In the past few weeks Microsoft has become more vocal about its great white hope, or Windows 2000 Datacenter (W2DC) as it is officially known. The Redmond giant claims that it will finally be able to compete in the high-end Unix arena traditionally ruled by Sun Microsystems among others.
But despite this buster, the company is being extremely cagey about how much its latest Unix killer will cost - because apparently customers don't care about such trivialities as hard cash.
"If they are asking this question, then they are asking the wrong sort of question. This is not the sort of software where price drives the sale," says senior Microsoft executive Michel Gambier, who is responsible for making W2DC happen.
So if it's not price, then what do people want from W2DC?
"This version of Windows 2000 delivers on performance, stability and reliability," claims Nick McGrath, lead Windows product manager at Microsoft UK. "It is a high-performance data centre product with inherent technologies that offer a platform for large databases, data warehouses and other complex applications."
More than meets the eye
W2DC is all about bringing Unix-class software to the Intel-based server and Windows NT operating system arena. But there's far more to it than turning Windows into Unix.
Put simply, it's time to start running Windows systems like mainframes. Enhancing the software is only part of the battle to win a place in the data centre. Offering gold medal levels of support is much more compelling.
To make this happen, Microsoft is limiting both the number of companies allowed to sell W2DC and the platforms it is certified to run on. What this means is that the software licence stipulates that users can only run the operating system on new eight-way servers that have been tested, and then re-tested, by Microsoft. So no running it on those high-powered four-way Pentium III Xeon servers that companies have invested in.
But support from other vendors has been good, with companies such as server vendor Stratus, Compaq, Unisys and Dell being very vocal in their backing. In the case of fault-tolerant specialist Stratus, the company is applying its experience in the mission-critical Unix arena to the Microsoft world, adding high-end fault tolerance features to the world of Intel-based servers.
So far, Stratus is the only company sanctioned by Microsoft to ship W2DC on a four-way server, although it is not a real four-way. The Stratus ftServer has double and triple levels of redundancy, so it is actually an eight or 12-way server, performing as a four-way.
The ftServer is still a good example of the new class of server arriving to run W2DC. This is not a cheap server, nor is it a high-volume, commodity item. This type of device is designed to be located in the most mission-critical of environments.
Stratus has such confidence in the acceptance of W2DC that, for the first time in its 20-year history, it has agreed to allow other manufacturers to rebadge its hardware.
This is likely to be the first of many such deals, and follows Compaq's decision to rebadge the Unisys ES7000 server. It's clear that many traditional server makers believe that W2DC takes them into Unix territory that they could never have competed in before. Now all they have to do is develop the right product.
This means that there should be increased competition in the high-end space - which can only be good for IT departments. After all, Unix vendors such as Sun are not going to roll over and let W2DC steal their business, and will fight back with enhanced services and lower prices.
What is Windows 2000 Datacenter?
Windows 2000 Datacenter is a 32bit operating system that comes at the top of Microsoft's Windows 2000 family. It will arrive later this year, and will only be available directly from Microsoft's hardware partners. All other sales channels will be off-limits.
The software has no price tag, and Microsoft has told its partners not to reveal it. Instead, the company has instructed its partners to roll hardware costs together with the levels of service and support they offer potential customers.
Microsoft's aim is to power a new class of Intel server, with eight, 16 or 32 microprocessors using a Microsoft Windows operating system. Until now, such Intel machines normally ran a derivative of Unix, principally because of the inability of Windows to scale or support many gigabytes of memory.
W2DC is proof of the maturity of the Windows operating system, but it still has a few mysteries attached to it. The price, for one thing, and a lack of information from Microsoft as to which server version of Windows 2000 will make the move from 32bit to 64bit when Intel's Itanium chip ships later this year.
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