This week, SCO is set to announce an alliance with Intel and Compaq that will, in effect, make SCO Unixware the focus of efforts to build an Intel-based data centre solution for the mainstream.
This has numerous implications, the most obvious being that, in the near term at least, the emphasis for large systems remains on Unix rather than NT.
This will be a welcome relief for many companies that have only just recovered from moving to open systems in the first place, and who might have thought from all the hype surrounding NT in the past year that it was just about to crush Unix to death.
But is the Unixware project, which greatly expands on existing relationships between SCO and Intel, just a convenient stopgap while Microsoft plugs the deficiencies of NT on high level processors? Or something that could stop NT in its enterprise tracks for a longer period of time?
SCO and Intel will announce a deal, along with Compaq, Data General, ICL and Unisys, to plough millions of dollars over the coming year to make SCO?s Unixware a full data centre operating system, with all the scalability, management features and security that former mainframe users demand. Some of the money will go on marketing, education and awareness, said a SCO spokesperson, but the majority will be spent on engineering and improving Unixware?s enterprise features.
This seems to provide some evidence that NT?s rise is not inexorable. Most news in recent weeks has suggested otherwise. Last week, Compaq was crowing over figures that put its Intel-NT workstations for the first time ahead of Sun?s Sparc-Unix ones in the league tables. Sun cried ?statistics? and affirmed its commitment to its technologies, but its stand in the market has been less black and white ever since it signed its own deal with Intel last winter - to port its Solaris Unix to the upcoming Merced processor, Intel?s first serious stab at what used to be called the mainframe market.
The agreements are closely related, of course. That Sun has decided, for the first time since its ill fated 386i range 10 years ago, to make a major push on an Intel platform is significant to its user base but hardly unexpected. But Intel?s eagerness to get first Solaris and now Unixware on to Merced does not indicate a company that believes NT is the only flavour of the future.
This will be a comfort to some Unix users who have felt besieged by the wave of support for NT. Only this week, electronic design software house Synopsys abandoned its Unix-only strategy to announce chip design products for Wintel workstations. Synopsys may operate in a niche market, but its conversion was symbolic. It was one of the very few software companies that had stubbornly held out against Intel/NT, and its change of heart shows that - even in classic compute-intensive Unix workstation applications like chip design - NT is starting to make inroads.
It also shows why it was imperative for Sun to adopt the Intel architecture. Sun?s workstations are by far the most commonly used for Synopsys applications, and the ISV?s switch of loyalties epitomises the threat Sun has been under from Intel/NT. All the main chip design suppliers have now ported to NT, robbing Unix of one of its most securely held strongholds.
Diane Worstman, director of Intel?s workstation group, claimed Synopsys and other makers of tools that require heavy duty computing powe have been able to move to Wintel far more quickly than Unix supporters had believed possible.
But NT is almost a red herring here. It has been carried along by its marketing hype and fast growth, but it has often, in fact, been riding on the coat tails of the Intel architecture. The Intel platform appeals because it is more readily available, applications rich and often low cost than the various Risc implementations. And Intel is inextricably associated with Windows and NT. Without Intel?s move up the IT food chain into powerful workstations and, with Merced, into the data centre, it is arguable that NT would never have stepped out of its heartland of the departmental server.
Which is why the agreements with Sun and SCO over Unix should scare Microsoft more than many NT supporters will allow. Intel?s goal is to get into the data centre and have its chips inside the most vital computers in the organisation - not just in relatively niche machines like the Sequent and Data General Numa boxes, but across the territory currently held by proprietary architectures and Risc/Unix. Intel does not care which operating system gets it there, and for now at least, it seems to believe Unix will be a faster route. ?Intel does not care who wins,? said Mary Hubley, research director at the Gartner Group, ?as long as Merced does?.
Hubley believes NT will not be enterprise ready as soon as Merced. Although it is developing fast, it is not scalable to the level that large corporations will require and IT directors in such sites still feel nervous - as they did some years ago about Unix - about its robustness, tried and tested applications and security.
In this situation, Hubley believes, Intel will not give up on NT - clearly a force for the future - but ?needs to decide which Unix will be best for Merced? so that it has a credible OS as soon as it is launched - and with OEMs due to receive samples this summer, the task is becoming urgent.
The logical choices are Solaris and Unixware. SCO has the greatest experience of building Unix for Intel platforms and has close relationships with many Intel server makers - and no hardware of its own to muddy the competitive waters. Solaris has the greatest installed base and market clout.
For Compaq, its role in the new SCO partnership may signal a distancing from the Unix variant it now owns, Digital Unix. Compaq servers and PCs are the largest platform for SCO Unix, but Compaq will not wish to scare off its newly acquired Digital base - but for all that, most analysts believe the Digital product will be phased out in the fairly near future.
The lesson for Microsoft will be to make NT enterprise ready as rapidly as possible. Its key allies, including Compaq and Intel, have no wish to be beholden to a single OS supplier and will actively pursue any software strategy that will guarantee sales of machines based on Merced and other Intel platforms. With even Sun lining up behind Merced, Intel is now in a far stronger position to dominate the enterprise than Microsoft is.
And Microsoft?s marketing machine will not be enough on its own to assure success for NT in this Intel world. There is still corporate suspicion of Windows as a desktop, low end OS, and companies that have invested heavily in moving to Unix will not convert again to NT without solid proof that it is functional, robust and likely to survive long term. SCO will be working on the same factors for Unixware, this time with Intel?s money behind it. Microsoft has the advantage of a single powerful company with money and market clout to push its product, and if it moves quickly it can still take over the enterprise. SCO, which with its lack of hardware revenue has always been dependent on the whims and politics of changing groups of industry partners, will always have to rely on others? dollars and their continuing support. But at least its deal with Intel proves there is still a choice - and a race - in the data centre space.
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