.
"From an operating standpoint, NT has been very stable," Henry says. "We haven't had any major problems. We were worried about its stability because it was brand new. That's why we built a test bed.
"But NT really handles the system's daily runs quite well. We don't tax the box. And we're not memory-bound; if anything, we're [input/output] bound at times," she says. "We've got a domain with 25 SMP boxes, including the developer workstation. At no time have we pulled our hair out and said NT can't handle this."
Neither has Gerry Winn, a chief systems engineer for the U.S. Missile Operations Command at McGill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., who last January helped implement an unclassified 1,200 user, 12-machine Data General-based network running NT versions 3.51 and 4.0. The base's classified system runs on a wide area network; the unclassified portion rests on a local area network.
Winn says NT has been robust, reliable, easy to install and a lot less expensive than a workstation environment.
Add another encouraging word from Doug York, a computer specialist for the General Services Administration's Public Building Service who led 8,000 nationwide users on a sometimes-forced migration to five NT 4.0 file servers from 15 Novell file servers.
York says he's not sorry he and his group embraced NT, even though they were told to do so when higher management decided the best business strategy was to hitch its wagon to NT's rising star.
York doesn't miss the Novell environment and says he can see the business case for installing a NT-centric enterprise because that's the way the business world is going.
No More Wait-and-See
Their collective cheer for NT offers solid evidence that something is happening here. And what it is pretty clear.
"There was certainly a lot of wait-and-see when NT first appeared in the federal market" in 1992, says Sean Murphy, the architectural engineer for Microsoft Corp.'s federal division in Washington.
Officials at the Redmond, Wash., software giant, he says, "constantly heard about NT being too unstable or too unreliable ... and certainly not strong enough to handle mission-critical applications."
The competition "has done a great job in getting people to think about our products," Murphy says. But as NT has gotten better, federal, state and local governments are adopting it.
According to a September 1997 survey of 560 corporate and government IT managers by Dan Kusnetzky, program director of operating environments for Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., 65.1 percent of the government respondents were using NT. Of those who were going to replace any system, 12.8 percent said they were replacing Unix, while only 4 percent said they were replacing NT.
Users planning to replace particular systems were even more infatuated with NT. Of those replacing Netware, 98.4 percent were going to NT; of those replacing OS/2, 96.1 percent would install NT, and, most telling of all, of those replacing Unix, 55.2 percent were switching to NT.
Those who still don't get the drift should consider this: Of those adding systems, 74 percent were doing NT compared to 45 percent putting in Unix.
"You can't say no one's using Unix anymore, but obviously the feds are heavily oriented to NT," Kusnetzky says. "There are a couple of reasons for that. I think they want to use commercially available software and be as much on the leading edge as they can. And as they improve their infrastructure they want to go where they think the market's going."
Larry Weiss, NT regional manager for Oracle's Government, Education & Health division, Bethesda, Md., says even a "platform agnostics" company such as his can see the forest for the trees. He says NT is gaining deep support throughout federal agencies.
He also says the NT portion of his division's revenue is heading to the stratosphere compared to its Unix piece, which also is accelerating but not as quickly. Asked for supporting statistics, Weiss declines to disclose revenue figures.
Tom Baybrook, vice president of Intergraph Corp.'s Federal Systems in McLean, Va., and Jim Gilbert, the company's executive manager, don't hear much complaining about NT, either.
Baybrook says the protests stopped about two years ago when NT conclusively demonstrated that it, and not Unix, was the truly open system. Once agency purchasers and users finally got it, the message quickly hit Intergraph where it lives.
"The acceptance of NT has tremendously broadened our sales opportunity," Baybrook says. "When you're selling Unix, despite Sun [Microsystems]'s claim that Unix is an open system, each vendor has its own brand. And none of them were open. They're all proprietary.
"With NT, Microsoft provides a standard operating system. You don't have to worry about which version of NT the Navy or the Treasury or the VA or [Health and Human Services] is using."
According to Gilbert, NT also has enabled customized military and civilian applications to take advantage of its cheaper information dissemination methods.
The impact on Intergraph Federal's bottom line is difficult to quantify because the company doesn't break down its financial results by product and customer. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to discern positive vibrations when the company has migrated more than 140 million lines of code to NT.
Except for a few customized Unix deals, NT accounted for virtually all of Intergraph Federal's $150 million in sales last year, just as it did in the three preceding years.
Last week at the SIGGRAPH '98 conference in Orlando, Fla., Intergraph released its Wildcat 3D graphics technology. Based on the company's ParaScale architecture - which the company touts as "the industry's first truly scalable 3D architecture on Windows NT" - Wildcat supposedly delivers performance scalable from five to 10 times over that of comparable boxes from Silicon Graphics Inc., Mountain View, Calif., and Evans & Sullivan of Salt Lake City.
But don't think only Microsoft's NT partners have gotten religion. There's some method behind the apparent madness.
An April study funded by Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., and conducted by Sofres Intersearch, a Paris-based international marketing firm, shows that NT will become more important as more applications become mission critical.
The survey respondents were a stratified, random sample of large businesses, governments and financial institutions in Europe and North America. Surveys were conducted from September to December 1997.
The survey defined mission-critical applications as those where even a small amount of downtime has a significantly negative impact on an organization. Using that definition, respondents in Europe and North America estimated that 61 percent of the IT workload running on their servers is mission critical.
Unisys commissioned the study to determine if and why large multinational companies, governments and financial institutions will change their server operating environments from 1997 to 2002.
The purpose of the study was to understand changes in how IT is used today and the implications on the worldwide IT operating environment, Unisys officials say.
An screener identified and interviewed the most senior person responsible for implementing the server operating environment within their organization. Exactly 291 telephone interviews - 151 in Europe, 140 in North America - were conducted during the four-month research period. Of those interview subjects, 85 were with the government; 44 in North America, 41 in Europe.
The respondents' average IT strategic planning horizon was 3.6 years. The survey focused on proprietary, Unix and NT server operating environments. Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of their overall IT workload running on servers in each of the operating environments.
To no one's surprise, 58 percent of the workload runs on proprietary systems, 26 percent on Unix systems and 16 percent on Windows NT. But the forecast for five years ahead showed that proprietary systems are out and NT is in. Only 32 percent of the respondents said they'll still be using proprietary systems in 2002. The percentage of Unix as part of the overall workload will be flat during the period.
So who's going to pick up the slack? Windows NT, of course, rising to an astonishing 43 percent from its paltry 16 percent.
"All industry segments will significantly increase their use of Windows NT, governments will lead the way with the largest percentage increase," the survey reports.
"The most likely cause of this last finding is that a higher percentage of government agencies' applications are on proprietary systems than in other industries. In addition, government agencies have more applications that are more than five years old than do businesses and financial institutions."
The survey suggests the shift to NT may be part of a larger restructuring in fundamental IT use. Such structural repositioning includes core issues such as frustration with the high cost of IT; electronic commerce; and aging, out-of-date applications and their increased vulnerability to the year 2000 problem and the Euro conversion.
Many of the year 2000/Euro conversion issues - and others that five years ago would not have been a blip on an organization's mission-critical radar screen, such as electronic office and e-mail - will become mission critical. Or, as McGill's Winn says, the Earth can crumble, but e-mail better not.
The Unisys survey indicates the vast majority of systems soon will be running in a Windows environment. The percentage of mission-critical applications on NT in the next five years will more than triple, to 39 percent from its current 12 percent.
The survey says the sea change occurs from a combination of some applications being moved to Windows NT as well as the development of mission-critical applications that will run in the Windows environment.
Let the record reflect, however, that Windows will not own the world. In five years, the survey says more than one-third of mission-critical applications still will operate on proprietary systems, and more than one-quarter will operate on Unix systems.
The bottom line? "Windows NT will better support the new networked computing environment necessary to be competitive. The responses also indicate a belief that the limitations present in today's version of Windows NT will be overcome," the study says.
Those conclusions are echoed in a white paper by Peter Patton, chief scientist at Lawson Software, Minneapolis, which provides Web-based solutions for financial applications, human resources and supply-chain management.
"The optimists contend that NT volume, if not revenue, will surpass Unix and [IBM's] AS/400 in the enterprise server market within a few years," Patton says in "Commercial Parallel Processing Has Finally Arrived," a white paper published last April.
"The pessimists maintain that if NT Server were industrial strength, Microsoft would be using it to run its company rather than the AS/400s and [DEC] VAXes they now employ. The truth surely lies somewhere between these extremes."
It seems obvious NT Server volumes are growing dramatically on the small base while Unix growth is slowing on a much larger base, and AS/400 sales will continue to grow at a single-digit rate but on a very large installed base. So wither NT Server for enterprise computing? "Without market research data based on consumer cognizance of large parallel servers running NT," Patton writes, "we must rely on the recent history of client/server computing in the enterprise."
"As large Unix parallel servers, e.g, those from Sun and Unisys, take on ever-larger enterprise computing loads, the issue is clearly one of scalable performance while retaining the cost/performance advantage over mainframe computing," he writes.
That question vexes the USPS' Henry, who wants to take the enterprise higher but needs at least substantial evidence that she won't get hit coming around the other side.
"The question now is: Can NT clustering and Oracle clustering give us the fail safe/replication capabilities we need? I'm reluctant to go there, because clustering is too new. I need to see the technology emerge and see a few more successes in putting things together that work across all technologies."
And even when, or if, that happens, her client won't buy the first NT Version 5.0 ticket. It just has to know that when it makes the inevitable move, it's doing the right thing.
"There's a cost involved when failure occurs," Henry says. "So what's the cost to come back?"
Or even to stay the course, as Donna Seymour, the director of national initiatives at the Naval Systems Command in Arlington, Va., did when she had a chance to trade in her 500-machine, 35,000-person Windows 95 environment for an NT-based enterprise.
"I saw the machines preloaded with NT, but we backloaded to 95 because we didn't need all NT's functionality," Seymour explains. "If you're not ready to implement NT in a large environment, you're asking for more trouble than it's worth. What's the benefit of doing it? NT didn't give us any functionality that 95 wasn't already providing."
So NT still may have to do some legwork to do. It may be a no-brainer to purchase and implement it the first time, but the second time even its most fervent followers have to be convinced that if it's not the only thing to do, it's at least the right thing to do.